Grace and Peace at the End of Life

Just because I was born
precisely here or there,

in some cold city or other,
don’t think I don’t remember
how I came along like a grain
carried by the flood—
~ Mary Oliver
                         

The last days of our lives, whether several years or just a few weeks, are as different, mine from yours, as the number of us who will stand before that tunnel of light, our entire lives billowing behind us like Christo’s Running Fence.

And then again, the moment of death is the same for everyone.  Each of us will know the rhythm of the liver and the kidney and the heart, shutting down one by one.  Each of us will know the filling of our sails with that one last suck of wind.  Each will know the severing of that invisible umbilical that links the body to the soul.

I can just see my old boss, realigning his cervical spine after the Bette Davis impersonation he trotted out as we traded grins about our favorite client.  People die the way they live, the boss proclaimed, snapping his hands to his hips. If he was a control queen in life, he’ll be a control queen in death. Which is to say, if our favorite client (call him Max) wouldn’t eat his peas until his fork was on the right and his knife was on the left, then ya gotta know that the only funeral that would ever grace the life of Max was the one that was line-item authored by the protagonist himself.

But, so the theory goes, if Max had been a little more “hands off” in his management of life, he’d be a little more Whatever is the pageantry of death. I wouldn’t know.  Feel that spitball on the back of your neck?  That’s me, telling you, that in my funeral, you need to be weeping when that mezzo-soprano hits that high C in the middle of the phrase.

The point being:  under stress (and dying can be stressful) if I die the way I’ve lived, my coping mechanisms will take the stage. Why bring this up?  Because in death, as in life, its always good to be realistic about what to expect from myself and others. And what if I’m not ready to emit the glow by which my evening visitors will read?

St. Paul liked to greet the people to whom his letters were recited with the words Grace and Peace. He didn’t end his letters that way, he began them that way, when the church was a new thing.  Unlike today, when pastors and politicians are just as likely to make creepy deals on the driving range, grace and peace was spoken to people who met on the QT because the little cult was risky business.  Grace and Peace was Paul’s greeting to people who were breaking ground, who were pioneering a big unknown. 

As we enter into this phase of life called risky business, let us be gracious with ourselves so we can be more gracious with others.  Of those with whom we might make peace before we take our final breath, why not break bread with ourselves first, so that passing the cup comes more naturally, so that reaching out — to that truly holy spirit we share — comes more peacefully, so that stepping into that big unknown is a little more like breathing in,  and a little more like going Home.

© 2011

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