To begin this blog, I want to invite you to participate in a small exercise.
- Draw a horizontal line on a piece of paper, which is to be representative of your whole life.
- Place a small circle on the line that displays your current age. In other words, locate yourself on your life’s timeline. For instance, are you currently living in the first quarter of your life? The middle? The last quarter?
- Write your age underneath that circle.
- Jot down at the right end of the line how old you believe you will be when you die.
How many years do you perceive you have left? 40? 25? 10?
Last week I joined 34 fellow sojourners in completing this exercise as we were seeking to explore purpose and meaning for our lives. Our facilitator, Alan Wolfelt, informed us that according to recent research, the average American lives to be 78 years of age. While American life expectancy has declined due to higher rates of suicide, drug overdose, and flu-related deaths, it is a somber thought to realize that our life expectancy is now 78 years age.
Let that sink in.
If you are 40, you have fewer years remaining than what you have already lived. If you are 58, you have already lived three quarters of your life. If you are 79, well . . .
As you consider this solemn thought, I am curious to know your response.
How did you experience this exercise? How are you experiencing your vulnerability, which is emotional exposure, risk, and uncertainty? Are you finding yourself resisting even going there so that you are being tempted to stop reading? Are there feelings of uneasiness? Panic? Or maybe your response is not like that at all . . . maybe you are feeling relief? Peaceful?
It would not surprise me if, after completing this personal death awareness exercise, many of us have been planning to live much longer than 78. We would rather think of ourselves as being invulnerable to everything . . . including death. Discussions about our mortality tend not to be conversation starters but rather conversation killers. We like to think we are going to live a looooonnnnnnggggg time . . . death is perceived as being waaayyyy out there . . . far, far away . . . somewhere in the distant future. Thinking and talking about our mortality can be flat out uncomfortable as it exposes our vulnerability.
Is it any wonder, then, that Wolfelt characterizes American culture as being mourning-avoidant?
Such a characteristic may be seen as our culture is increasingly moving away from funerals and more towards celebrations or parties . . . or even jettisoning a ceremony altogether. This type of trend speaks loudly about our worldview or beliefs as our actions point toward our beliefs. Beliefs are not simply something to which we cognitively hold, but they are revealed through our actions. Our beliefs are embodied in our acts. Thus, I agree with Wolfelt: We seek to avoid mourning—that is, grieve outwardly—and we do this through a steady decline in rituals that offer space for us to mourn after a loss.
Think about funerals.
The ritual of a funeral points towards our vulnerability. We are reminded that as human beings, there is risk, emotional exposure, and uncertainty. Yet, it is at this place of vulnerability that we connect. Wolfelt points out that funerals provide us with an avenue to express our grief outwardly and the ability to support one another when we are at a loss for words. Funeral ceremonies furnish us with the initial support that is necessary after a death. They offer family and friends a place to convey their sorrow together, to validate each other’s grief. And validation is a critical component for support. It fosters connection, reminding us that we are not alone. Funerals, then, validate our experiences of loss as human beings, allowing us to become aware of being connected to the whole of humanity. This is unlike celebrations/parties, which typically do not nurture a space to be openly vulnerable through mourning.
However, this is a gift of funerals: the gift to connect at the place of our vulnerability.
As a Christ-follower, we have an example of one who made a connection with humanity at the place of vulnerability: Jesus Christ.
Jesus embraces death, and in so doing, he teaches us to embrace our vulnerability as humans. In the Gospels we see that Jesus is very much aware of death. As I mentioned in my last blog, Jesus openly mourns, weeping in front of others (John 11). We also have a picture of Jesus grieving as he is aware of his own impending death in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prays, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Whether one is reading Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus’s succumbs to events, or John’s Gospel, in which Jesus is in control of the unfolding events, Jesus embraces vulnerability—death—making a vital connection with humanity. As Gregory of Nazianzus states, “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” It is this embracing of death that leads to healing and victory vicariously for humanity.
When considering the above and that the church seeks to follow Jesus Christ, it would stand to reason that Christ-followers have a unique understanding of what it is to embrace our vulnerability. Moreover, a discussion on death, rituals, and vulnerability seems particularly fitting at this time when considering the church calendar. Currently, we are in a significant season of ritual that underscores death: Lent. It is this season that the church has set aside to focus on Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
Some traditions introduce such an emphasis at the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday, which is forty days prior to Easter. Some traditions will have services four times during Holy Week, which begins on the Sunday prior to Easter: Maundy Thursday; Good Friday; Holy Saturday; and Easter Sunday. Some traditions have a more abbreviated focus by highlighting the resurrection on Easter Sunday. If actions convey beliefs, then the rituals that are honored in our church traditions reveal our theological emphases.
I personally believe that it is significant that our rituals surrounding Easter include death because it is a reminder to embrace our vulnerability and that victory comes through vulnerability.
Allow me to provide an example by examining the church ritual of partaking of communion, a ritual which many traditions will emphasize next week.
I confess that during my youth I dreaded Communion Sunday. The church bulletin may have referred to it as a celebration, but that was not how I experienced it. On Communion Sunday I was warned not to take the elements of the Lord’s Table unworthily, which being translated meant: Do not take communion with any unconfessed sin lest you become sick and/or die (such a view was based on 1 Corinthians 11). Thus, it may not be a surprise that I did not experience the partaking of communion as a joyous or hopeful event but one of fear. It was out of this fear that on occasion I would refrain from participating. It was my understanding that it was up to me to make sure I was sinless so that I would not be taking it unworthily. So . . . it would stand to reason that if I was unsure, then it would be safer not to partake. In essence, I was not embracing my vulnerability, but I was experiencing shame, which brought about an attempt to protect myself.
My views about communion have shifted since those days of my youth.
No longer is communion an event to be dreaded or an experience of shame and fear; instead, communion, for me, embodies an invitation to the Lord’s Table . . . a table of intimate fellowship, koinonia, with Jesus Christ . . . so intimate that I am in Christ and Christ is in me (like a mini-perichoresis). Since I am in Christ, communion is a reminder that I am now in the divine life. It is this understanding that better enables me to embrace my vulnerability.
This means that Jesus asks me to come to his table . . . To sit and dine with him. When Jesus walked this earth, it was Jesus’s sitting and dining with others that got him in trouble with religious leaders on more than one occasion. He was criticized for dining with tax collectors and sinners. You see, the religious leaders knew that Jesus’s actions revealed his theology. By eating with sinners, Jesus was receiving and accepting them, something a good religious teacher was not do. Now, I, too, am being invited by Jesus to sit with him, and just like tax collectors and sinners, I am being received and accepted.
Communion is still a solemn time for me, as I am remembering my sin, but it is also one of hope. My awareness of my sin is now couched within an awareness of the abundance of Jesus’s grace and mercy. Perhaps this is the reason I have come to prefer participating in communion each week over once a month, both patterns I have had the opportunity to experience. By taking it once a week, it serves as a reminder of his grace and mercy and how dependent I am upon him. My embracing of my vulnerability is increasing my dependence on his grace and mercy. You see, I am well aware of my sin . . . well aware. What I need is a regular reminder of Jesus’s grace and mercy. This is why I have come to prefer a weekly partaking of communion as it points to my hunger for and dependence on his grace and mercy. I have come to learn that there is no shortage of his grace and mercy—it is in abundance (John 10:10). It does not need to be rationed out. So I prefer taking a big piece of bread over a small wafer because it reminds me of his abundant life. Rest assured, there is an abundance of grace and mercy! And so, in my vulnerability I come running to the Lord’s Table to receive just that.
So, next week as we, the church, remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ . . . as we come to the Lord’s Table, we are invited to connect with Jesus Christ at the place of death by embracing our vulnerability and in so doing, we will find an abundance of grace and mercy. I leave you with these words of Andrew Peterson’s “Windows in the World” from Resurrection Letters, Vol. 2:
Oh and every Sunday morning
You can see the people standing in a line
They’re so hungry for some mercy
For a taste of the Communion bread and wine
It’s a window in the world
A little glimpse of all the
Goodness getting through
And all along the way the days
Are made of little moments of truth
 Laura Santhanam, “American Life Expectancy has dropped again. Here’s Why,” PBS News Hour, November 29, 2018, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/american-life-expectancy-has-dropped-again-heres-why (accessed April 6, 2019); see also Meilan Solly, “U.S. Life Expectancy Drops for a Third Year in a Row, Reflecting Rising Drug Overdoses, Suicides,” Smithsonian.com, December 3, 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/us-life-expectancy-drops-third-year-row-reflecting-rising-drug-overdose-suicide-rates-180970942/ (accessed April 6, 2019).