We met last night like countless other Christian communities to remember our mortality. It was Ash Wednesday and like other Protestant congregations, we’re beginning the long, slow process of appreciation and understanding of Lent that sees our remembrance as fully a part of everything important we do in the church to help us focus on God’s providence and grace as we reflect upon our humanness.
For this season that began last night with Ash Wednesday and marches on for 40 days until we gather at the open tomb to celebrate Christ’s victory over death, we will trudge through the season of Lent. It’s a journey of exploration when we consider our being made from dust and our return to dust. There is a depth of experience that comes whenever we consider we are temporal beings housed in bodies that will eventually return to the dust from which they have been made. But we will continue … that’s what our faith has to offer us, namely, that we will continue on in the form of spirit.
I’ve come to appreciate what Theodore Roethke penned when he wrote:
How body from spirit slowly does unwind
Until we are pure spirit at the end.
A few years back, upon the death of Browning Ware, the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Austin, I wrote a tribute piece to his wisdom and his willingness to reflect upon this sense of mortality that was soon to claim him too. Here’s that essay written in 2002:
Near the shadow of death, Browning Ware unflinchingly shared what it was like to stand that close to the doorway separating mortality from eternity.
That’s the effect thoughts of our dying have upon us. It’s like a long stare into the piercing, unflinching look from another. I meet with all sorts of people in all sorts of places in relation to their own death. Sometimes the prospective death is their own. They stand in the doorway and wonder whether they have the courage to go on. On other occasions I meet with the surviving loved ones who must plan a memorial service. We meet in homes, hospitals and funeral homes and think out loud what must be said and what must be remembered.
Browning Ware was pastor of First Baptist Church in Austin for many years. He also had had prostate and bone cancer. He died on Oct. 29. Not long before his death, Ware shared in The Austin American-Statesman what it meant to him for his body to carry such an invasive disease.
Near the shadow of death, he unflinchingly shared what it was like to stand that close to the doorway separating mortality from eternity.
In his Aug. 20 column, he wrote: Several of my friends believe that I know a secret. They are convinced that my illness has invested wisdom in me that is rare, difficult to come by, but worthy of exploration. I get the feeling that they want me to report on what is hidden around life’s last limiting corner. ‘Browning, what do you see beyond the horizon?’ I don’t observe as much detail as some of my friends would prefer. I have no magic vision of my future beyond death. I trust my traveling companion, Jesus. He promised to be with me. He is enough.
But, my friends return and press their questions: What do you want your best, your last thoughts to be?
This is my answer: I want to be present, as fully present as is possible, to what is happening around me and within me. I desire no special exemptions, but simply the pleasure of answering ‘Present’ when my name is called. want to be glad when these moments are fully mine.
Ware’s article stirred up a response from the Austin community of readers eager to know more. He obliged: I recently shared my desire to be fully present to what is happening in my life. A teacher friend agreed. He said many of his students, however, envisioning their own death, want to die suddenly in an accident or to die quietly in their sleep. I want to be there when it happens!
The story of my friends plying me for secret wisdom reminded me of the incident surrounding David Hume’s death. The arch skeptic carried on a life-long exchange with a divine who was convinced that Hume would recant on his deathbed. The minister made frequent trips to Hume’s bedside and had the good fortune to visit Hume on the morning he died. To the minister’s chagrin, the old skeptic Hume died peacefully and happy.
The truth is, I suspect we die pretty much like we lived.
Ware’s unbroken gaze encouraged those of us who wish to be present at every stage of our lives. To be fully alive and aware of God’s present mercies is our goal.