by Rev. Frank Clarkson
Fast Falls the Eventide
Last Monday, on my day off, I sat out on our porch as the day came to an end. By seven o’clock it was pretty much dark. Above the silhouette of trees, a bright sliver of moon hung in a sky of deepening blue. It was a beautiful evening after a warm day. Crickets chirped as the night came on, and the hymn we just sang came to mind: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.”
This time of year, we’re losing three minutes of light a day. The long summer days are gone now, plants are dying and leaves are turning. Doesn’t this time of year, when so much is fading away, cause you to think about endings and death?
The hymn we just sang was written in 1847 by the British clergyman Henry Francis Lyte. He was 54, and dying from tuberculosis, when he composed these words:
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
One day I was riding in a hearse with a funeral director, on the way to the cemetery. Mindful of the deceased person behind us, we were talking about the transitory nature of life; how death comes unexpectedly sometimes, and he said, “Everyone assumes they are going to live into their 70s or 80s. But in this work I see that death comes to all ages. Most people don’t want to believe that.”
He was speaking to the fact that ours is a death-denying culture; one that likes to celebrate youth and vigor, that likes to pretend death is a problem that can be fixed or avoided, rather than a natural and inevitable part of life.
Of course, not all deaths are good. There are deaths that come too soon. There are deaths that could have been prevented, deaths due to violence and abuse and accident. There are deaths from disease and from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, deaths from natural disasters and unexplainable things we call “acts of God.”
When trying to make sense out of a senseless death, you hear some people say, “Everything happens for a reason.” I believe that good sometimes comes out oftragedy, but I don’t think everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe God is directing our lives or our deaths. A child dies and someone says, “God must have needed another angel in heaven.” This is not good or helpful theology, and I don’t buy it.
The great minister William Sloan Coffin spoke to this, in the eulogy he gave for his son Alex, who died at 24 in a car crash. Bill Coffin wrote,
“When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister's house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, ‘I just don't understand the will of God.’ Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. ‘I'll say you don't, lady!’ I said.
“For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness… The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.” 
Sometimes people say thoughtless things at the time of death because they don’t know what do say. Death makes people nervous. Sometimes people distance themselves from illness and death, as if cancer and grief are contagious. We need to get over being so uncomfortable with death. Death is going to come to the strongest among us. It’s going to come whether we accept it, or fight it all the way. Death will come whether we are at peace or afraid; whether we are ready, or not.
Some of us have the luxury of pretending that our deaths are a long way off. We can think about it later. We put off things like making wills and advance directives because we like to pretend we have all the time in the world. But others of us know better. The other day, one of you said, “Being ill forced me to come to a deeper realization of my own mortality.” This person said it was hard, and depressing, to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, where she had to give up the illusion of her own immortality. She seems at peace, and grateful to be living her life, each day of it.
And isn’t this what we all want? To be as fully alive as we can, while we’re here? To make the most of these days we have been given? People seem to think that denying death will somehow increase your life. It’s like a little child playing hide and seek. You know, when they cover their eyes, they think they have disappeared, because they can’t see you?
Paradoxically, it is when we acknowledge our own mortality, that we come to see that life is fleeting and fragile, and oh so sweet. To live in the knowledge of our own death certainly does bring sadness and a sense of loss. How could it not? But living with the knowledge of your own life ending helps you to live in this present moment, to not put off what you want to do and say and be. To savor this life and see it for the gift and miracle that it is.
The Irish poet and former priest John O’Donohue believed that transforming your fear of death leads to a fuller and freer life. You heard it in his words a few minutes ago. He said,
“When you recognize that death is on its way, it is a great liberation,
because it means that you can in some way
feel the call to live everything that is within you.
One of the greatest sins is the unlived life,
not to allow yourself to become chief executive of the project you call your life,
to have a reverence always for the immensity that is inside of you.”
John O’Donohue died unexpectedly in his sleep at age fifty-two. Even his death is a reminder us that now is the time to live, while we’re here.
One of the blessings of being a minister is getting to be with people at the pivotal moments in their lives. At times of birth and death, at celebrations of these beginnings and endings. What I’ve been privileged to witness, especially among those facing death, is, so often, a gratitude for life. A dying man I visited in the hospital told me, “Even with all its struggles, life is so sweet.”
These people facing death and difficulty have been my teachers. They have showed me that death is not something to be feared. It’s just the next step. It’s an adventure even. Who knows where we are going? And if we are intentional about how we act and what we say to our loved one while we’re here, then they will be okay when we’re gone. Yes, they will be sad, and they will grieve, but isn't that is the price we all pay for loving one another?
The invitation is to become familiar with death. To stop pushing it away. In the book Tuesdays With Morrie, Morrie Schwartz talks about preparing for his own death from ALS. He says, “Everyone knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently.”
Instead of kidding ourselves about death, Morrie says a better approach is this: “To know you’re going to die, and to be prepared for it at any time… That way you can actually be more involved in your life while you’re living.”
“Do what the Buddhists do,” he says. “Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, ‘Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?… Is today the day?”
The good news is that living in this awareness of our own mortality, rather than denying it, helps you, when your time comes, to be ready. And to live a happier and more helpful life while you’re here.
“When death comes,” Mary Oliver writes,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
“and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
May the Love that abides, the Love that is stronger even than death, bless you and keep you, now and forever,