Rev. Bruce G. Epperly, PhD
The Celtic spiritual tradition is replete with stories of monks, who set off on the high seas in small boats, coracles, in search of their place of resurrection. Without a rudder, they depended on God’s grace alone to guide them in the winds and waves and provide a way to their true spiritual home, the place where they could experience eternity in the world of living and dying.
I don’t set sail rudderless on a coracle. I don’t travel without a GPS, and like many of you, I planned for retirement and like the stability of knowing the contours of the day ahead. But perhaps these Celtic monks have wisdom for persons like us who are citizens of the Medicare generation. Now on the other side of seventy, mortality and diminishment lurk in the background and, sometimes, foreground of my life. Just a few years older than myself, a dear friend had a serious stroke, and may no longer enjoy the international travel that was part of her retirement lifestyle. Other friends are recovering from knee and hip replacements, heart bypasses, and cancer treatments, reminding me that “in the midst of life,” as Martin Luther noted, “we are surrounded by death.” Perhaps, I am sailing on a coracle after all, not as much in control as I think I am.
Most days I ponder my own mortality, and the prospect of living alone should my wife predecease me. I must say that although I have presided over many funerals and farewells, I have been especially conscious of mortality since the COVID pandemic, and had visions of persons with risk factors, including age and the ailments that accompany aging, being placed on ventilators with the likelihood of death. While fear of death, and the dying process, does not dominate my thinking, it is always in the background.
Like the Celtic adventurers, I need to claim a sense that, as Luther also said, “in the midst of death, we are surrounded by life” and trust in God’s love that knows neither beginning nor end and can never be defeated by life’s fiercest enemies.
That’s the point of the Easter season, isn’t it? We cannot, as the Psalmist observes, go over, under, or around the valley of the shadow of death. We must eventually go through it. As the Psalmist proclaims, we are not alone, God is with us, preparing a feast, anointing us, and planning a future with hope.
This year, no longer involved in planning Holy Week and Easter services, I will have the opportunity to “live a holy week.” I will have an opportunity to breathe deeply Jesus’ experience of protest, challenge, conflict, and death. I will take time to contemplate the reality of death on Good Friday, the sense of powerlessness before the inevitable and the uncertainty of Holy Saturday, the day of waiting and wondering what’s next. I need to face my deepest fears of diminishment, disability, and dementia, knowing that my lifestyle and health choices make a difference, but also aware that much of what I fear is out of my control, a matter of accident and genetics and dumb luck.
But, I also plan to chart the Easter adventure as night falls on Holy Saturday. I hope to awaken in the darkness, seeing first rays of light, and imaginatively joining the women trudging to the tomb, and discovering the stone, blocking the fear, the stone of dread and hopelessness, has been rolled away.
I imagine walking in the Garden, alone at sunrise, and hearing Jesus calling my name, and realizing that his resurrection will foreshadow my own. I look forward to attending my home church, Westmoreland United Congregational Church of Christ in Bethesda, Maryland, and singing with gusto, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and embracing the reality that “this is the day that God has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it.” This is the holy moment, the place of resurrection, the everlasting now, in which God’s love embraces, heals, and gives life to all things.
A friend of mine told me the story of his young son, who was suffering from “night terrors” and unable to go to sleep. The parents wisely took their son to a psychiatrist who told the young boy and his parents, “It’s ok to be afraid. But, you don’t need to be afraid of being afraid.”
I suspect I still will fear dying process, and hope to avoid significant diminishment in the years ahead. But, I don’t need to be afraid of my fear. God has given me a place of resurrection, a place where this life and everlasting life meet, and because “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” I can live each day, seeking to bring life and healing to the world, training to be a good ancestor and practicing resurrection, knowing that “this is the day that God has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it” and that “nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus my Companion and Savior.” Thanks be to God!.