My mother had been called to her father’s deathbed in Danbury, Connecticut, a little over an hour drive from where we lived in White Plains. I was about to be exposed to a dying person for the first time, and didn’t quite know what to make of it. I could hear voices through the wall behind me, when suddenly I heard my mother’s cries burst forth as she came out the bedroom. Tears streamed down her face. “He’s gone,” she sobbed. “I saw his soul rise up to heaven.”
SOUL? RISE UP? My mother had made sure my brother and I were raised with a proper Episcopalian background. We had all the smells and bells, but without the Pope and Rosary Beads – and yet, this would be my first serious lesson in practical theology. I was thirteen! What was I to say? I had a lot of things on my mind at thirteen! The first thing that came to mind and out of my mouth, was, “How’d he get through the ceiling?”
What comes to your mind when YOU hear soul, spirit? I know Pat uses those words from this pulpit. Do they mean Invisibility? Immortality? . . . that element of death which leaves the human body and lives on? Is that really what the Bible teaches us about life after death? For thousands of years, scholars and theologians have struggled with this issue.
More than a hundred years ago, Henry Scott Holland, an Anglican priest and Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, preached a sermon on Death at St. Paul’s Cathedral, in the City of London. An excerpt from his sermon has become a funeral poem. It reads:
“Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was . . . What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting, when we meet again! All is well.”
After the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been stabbed by a disturbed person, and was within a sneeze of dying, he stated his view of death and eternal life: “I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land.”
Earlier this year, there was a NOVA show on PBS in which a Harvard astrophysicist, an expert on black holes, described what it would be like if we were able to be sucked into the gravitational vortex of a black hole. With a strained look on her face, she concluded by saying, “That would be it!” I thought she was going to burst into tears. It was all very dramatic, leaving me to realize that was not only her scientific view, but her spiritual view as well – of death and of no hereafter. “That would be it!”
I felt as though I was back standing over that black grate in my grandparent’s house, except I was seventy-years older, and still puzzled by all that this could mean. What about soul and spirit, I wanted to ask this professor? What about the Empty Tomb? What about the Resurrection? What would Professor Holland or Dr. King have to say, if they were alive?
More questions than answers, and then I had a flash-back to over five years ago: A young doctor was standing at the foot of my hospital bed, bearing a smile and holding a long sheet of graph paper up for me to see. On it were traces of my beating heart, until the line became flat – “That’s when you weren’t here,” he said, in a cheery voice.
I wasn’t here? Where was I? I stared at the graph paper. When he left my bedside, I closed my eyes and went into a drug-induced sleep. The image of a city sidewalk came into mind. I was alone, until suddenly there were others and I became swept along with them toward a revolving door. We squeezed into a quarter section of the door and shuffled around. When the door reached the half-way point my fellow travelers disappeared into a distant unknown. I was left alone to shuffle around in the revolving door, before being popped back out onto the sidewalk.
What happened to me in that short space of time? Where was I? What part of me was caught up in that door – was it my soul, my spirit? I don’t know, but this I do believe: Half-way along that flat line was a large blip on the graph paper, and the line went flat again. Was that a blip of life, half-way around that revolving door? In that twinkle of a moment, had I eluded the heavenly embrace of eternal life? Last year, astronomers with the European Space Agency spotted a star in our galaxy, racing around a black hole at breakneck speed. They said the black hole was three times more massive than the sun, or one-hundred times larger than the star.
Black holes are known to vary in size from being very small to very large, with an unbelievably, powerful gravitational force. There are thought to be 100 million black holes in our universe, and at the center of each galaxy is a super massive black hole around which all else rotates – like a fly wheel on an engine . . . take a peek at the galaxy on the front page of this morning’s bulletin . . . do you see the circulation; the vortex of the black hole in the center? Black holes have an insatiable appetite and will swallow a star that comes too close, taking up to perhaps thousands of years to completely absorb the star, bit-by-bit, with each passing rotation.
Is that what happened to me? Was a bit of me absorbed by the heavenly unknown? Did my soul, my spirit, evade the central pull of a black hole in that single blip, only to be popped out into life again? Astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, who died last month, well past his due date, says that the reason “They’re named black holes (is) because they are related to (our) human fears, of being destroyed or gobbled up.”
A few weeks ago, it was announced that astronomers had discovered the most distant star ever observed. They named it Icarus, after the mythological character who flew too close to the sun. They said the star was 9 billion light years away – an infinite distance, virtually beyond our comprehension. Yet, with next year’s launch of the James Webb telescope, more jaw-dropping information about the foundations of life and science will be revealed, and it too will no doubt confront and threaten our theological and spiritual beliefs, as perhaps, some of what I have said today might have done for you. Frankly, my religious beliefs are challenged by this new information, and I have to confess, my beliefs have been expanded; sometimes it feels, almost as fast as our universe is expanding.
And that’s okay! That’s what we want to do as Christians, otherwise why would Pat spend any time to preach and teach, other than to challenge, expand and grow. I want to climb further up that spiritual mountain and I want to continue to grow, as a Christian believer – to experience the Word of God, more as a Living Word than I ever have before. God continues to be a revealing God to me, and that revelation comes in the weirdest of ways – through the ceiling of an old farm house, from a blip on a piece of graph paper, from satellites and space telescopes – from the Empty Tomb, the Resurrection – and from Jesus of Nazareth, who through it all, was transformed into the Christ, and the Savior of the world.
For that I believe . . . and I am convinced, that ALL WILL BE WELL. Amen.