[Originally published on July 5, 2011]
The other day I was informed that I had died in 1996. It must have been sudden, as I was unaware of my passing. I heard this from a collection of former students from the class of 1991, all of whom had been told of my demise at their five-year reunion. This explains why I haven’t heard from them in fifteen years, as e-mail and Facebook have not yet bridged the ethereal plane.
Apparently, the news of my mortality had been announced at the reunion by a new alumni relations director. As I had left that school for another in 1993, she had never known me and, since one clergyman is pretty much the same as another, she had confused me with another former chaplain of the school; never mind that our chaplaincies were two decades apart and our ages separated by three decades, if not more so. After all, both of our surnames begin with the letter “C”.
It’s hard to remain dead in this world of electronic communication, however; especially when one is not. Inevitably, last week, one of my former students discovered that I still existed, sent his bemused greetings, and informed other members of his class that I was, in fact, still alive. Those with whom I had a good relationship greeted my resurrection warmly; the ones with whom I had a more checkered relationship questioned whether I was some sort of vampire. I, however, began to discover some advantages to being dead.
For example, when Jenni asked me when I was going to break down the surprising number of cardboard boxes that once contained guitar parts and that now took up one full bay of the garage, I was able to reply with the confidence of the mortal, “I can’t, honey. I’m dead.” When I was expected to attend a clergy meeting, one that could be labeled “The Committee of Bilious Ordained Know-It-Alls”, I was able to beg off. After all, as I explained to a puzzled secretary, “I’ve been dead for fifteen years.” It was a remarkably liberating experience. I was looking forward to explaining my inert status to the IRS and Social Security Administration, but began to re-think this action when I saw my wife reviewing the fine print in my life insurance policy.
Regarding oneself as dead is common in military history. Both the legions of Rome and the samurai of the Japanese shogunate regarded themselves as dead in order to have greater focus on the battlefield. There is a parallel to this in the early Christian church, too, as we can read in St. Paul’s first of two letters to the Corinthians:
I die every day! That is as certain, brothers and sisters, as my boasting of you--a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord. Do you think I'd do this if I wasn't convinced of your resurrection and mine as guaranteed by the resurrected Messiah Jesus? Do you think I was just trying to act heroic when I fought the wild beasts at Ephesus, hoping it wouldn't be the end of me? Not on your life! It's resurrection, resurrection, always resurrection, that undergirds what I do and say, the way I live. If there's no resurrection, "We eat, we drink, the next day we die," and that's all there is to it.
Accepting one’s mortality was, and is, for Christians the first step towards recognizing the reality of resurrection, that which so strongly motivated Paul, and should motivate those disciples who follow. When I was recently “playing dead”, part of the liberation I felt was because I could at least pretend to be freed from worldly concerns such as chores and taxes. But Paul speaks of using that perspective not for detachment, but for engagement. Living for the Kingdom rather than the World, living for the life eternal rather than the life mortal, means that even common, temporal moments can be filled with spiritual possibility, grace, and wonder. And, as Paul noted, even without having to face wild beasts, it is the way in which Christians live heroically, sometimes in the face of daunting adversity.
Or even common adversity, as I now will mark my awareness of living in, but not of, the world to take that surprising number of flattened cardboard boxes to the town dump.