Sunday, April 1, 2018

Giving Up The Fear of Death

"Giving Up The Fear Of Death"
Matthew 28:1-10

Here are some comedians thoughts about death.

Jerry Seinfeld once said, "According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two! Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy."   

And speaking of eulogies, George Carlin said, "I'm always relieved when someone is delivering a eulogy and I realize I'm listening to it."

Dick Sharples said, "Death is just nature's way of telling you to slow down."

Woody Allen said, "I'm not afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens."

And then, a couple of anonymous quips:

Before I die, I'm going to ask my friend to log into my Facebook page, after my death, and post, "Wow, I didn't know heaven had wifi!"

Old people at weddings always poke me and say, "You're next!"  So I started doing the same thing to them at funerals.

Death is one of those things we are so uncomfortable with, the only comfortable way we can deal with it is through humor.  Humor or horror.  Those are our two most common reactions we have when we see the word death.

In fact, there is a whole sub-branch of psychology that is dedicated to our fear of death called, "Terror Management Theory."  This theory starts with the idea that humans, unlike other animals, face something that is potentially terrifying: on the one hand there is the awareness of our own mortality.  On the other hand is the powerful desire to live.  So there are two equally powerful forces going on in each of our psyche's at the same time: our fear of death and our will to live.

In dealing with our fear of death, one of the creators of Terror Management Theory, Sheldon Solomon, has described the fear of death as the awareness that you are destined to wither away to nothingness, and in the long scheme of things are no more significant than a lizard or a potato.  That realization is not particularly uplifting.  So how do humans cope with this awareness?

How do you cope with that awareness?  Probably as most human beings do.  We cope with the reality of our own mortality by denying our own mortality.  Isn't that clever.  We cope by avoiding thinking about it. We repress our terror.  But, this approach inevitably fails to a degree. We know we will die, no matter how much we try and avoid thinking about it.

In his book, The Denial of Death, sociologist Ernest Becker wrote, “The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we shrink from being fully alive.”  Isn't that an odd conundrum?  We need to be free of our fear of death, but it is simply by living and being alive that awakens that fear and anxiety.  The result is, we end up failing to live well because we don't know how to resolve these two conflicting truths about human life.

Some people try to resolve the conflict in sick and unhealthy behaviors.  Reminders of death, of the scarcity of life, often, ironically, promote reckless behavior—which could get themselves killed.  It just shows you how messed up our thinking is when we get captivated by this fear of death, coupled with the desire to live.

In his book, In the Wake of 9-11: The Psychology of Terror, Dr. Sheldon Solomon—whom I mentioned earlier—describes how in the period of time following the September 11 attacks, the country saw an increase in rates of drinking, gambling, and other common vices. Comfort foods sold better. Cigarette sales jumped. People started turning to their “drug” of choice in an unconscious effort to relieve their fears.  Isn't that weird!?

Terror aroused by the realization of our own mortality can fuel a tendency in us to become more punishing or hateful, pitting us against enemies or even alienating us from our loved ones.

But more than anything else, fear of death leads us to limit ourselves, or to give us a lame excuse against living fully.  Every one of us would benefit from asking ourselves the question, “How does this awareness impact us?”  Most importantly, how can we cope with our fear of death in a way that allows us to live fuller lives?

The surprising answer is, we can't.  There is nothing we can do, ourselves, to free us from this double whammy of fear of death coupled with the desire to live.  We can't do anything, ourselves, to resolve that conflict and the anxiety that erupts out of that conflict.

But, there is One who can, and who has.  Since we can't cope with or control this fear, there is someone who can, for us.  That One is the Resurrected Jesus.  Let's see how Jesus freed us from this fear, from the account in Matthew 28.

Notice the first thing Jesus said to the women who came to the tomb that morning:  "Do not be afraid."  Why did Jesus have to tell the women not to be afraid?  What could they have been afraid of?  There may be a lot of answers to the why of Jesus' statement.  I think the best answer is, "Do not be afraid to live, because you no longer have to be afraid to die."

A census taker was visiting some homes in a rural area.  He drove up a long driveway to a farmhouse.  Every so often a sign would warn, Beware Of Dog.  Coming to the farmhouse, the census taker beeped his car horn, refusing to get out of his car.  From a barn, next to the house came a farmer with a beagle wagging its tail at his feet.

Once the census taker completed his work, he asked, "Is this the dog all the signs are about?"
"Sure is," replied the farmer picking up his friendly dog and scratching it behind the ears.
"But that dog wouldn't keep anyone away," the man said.
"I know," replied the farmer, "but the signs sure do."

Signs of fear, and things that cause fear are everywhere in our world.  You can't go anywhere—either geographically or emotionally—it seems, without some signs of fear being along the road of our human journey.

Think of all the "what ifs" that go through your minds.  What if this?  What if that?  Behind all those What ifs…" is the big daddy What if:  What if I die?

But here's an idea.  What if you let go of all the What Ifs you face that cause fear, especially the big one, What If I Die?  What if you let go of What Ifs?  What if you just lived?  What if you weren't controlled by fear anymore?  How would you then live?  What could you do with a life not controlled by fear?

Or here's another way to look at it.  What if you gave all your What Ifs to Jesus?  What if you gave all your fears to the Risen Christ?  Just turn them all over to  the Risen Jesus.  Just trust Jesus with your biggest What Ifs.  If you can trust Jesus with your biggest What Ifs, can't you trust him with all the small ones, too?

OK.  What do the women do right after Jesus tells them, "Do not be afraid?"  They fall to the ground and grab his ankles.  They put their hands all over his feet.  That's a weird thing to do.  Why do they do that?  They want to make sure he is real—if this is for real.  If he is real, then what he is telling them has to be real.

All their negative What Ifs become positive when they touch his feet.  What if death is no longer a thing?  What if there are no last words?  What if there is no "final resting place?"  What if life is more powerful than death?  What if Jesus is a total game-changer?  What if all this is absolutely real?

Ultimately each of us has to decide if this is all real:  Jesus; the Resurrection; the power of life over death.  We need to grab the ankles of Jesus in some symbolic way that lets you know, for sure, this is real.  This is true.  And, this is amazing.

And lastly, Jesus tells them to get up and "Go…"  Go!  Get out there!  Tell the others to go, too!

These are all profoundly simple words Jesus speaks to the women.  Do not be afraid.  Go…  All the What Ifs have been busted wide open by the resurrected Christ so that we can Go!  Get out there and live!  Go out there and laugh at all the "Beware" signs.

All the negative What Ifs especially the big one, have been heavy metal links that make up a heavier metal chain.  We have been dragging that heavy chain of What Ifs too long.  Do not be afraid, says Jesus.  "I have broken your chains.  Now Go!  Live without that awful What If chain.  Go!

No longer, according to the Terror Management people, do we have to resort to denial of death as our main strategy of dealing with death.  Now, because of Jesus and the Resurrection we can embrace life fully.

I like what Susan Ertz said in her book, Anger In The Sky.  She wrote, "Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon."  Maybe your life has been, for too long, one constant "rainy Sunday afternoon," each drop of rain another What If.  Now that the Risen Christ has taken care of all those drips, Go!  Live the day like you've never lived before!

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