Thanksgiving 2019: The Art of Dying – and Living

  • Post author:
  • Post category:Sermons

George Harrison of Beatles fame,
wrote a song called, “Art of Dying.
In it he describes death as life’s greatest opportunity.
Most of us don’t think of death
as an opportunity, rather,
as some kind of fearsome ending.

“Art of Dying” ends with this line:
“There’ll come a time
when most of us return here /
brought back by our desire to be /
a perfect entity /
living through a million years of crying /
until you’ve realized the Art of Dying.”

…A million years of crying
until you’ve realized the art of dying.
The art of dying,
according to this formula,
is to lose any desire
to be a perfect entity.
And if you think about it,
what is a bigger buzz-kill than perfectionism?
What is more ruinous to a grateful heart
than a perfectionistic mind?

So, this is a very Hindu idea,
and Harrison was himself a Hindu.
As such he gave great credence
to this idea of the art of dying.

Harrison struggled against cancer,
and while he deeply valued life
he also refused to cling to life at all cost.
When it was clear that treatment could no longer
resist the progression of his disease,
he limited the number of painkillers he would receive
so he could be fully conscious and aware while dying.
He wanted to be in what he called
a state of God consciousness
at the moment of death.
“Death,” he said, “is just where your suit falls off
and then you are in your other suit.

At the end, George Harrison went to Los Angeles
with his wife, and invited their closest friends
to be present at his death.
Ravi Shankar, the renowned
sitar musician and his daughter,
played as Harrison laid dying
and was surrounded by burning incense
and candles.
His favorite images of Krishna and Rama
adorned the room,
and they say he chanted
all the way to his last breath.

When he died, Harrison’s body
was burned immediately,
his ashes taken to India,
and poured into the sacred Ganges River.
Only then did the world hear of his death.

But even more interesting than how Harrison
managed the circumstances of his death,
was the near-death event earlier in his life
that came along without warning.

Quite a few years before he died,
a knife-wielding intruder broke into Harrison’s home.
A fight for life ensued
between George Harrison and the intruder.
But then, in the midst of the struggle,
Harrison had the presence of mind
to realize that if he were killed while fighting
he would not end his life in God consciousness.
So, amazingly, he just stopped fighting.

He simply stopped fighting
and focused his mind upon God
and the goodness of life.
He was severely wounded
but lived to die another day.

But stop and think about what George Harrison did.
He did not want to die fighting,
so he focused his mind on God
and the goodness of life.

Boy, that is some super-charged gratitude!

You are dangling on a cliff,
there is not much chance you are going to live.
Is your mind overcome with terror
or thanksgiving for the goodness of life?

The reality is
we are always dangling over a cliff,
we just don’t know
whether the ground gives way today
or tomorrow, or thirty years from today.
So that question about the choice of terror
or thanksgiving –
anxiety over our lack of control
or gratitude for the goodness we have known –
is not really an academic question.

That said, there are times
in which gratitude for the goodness of life
is a hard-fought struggle.
There are dark times each one of us here
has endured, that requires
our last bit of strength and resiliency
to get through.
So gratitude for the goodness of life
is no gimme –
sometimes it is a gut-check
and onerous

Even so, gratitude
is the one thing I know
that has healing in its wings.

even joy
are sensational
and have a very brief shelf-life.
But gratitude
heals the chapped, rough edges
that bleed
and cause us pain.
It does not do it miraculously,
all at once –
it does it with small, steady doses.
Even the stubbornness of grief melts
beneath the press of gratitude –
slowly, of course,
but surely.

That lovely, rhythmic piece
from Philippians has gratitude
as its webbing
or canvass.
The sentiments behind each word
are like waves lapping the beach –
almost hypnotizing.

But what an amazing ego
Paul must have had –
to tell everyone
to keep doing
what they saw him do and say:
“Keep on doing
what you learned
what you received
what you heard, and
what you have seen medo.”

On my best day ever,
I could not have told my children
with unshakeable confidence
they should do what I do
and say what I say.
Perhaps some people are so very good
that they could point to themselves
as the iconic measurement of integrity and goodness
but I am not one of them.

Paul’s arrogance aside,
what he wrote is a lovely
and profoundly wise
invitation to us.

Do not worry about anything…
(instead) the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding,
guard your heart
and protect your mind.

Whatever is true,
whatever is honorable,
whatever is just,
whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing,
whatever is commendable –
think on these things.

If I were of a mind to get a tattoo,
I would have the last part of that invitation
written as if on a scroll
down the middle of my back:

Whatever is true,
whatever is honorable,
whatever is just,
whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing,
whatever is commendable –
think about these things.

You see, if I had that written on my back,
then, when I get monkey-minded
and the angels of my darker nature
wander out from the shadows
and start acting like it’s their turn to take over,
I could point over my shoulder
and remind all those squirrely voices
of what the script is.

Paul’s onto something here
as he describes the dance
between thinking and doing.

We tend to go hog-wild for one or the other
and allow them to drift apart.
But it is a dance between
the two partners.
“…if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
thinkabout these things.”
That is what Paul writes
just after his litany of lovely things.
And then he adds:
“Keep on doingthe things
that you have learned
and received
and heard
and seen…
and the God of peace will be with you.”

“Think about these things”
and then, “keep doing them.”

So, the way I translate this,
is that half our task
is to keep framing our lives with gratitude
for the goodness we have known and tasted.
The other half
is to keep sharing
what we have been given
and what we ourselves
feel grateful for.

It is not a very complicated formula
but it is deeply transformative.
Keep framing our lives
with gratitude
and keep sharing
the very things
for which we are grateful.

Honestly, if I had to boil down
the Christian spiritual practice
to one sentence, it would be that:

Keep framing our lives
with gratitude
and keep sharing
the very things
for which we are grateful.

I am convinced
that the human community
and the planet we share,
would be radically different
if even half of us
lived more fully
by this principle.

I thank you for your gifts
to Trinity Place –
this community and our ministry together.
Have a blessed Thanksgiving.