Tag Archives: Death

Poet End This War

Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis 1856

Poet cast your spell upon our imaginations to see a way beyond this fight
Use your words to help us see another path than the road to hell we’ve paved
Be the prophet who helps us see the humanity in those we’ve demonized
Be the statesman who can inspire the better angels of our humanity
Be the sage whose wisdom can cut through the proud prognostication of fools
Move us beyond our fear, teach us to hope again and poet
End this war!
Poet, I know that in the past your words have fallen upon ears that no longer hear
Made deaf by the frenetic posturing of the pundits and politicians with their promises
You spoke an inconvenient truth as others shouted what seemed attractive lies
Quiet our minds so we can hear the peaceful words you softly uttered in our midst
Still our tongues and turn us away from the screens that distract us and close our eyes
So that we might see the visions you dream and poet
End this war!
Poet, I know this request would be easier if your lips still moved and your heart still beat
If we had honored your presence among us rather that branding you a pariah
If your difficult words, which were the medicine we needed, we received as a prescription
Instead they became the justification used for your surgical removal from society
For we danced the bloody dance where steel and lead are mightier than the pen
Where prophets and poets, statemen and sages are those out of step and out of time
We have drunk this bloody feast, this unholy communion and poet
End this war!
Poet, as I read your words through the tears in my eyes something broke inside my heart
I have consumed your words which were so sweet but turned to sourness in my gut
Your words were the mirror we needed to look inside to see how we far we fell
The poet may be gone but the poetry remains and there is some magic left in these scrolls
My dry bones sit in this boneyard hoping for some wind of inspiration to breath
When I hear your spirit whispering softly in my ear, “Poet
End this war!”

Psalm 49 Wealth, Wisdom and Death

Harmen Steenwijck, Vanitas (1640)

Psalm 49

<To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.>
1 Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
2 both low and high, rich and poor together.
3 My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
4 I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.
5 Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?
7 Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.
8 For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice
9 that one should live on forever and never see the grave.
10 When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own.
12 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.
13 Such is the fate of the foolhardy, the end of those who are pleased with their lot. Selah
14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home.
15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah
16 Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.
17 For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them.
18 Though in their lifetime they count themselves happy — for you are praised when you do well for yourself —
19 they will go to the company of their ancestors, who will never again see the light.
20 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.

Psalm 49 takes on the tone of wisdom literature like the book of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes and engages the topic of wealth in relation to death. The poet believes there is a moral order to the universe that the righteous and unrighteous, the rich and the poor, the wise and the foolish live within. The simple belief that those who do good will prosper and those who are evil will see their ambitions thwarted may not be observed in the daily experience of the psalmist, but death becomes the ransom that no amount of wealth can cover. We are taken into the riddle of: Why should one fear in times of trouble when powerful and presumably wealthy persecutors oppress the righteous one? For the author of the psalm there is comfort in the knowledge that the rich cannot buy their way out of Sheol and that the moral order of God’s universe remains intact.

Humans fear death and we spend an incredible amount of our wealth in the United States attempting to avoid succumbing to death. Even though Christians believe in the resurrection of the dead, many still approach their death with apprehension. To quote a Kenny Chesney song, “Everybody wants to go to heaven…But nobody wanna go now.” But even with all the advances in medical technology and the amount of money that is spent to prolong life being wealthy cannot grant immortality. The idea of being able to secure one’s life through wealth has been explored in futuristic dystopian imaginations, like the 2011 movie In Time, where the poor have their life shortened and the rich have their life extended at the expense of the poor or Jupiter Ascending (2015) where entire worlds are populated so that they can be harvested to provide extended life for the galaxy’s wealthiest clients. In many ways the moral imagination of these dystopian worlds models the economic imagination of Egypt in the Exodus and any society that viewed people as a commodity and wealth as a privilege of a small elite. If wealth were able to ensure immortality fear would drive many to acquire this ransom from death at any cost but thankfully, as I wrote when discussing Ecclesiastes 2, “mortality is the great equalizer in all its unfairness.” Yet, for the psalmist’s moral universe mortality is the great equalizer for, as they are considering it, death is the shepherd which God uses to ensure that those who are materially wealthy and politically powerful do not forever hold power over the righteous ones.

Within the worldview of the psalms the conception of heaven or hell as places that people go in the afterlife has not developed and as we saw in Psalm 6 the conception of Sheol as a place where the dead go is not a place of reward or punishment but simply a place outside of the realm of the living. When the author speaks of God ransoming their soul from Sheol it is trusting that God will not let them die at this point while their persecutors prosper, but instead that the moral order of God’s promises will ensure that their life endures but the life of the wealthy persecutors will reach its end without God’s intervention on their behalf. The God of Israel is a God who intervenes in the life of the faithful to ensure that they are not destroyed, and that God’s promises bear fruit in their lives.

This final Korahite psalm of Book II (Psalms 42-49) is an example of a reflection on situational wisdom. The psalms are more poetry than systematic theology and combine emotion with logic and faith to attempt to discern an answer to the world as the authors of these songs encounter them. Looking at the world from the perspective of one undergoing persecution by a wealthy and powerful oppressor, the psalmist can see death as God’s equalizer. Illness, weakness and impending death in psalms of lament are all brought before God as things that are being unfairly born by the righteous one. But the wisdom of the book of psalms is bringing all these pieces of situational wisdom, cries of lament, praises of joy, love songs and meditations together into a collection of psalms which address the breadth of human emotion and experience.

Ecclesiastes 12-The End of Wisdom

Harmen Steenwijck, Vanitas (1640)

Harmen Steenwijck, Vanitas (1640)

Ecclesiastes 12: 1-8: The End of Things

1 Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; 2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; 3 in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; 4 when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; 5 when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; 6 before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

So now we come to the end of things and at the end of things is growing old and death. The final eight verses either talk metaphorically about the aging of the individual or directly about the collapse of a city or town. I read this metaphorically and at the end of all things is the gradual process of letting go that comes with old age, diminished health and eventually mortality. One of my nonagenarians from a previous congregation who had a spry sense of humor even in the midst of her failing vision and health would remind me when I would visit her that, “Old age isn’t for sissies” and that “they can call these the golden years but it must be fool’s gold.” Ecclesiastes has no place for a sentimentalism about how things will be better in some great by and by in the afterlife, it only has place for that which it can see. Perhaps there is an uneasiness with the somewhat agnostic perspective that Ecclesiastes seems to portray at certain points, its willingness to question what many people would rather overlook. Yet, looking at the world through the lens of a person who is willing to call much of what they see ‘vanity’ doesn’t lead the Teacher to desperation but instead a greater sense of peace in the moment. It allows them to counsel their pupils to embrace their youth, to remember the creator of this time and not to rush forward into the responsibility and diminishment of old age. In a culture where old age was valued and youth was not Ecclesiastes was an unusual voice. In our culture where youth is valued and old age is considered a burden and death is to be avoided at all cost perhaps the honesty of Ecclesiastes might help us with our own vain struggles against our mortality.

One of the greatest gifts I think Ecclesiastes brings to things is the wisdom of appreciating the gifts of the day. We can struggle against our mortality and against our limits but they make the time we have precious. Health, wealth, relationships, fame and power may all be transitory but the gift comes in being able to find joy in one’s food and drink, relationships, toil and the work of one’s hands and mind. Vanity of vanities, all may be vanity but that doesn’t have to be a source of struggle. Instead we can be freed to enjoy the day that our creator has made and to indeed be glad in it.

Ecclesiastes 12: 9-14: Epilogue

 9 Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. 10 The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.

 11 The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. 12 Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

The voice shifts suddenly to one talking about the Teacher rather than one talking as the Teacher. This short book was one that barely made it into the canon of Scriptures because it is a very different voice. Here an appreciative epilogue is offered which closes Ecclesiastes as we have it. It evaluates what has come before as both plainly truthful but also pleasing in its composition. That perhaps is a challenge for anyone trying to speak or write in a way that can speak the truth to the best of their ability but also not in a callous or judgmental way. Ecclesiastes writes about some uncomfortable truths and as Ellen Davis can comment, “who in our culture has the moral authority and the imagination to make uncomfortable words heard in the public forum? Few teachers or clergy, even fewer politicians.” (Davis, 2000, p. 226) Yet truth, perhaps most of all the uncomfortable truth that is skipped over in the soundbites and marketing strategies, is needed for both the individual and the public’s life.

Perhaps it is great vanity writing about a book that can claim ‘Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ But there has been enjoyment in the toil and a sense of satisfaction coming to the end of these reflections upon this irreverent little piece of the scriptures. Fearing God may be the beginning of wisdom as Proverbs 1:7 can state and here is one of the few times Ecclesiastes sings in harmony with its neighbor in the scriptures. Yet, perhaps it would be vanity to worry about how God will judge this deed in the end and so for me too this is the end of the matter. Vanity or wisdom or both it is done and I go to enjoy the rest of this day that God has provided.

Death and Taxes


The only two certainties are the things we dread
For the notion of control gets stuck in our head
How can death take the life we try so hard to live
Or a government tell us how much income we have to give
For it is all about control of our lives and our share
Yet death and taxes are a burden we all bear
Is it lawful to render to Caesar we complain
Please tell us it’s our to hold and sustain
Don’t tell us to render to God the things God is due
We’d rather bicker and argue to fight to sue
Tell us somehow that by growing our bottom line
That our place in the kingdom will be just fine
Not to sell our possessions of give them away
Or to render to Caesar our portion to pay
Yet if we put our treasure where our heart should be
We would give more away and hold on less tightly
For in a world of death and taxes we scrimp and pinch
We dread each penny lost and charge for each inch
But perhaps in a world death no longer holds sway
And taxes aren’t needed to fund things anyway
In a dream of a kingdom, this strange peculiar dream
Where the people of the king don’t hold onto anything
When someone is in need they simply give things away
And all can eat and drink at the feast where no one has to pay
A dream that is so foreign to you and to me
Where death and taxes are not certainty
Neil White, 2014
A little rhyming fun with Matthew 22:21

Three Days- A Poem

Statue of Mary Magdalene in Mission Santa Monica

Statue of Mary Magdalene in Mission Santa Monica

Three days has my master been gone
Three days since those he loved scattered
Three days since receiving his pierced and battered body
One final gift from the hands of our oppressors

Three days of mourning and preparations
Three days of weeping and working
Three days of trying to hold on to a man who is dead
The tomb awaits the payment of grief

The first day of the week has come
A time of new beginnings, of beginning anew
Yet I find myself walking towards the end, towards death itself
As I walk towards the gaping and devouring maw of the tomb

O tomb, you who could devour life itself
Who hold within you the remains of one who lifted a child from your jaws
One who denied you your prize, who snatched youth from your hands
Now perhaps you can laugh as you hold the one who denied you in your craw

Three days you have haunted me O death
Three days have I journeyed into your home
Three days have I tried to ward off your foul stench for this man’s sake
This man who made me a human and no longer a walking corpse

Three years did I journey with him,
Three years ago did he free me from the demons who tore at the corners of my mind
Three years of freedom and of being a human and not an object of shame
This man who I followed out of Magdala

Three days and I confront once again my fears
Do my demons lurk within this tomb?
Does my fragile self find itself destroyed by maw of death?
Yet, through my fear, for the memory of this true person I defy you.

Three of us walk together, three women, three lost ones
Three and yet incomplete without the one who lies behind the immovable rock
Three unable to pry open the jaws of the grave to snatch his life out of it
Uneasy, uncertain we walk towards the heart of the earth

Yet, as we approach you in the cold dawning of the day your mouth lies open
What has happened, have our oppressors taken away the one last gift we had
Have they shamed him even more, have they taken away our wrestling with death
Can we stand at the gaping maw of death without his presence?
Yet within the tomb sits a young man, a man in white
In the darkness, in the midst of death, youth that will not die sits
Our search ends with his puzzling message,
Our search begins with words that cannot breach our deadened senses
“Fear not, the one you seek is not here, he has gone ahead of you”

Fear not, and yet fear—a fear greater even than my fear of death overwhelms me
Who is this sitting here, who was the Jesus who lay here, what is he?
Is this the first day of a new creation, or is this truly the end?
How do I go home, how can I move, how can I tell his shattered disciples this?

Could I bear the rebuke of being a foolish woman whose dreams are shattered again?
Could I turn back home and tell what I’ve seen, do I even believe it myself?
Could I make the journey back to Galilee and wait for the Lord who lay in the tomb three days?
Or does fear reign in my body and in Mary and in Salome?

O tomb I taunted you, O death I defied you, but you I knew.
But now you stand open while my mouth is sealed shut
I feared your presence while you contained my Lord, now I cannot stand in your presence at all
Fear, confusion, amazement, wonder, silence
I run away

Perhaps the day will come when the stone over my own mouth is rolled away
Perhaps it too will take three days, or three months or three years
Perhaps it will take me finding the Lord who has been spirited away
“Fear not…he has gone ahead of you.”

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

Not the end…A Poem

cemetary and snow

Standing at the graveside of a man I never met

In a garden of stone blanketed by snow

Growing only silken flowers coated in frost

Surrounded by the family and friends of the one lying in wait

As I stand, stationed between the gravestone and the coffin

My hands on the prow of the oaken ship

That will carry his body on its journey back into the earth

Standing between the living and the dead

Honoring the dead as I mock death

I christen the casket with the mark of the cross

Trusting a new journey has begun

Soon flowers plucked in the prime of their life

Will be the only escorts on the descent into a rose petal lined vault

Soon the body of the beloved of his family will no longer rest in repose in the cold

Instead it will be covered with a warm blanket of earth and snow

Warm in the womb of the earth

Awaiting the time when once again the breath of the creator enters his nostrils

And the touch of the spirit quickens his heart

For though you are a stranger to me, you are known

This is not the end

Composed Neil White, 2013

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

Ashes and Dust


By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, four out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Genesis 3: 19
The fire of time burns in each of us, slowly consuming our days and our years
In the springtime of our youth we seemed immortal, we didn’t feel the touch of the flames
Nothing could touch us, we burned brightly while our wood was green
Our branches were too tall to be licked by the toungues of flames that licked the ground around us
We were warmed by the risks and the dangers that we believed would never shorten our days
And yet each of us leave a trail of ash on the pathways we walk.
But in the summer of our adulthood, when the air was hotter and drier we begin to feel the touch.
Our joints begin to dry out, the vigor of youth wanes, and the rainment of youth begins to dry
The pain of loss begins to touch our lives and we begin to wonder whether we will endure
For the fire of time burns hotter as the days get longer
As the seeds we planted begin to grow and we marvel at the vigor of youth
We also begin to see the trail of ashes that we left behind
And we pray that the ashes and the dust fertilize the ground for the journeyers behind us
Rather than poisoning the wells from which they and we shall drink
In the fall of our lives, the third age, when leaves begin to fall to join the dust of the ground
We are no longer young, not yet old, and yet we have seen those whose roots caught
Those whose the fires of time consumed far too young, and we know we are but ashes and dust
We pray for those who make the journey behind us, and rejoice in the seeds we have sown
We look back at the trail of dust mingled with ash and we wonder what could have been,
What should have been, what still might be, how long the ash and the dust will continue to blend
We wonder what we might do in the autumn days of life as the fires of time continue to dry us for winter
As winter comes, the green has gone and our wood has dried
We are not creatures of iron or bronze that can be melted down and recast into youth,
No, we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Some burn brightly and shortly, other molder on throughout the winter
But the fires consume us all, and the energy of our lives returns to the earth we were taken from.
We are dust and ash, mingled together on our journey through the seasons and ages
We begin and we end, we are all born and we all die, we are mortal as much as we flee our weakness
Yet, dust and ash though we are, we are precious and valued
We desire to live and breathe, to make a difference, to share our journeys and stories
We love, laugh, cry, desire, struggle, we are always life and death mixed together
And yet even though we end, we make a place for others to begin
And life continues, sustained by the hands that formed us from the future and past
The ashes of history that become the dust, the earth of the future
Marked by ashes, we continue our journey to the dust
Trusting the potter who breathes breath into dust and ash
Treasuring dust and ash beyond gold and diamonds
Though diamonds are forever, dust and ash live and die,
Yet dust and ash live, precious under the mark of the cross.

Composed: Neil White, 2013

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com