Living and Dying in America
Talk by Tom Baker

August 16th, 2009, Christ Unity Oceanside Church

The last time I was here I talked about my father's preoccupation with death. How everyday he would remind us that we could die, that we might not finish that day or, upon going to bed, we might not wake up. When I prayed, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." I prayed that prayer meaning it, not as a matter of ritual. I have always lived with the possibility of dying. What I didn't say was that I was never present for an actual death until I was ordained a priest. My great surprise was that death was ordinary, even unnoticed. The first time I was present at a death I was talking to a woman in the nursing home about the Holy Trinity and how wonderful it was. She was sitting up in bed with her eyes wide open and, I thought, full of wonder. A great listener. Yet after awhile I noticed that her eyes did not blink and she was oddly still. It suddenly dawned on me that she was dead. She had greeted me when I came in but, when I turned to get a chair she must have died---eyes wide open and quietly, the way it starts to snow or how the sun goes down, quietly, unless people died in comas in the hospital. When death came in the hospital the machines went off-beeps, and buzzes and little sirens-and the medical personnel got busy thumping and shocking and injecting and giving orders and then they went away, leaving me with the body. The body always seemed empty and it usually looked tired. When I was first a priest it seemed like there was a kind of epidemic of dying. People died about 3 a week and I even asked my doctor if there was a rash of dying then in the summer of 1980. He smiled and said, "Well, Father there is always a rash of dying, you just happen to be where the dying is happening; you're part of the process now." And so I was. I talk about dying as ordinary and as common, real dying, because these days we are being told that everything is dying: the earth, the economy, the American dream, Grandma. Right now in America we are panicked about dying, as if has never happened before or it's something that shouldn't happen and we must stop. Yet perhaps, like my doctor said, we are simply where the dying is happening, and if you are spiritual in any fashion you are a part of the dying process, but a deeper process than the dying of the body.

Jesus said that you must die to yourself. We don't remember that. We remember love your neighbor as yourself, accept me as your Lord and Savior, be good, go to church so you can go to heaven, but Jesus said, "Die to you yourself." That was his big message. Now Jesus made it clear that the death of the body wasn't what dying was about. He raised the dead physically, and then turned around and told them to really die, die the death that really means something, die to yourself. Now this is not a Christian thing, it's a human thing. We come here to earth to be a self we are not. We're all pretending we're something we're not. We are pretending we're bodies, that our life is in our bodies breathing and our worth is in how our bodies look and act: Deep breath equals being alive. Smiling, working hard, sacrificing equals being a good person. This is the self you make in the simplest way but then we make it complicated. We want a self that is lovable or superior, or a self people might feel sorry for or take care of. We play a part and then we think we must be the part we play. For me I have to be loving and strong and wise, I have to fix what's wrong and be very successful. In order to be all of this I have to have some other things: enough sleep, people depending on me, people's respect, a nice office, nice clothes. Now here's the catch: life will take away whatever you need to be the self you invented. In other words, whatever you have to have you will lose. That is the soul's wisdom, that's why you came here. To pretend you are not yourself and then to die to that pretending and be the one/One you really are. Earth school is where you learn the difference between the you that you made and the you that you are. That's why I really left the priesthood. I said it was theological differences, loneliness, and the lure of the most beautiful woman in the world, but it was really to lose the respect that I had to have. Being a priest gave me instant respect. When I came in the room everyone stood up. It was always, "Yes Father, no Father, whatever you need Father." Then I became a professor and I was so respected that I was starting to get lost in the thing I had become. So my soul got me to lose whatever gave me respect, in this case, the priesthood. Then I became a therapist. I became a something else. In order to be the perfect therapist I had to sleep. My soul started waking me up. Not a perfect therapist, the sleepy therapist, the struggling therapist, the good day, bad day therapist: the human therapist. Now you will offer me solutions so I don't have to be human. Why? Because you don't want to be human either. You and I want to be some good thing that we can control. That's what they ask you as a child: "What are you going to be when you grow up." What? What thing will you become?" Die to that says Jesus. The Buddhists have a saying, "If you see the Buddha on the road, kill it." We came here to die to the good thing or, if you like, kill it, to lose control, let go of have to be, must be, and awaken to the one/One who has exchanged control for joy.

Human is the way out of the part we play and the way into the one/One we are. Jesus didn't die for our sins. Jesus died to the perfect Jesus: Jesus failed: Savior of the world, prince of peace, healer of the sick: then he died as a naked criminal on a cross. The world did not change one bit, wars continued, hatred flourished, sickness ravaged the world, and the church, with a few notable exceptions like St. Francis and Mother Teresa, joined the hatred, the fighting, and as we've discovered lately, the mental illness. Jesus failed, he died to himself, and he rose from the death of that self. On the cross when Jesus said, "It is finished." What was finished was the perfect Jesus project. That's why he forgave everybody. What did he forgive them for? For not seeing what a perfect savior he was. The resurrected Jesus is the one that God made, not him. The risen Jesus is the prodigal son coming home empty handed, his resume and reputation in shreds. "The Father says to Jesus, "It's you I love my son, not some thing you were to have become. Not some savior, prince of peace, hero of sinlessness. Your failure is the secret to everyone's surrender, surrender to who you are, not what you're supposed to be."

The point is to fail at what you have to be: perfect wife, perfect mother, perfect body, perfectly patient person, perfect meditator, perfect student, perfect husband. If I were to be the perfect husband, I would begin to resent my wife for I would be a thing for her and she would resent me for being a thing more perfect than she. It would be a secret resentment, but resentment none-the-less. I have often said to her, I'm sorry I'm not the perfect husband: I'm impatient, proud, moody, preoccupied, late and a little loopy. I'm not what you deserve. But she insists that she loves who I am, rather than what I am. Who am I then, I demand? She says, "Well, I can't quite describe it, but its you when you're not trying." She is seeing me dead to the self that I must be. I don't quite see it yet, but her faith keeps the promise alive. It is the promise that one day I can just be, and it will be alright, perfectly alright, with me.

You've probably heard of the last judgment, and deep in your subconscious you're probably afraid of it, the heavenly tribunal who will hand down a final and terrible verdict of eternal damnation or , if you've been a good Christian or a good something, forgive you. You know who's in charge of that tribunal? Jesus, God, Michael the Archangel? No. You are. We are.


© Copyright Tom Baker 2009