Putting our affairs in order: What transitions teach us about living gracefully

Reflecting on the lives of musician Aaron Spears and Bishop Carlton Pearson, Revs. Alisha Lola Jones and Calvin Taylor Skinner discuss building legacies of grace. 

“Notes on faith” is theGrio’s inspirationalinterdenominational series featuring Black thought leaders across faiths.

“What is the greatest marvel? Each day, death strikes, and we live as if we are immortal.” – The Mahabharata 

We’ve been meditating on these words lately, words that hit us much differently as the Black faith community and communities at large have been confronted with two painful reminders of our mortality. In addition to other losses felt worldwide, last week saw the unexpected transition of beloved musician Aaron Spears and the delivery of Bishop Carlton D. Pearson’s final message to his supporters via social media as he prepared them and himself to “transition into another state of consciousness,” as he put it. 

Bishop Carlton Pearson, Aaron Spears, death and dying, faith and spirituality, Rev. Alisha Lola Jones, Rev. Carlton Taylor Skinner, Notes of faith, theGrio.com
Bishop Carlton Pearson on Monday, March 26, 2018 — (Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

Both of these men inspire us to think about the sweet fragrance we want to leave those we’ve touched when we depart from this plane in the inevitably swift transitions of death and dying.

A family man known for his magnetic personality and steadfast faith, Spears was a drummer for the likes of Usher, Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber at the peak of his career. Shortly before his passing, he posted a 47th birthday message, highlighting the ways in which he wanted to stay in the moment this year, savoring both the special times with his family and the everydayness of life. Upon his sudden passing, friends, colleagues and fans repeatedly posted Spears’ words on crafting a legacy. For those who knew him, there was no brighter light of a being in the entertainment industry, one who balanced compassion with his musical talent. A light extinguished painfully too soon.

Drummer Aaron Spears performing on stage. (Photo by Andrew Lepley/Redferns)

Then there is Bishop Pearson, who, after surviving cancer in 2001, divulged its recent return as a metastasized growth in his body. At the height of Bishop Pearson’s ministry, he was an in-demand preacher and gospel recording artist whose appeal reached across cultures. With his story featured in the Netflix film “Come Sunday,” Pearson famously hosted the AZUSA conference that attracted thousands from across the globe for a spiritual revival. It was a gathering that remains unparalleled in its impact and cultural preservation to this day, having captured collaborations and traditional Pentecostal repertoire throughout its run.

However, Bishop Pearson’s status took a significant turn when he began to teach a theology that heaven and hell are not some far-off, imagined places — a belief that many faith leaders privately espouse. One can experience hell and heaven in the here and now — and at all times, many do. Bishop Pearson accepted for himself that the God he served was too good to place eternal condemnation on one’s soul.

Many in conservative theological spaces called him a heretic, distancing themselves from a ministry that had launched household names in faith leadership through its platform. Even as he lost his livelihood, Pearson reemerged with a following that yearned for his message emphasizing the unconditional love of God.

In Pearson’s moving “thank you” video that has since gone viral, we see a man described as a “prince of preachers” give us the closure we need from one who has come to terms with their mortality. He explained to his supporters that he is just shifting in consciousness — and, in a moment when we should arguably be comforting him, beautifully sang a beloved Andrae Crouch song, “I’ll Be Thinking of You,” as consolation. 

It was a sermon we didn’t know we needed, beholding one who has made peace with transitioning from life as he knows it. This is one who is clear that his work is done.

Processing the losses of both Spears and Bishop Pearson, we are led to wrestle, embrace and dance with all this life journey takes us through. And yet, we are left with so many questions.

What does it mean for those left behind to carry on the memories and legacy of those we cherish? What does it mean for us to confront our own mortality? 

What does it look like to gracefully deal with swift and inevitable transitions — the peaks and devastating losses — that life brings? 

What is end-of-life preparation and spiritual reflection? What does it truly mean to put our affairs in order?

So many questions, all worthy of contemplation. 

As Bishop Pearson understood, here, our beliefs surrounding death and dying can be informed by science. We are energetic beings. Our spirits take form within these physical bodies in this dimension. As we comprehend it scientifically, energy is never destroyed; it simply takes a different form. We can understand that when these mortal bodies fail, our spirit proceeds, continuing to evolve. Therefore, the spiritual discipline of reflection is an important exercise to practice. 

In preparation for the inevitable, contemplation about the fragrance we desire to leave assists us in designing our lives on purpose. It truly expands our consciousness and understanding, aligning our spirit with our bodies. This exercise expands our spiritual vision to see clearly our life path and purpose. Contemplation connects us to memories of our ancestors and ties us to meaningful actions that extend beyond our individual selves. We can then give our lives as an investment, bettering the world around us and continuing our influence beyond our time here. 

​​In the end, these two men guide us toward a profound grasp of faith, life and mortality. As we design our lives with purpose and invest in improving the world around us, we continue to influence and inspire well beyond our time here on Earth.

As we reflect on swift transitions, the old song of the church Pearson would often sing reverberates so deeply for us:

“Time is filled with swift transition.

Naught of earth unmoved can stand.

Build your hopes on things eternal.

Hold to God’s unchanging hand.”

These mortal bodies will fail, but until we ascertain this reality, can we accept what it means to truly live? 

We lay claim to the great hope that the story doesn’t end here as we take our last breath on this earthly plane. What unfolds is yet unseen by these mortal eyes, but by our spiritual eyes we see the story of our existence as eternal. 

In the meantime, dance your dance, regardless. Sing your song anyhow. Live your life to the utmost, for we cannot tarry here long. Your value is not contingent upon how many followers you have or the items you accumulated. Your value is simply rooted in the Divine Creator knowing your name and is enhanced through the people you touch. 

In the short while we are here, we can look forward to sweet experiences to create, loving people to cherish, and indomitable legacies to build upon. 

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Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones is a faith leader helping people to find their groove in a fast-paced world, as a consultant for various arts and faith organizations and professor of music in contemporary societies at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England. She is an award-winning author of Flaming? The Peculiar Theopolitics of Fire and Desire in Black Male Gospel Performance (Oxford University Press). For more information, please visit DrAlisha.com.

Rev. Calvin Taylor Skinner is dedicated to empowering frontline communities in Knoxville, Tenn. and the United Kingdom. He uses Faith and Policy to address energy justice, criminal justice reform, voter education/mobilization, electoral politics, and global affairs. Along with his wife, Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones, they lead InSight Initiative, a consulting firm focusing on capacity building and live events production.

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