Who am I when my body fails me?” This is a question we must face when injury or illness takes its toll on our lives. How do we respond to physical, mental, emotional stresses? How do we view God when we are we are in pain? How do we cope with the losses we experience? A series of posts which deals with these questions was first published in this blog in 2016. It may be time for some of us to ask this question again – or for the first time.
Individual posts in the series have been revised and have been posted on Tuesdays and Saurdays for several weeks. Suggestions for appropriate Scripture passages, prayer, quotes and questions for reflection have been added as have thoughts from my experiences of caring for my dying husband in 2020. THIS IS THE LAST POST IN THIS SERIES. A friend has commented: “Who knew that this writing project/ update would segue into your grieving work.” Who knew indeed!
DYING BEFORE YOU DIE
“It takes enormous courage to live the Christian gospel, which is so quintessentially a path of “dying before you die.” It takes tremendous courage to move forward in hope, knowing ‘whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s.’ This courage is beyond the capacity of the ego, and a Christianity lived only ego-deep will ultimately betray itself” (Cynthia Bourgeault in Mystical Hope).
Having lived with a variety of life-shortening health issues (diabetes, blood clots, multiple myeloma – an incurable blood cancer) for the past several years, I have wrestled with the question of how to face life when death looms large. Actually, this is a question we all should be wrestling with as soon as we are mentally capable of understanding that death ends every life. How do we live life knowing it will end life through, whether through expected or unexpected events?
Cynthia Bourgeault has the answer that all Christ-followers need to embrace (see quote above). She reminds us that Jesus told us that we must be on a path of “dying before we die.” What does that mean? It means that God the Father is in control of our world. When we live as though we are in control, we deny a basic reality: God is the King and we were created to live in God’s kingdom. When we try to wrest the power from God, we live a sub-human life and miss the glory Father created for us to share in. Every moment we live, we either choose to surrender that moment to God (dying before we die) or choose to go our own way, denying life’s other basic reality: ultimately we will die whether we are ready or not.
Choosing to “die before we die” means letting go. We learn to give up control – first of situations and events, then of people, then of our own life, and finally of our death. Recognizing that we have no control over death is the hardest to accept, especially for those of us in the West. Western thinking teaches us that we need to live as long as possible no matter what it takes. Eastern thinking has more respect for the event of death and for how to deal with its inevitability.
My experience is that the more we deny, the less value whatever life we have left has. On the other hand, when we are “dying to death” we are also living until we die. Every sunrise is more beautiful than the previous day’s. Every baby’s smile and child’s giggle is more fun than the last. Every interaction with family is vital. Every time spent with friends is precious because time is not wasted on the trivial but on the meaningful. Every task we choose to accept is viewed through the lens of its value to the Kingdom. We need to help each other understand that “dying to death” is a beautiful way to join with all creation and bow gracefully to the concept that all life ends and new life begins.
Richard Rohr tells us that “mature spirituality creates willing people instead of willful people” (Daily Meditation, August 31). As spiritually mature people “we slowly unfold in response to love and grace and freedom, rather than in mere reaction to the illusions of others. Without this insight, religion largely creates rigid, unhappy, and judgmental people.” I might add that mature spirituality seems to rise from “dying before we die.” As we give up the peripherals of our lives along with the narcissistic view that we are in control of everything, we are able to recognize and nurture “love and grace and freedom.”
MULLING IT OVER: What does it mean to you to live die before we die? What do you need to loosen your control over so that you ocoan accept God’s love and grace and nurture it in others? What are the “peripherals in your life” that are keeping you from seeing the preciousness of each day in the face of death?
SCRIPTURE: 1 Corinthians 15:51 (MSG):
PRAYER: Lord God, help me die to death and live until I die. I want to appreciate each day, yet I still long for the time when “Death will be swallowed by triumphant Life. Help me see beauty even in weakness an loss. Help me to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things with grace and peace. Amen
THOUGHT: “There is nothing, naturally speaking, that makes us lose heart quicker than decay – the decay of bodily beauty of natural life, of friendship, of associations, all these things make a [person] lose heart; but Paul says when we are trusting in Jesus, these things do not find us discourage, light comes through them” (Oswald Chambers in Hope: A Holy Promise).
NOTE FROM 2020: Journeying with my husband for the last several months has given me a picture of what “dying to death” means. As the weeks went by, I could see him gracefully giving up one thing after another: eating his favorite foods, traveling outside the house, staying awake during his TV shows – and finally, getting out of bed. Still he maintained his delight in each phone call and each visit, and in each of our conversations. And then one day, after fighting to get the nebulizer mask off his face, he turned on his side, breathed shallowly, and died.
I remembered hearing that when Dallas Willard died, he whispered “Thank You” as he moved from the Kingdom on Earth to the Eternal Kingdom. I expect that Fred (who said “thank you” for everything I did for him) did the same when he was released from pain and gasping from breath into that same Kingdom.