I was 17…

when I had my first encounter with death, not the movie or funeral home kind of death but the real thing as in a person without breath, without color, their mouth frozen open as they were when their soul left the body. That was my job in high school, a nursing assistant, and while others my age were figuring out how to ask someone to a date I was learning how to properly clean and present the dead while we waited for the funeral home.

In my early years in ministry death was there as well. The call in the night. The bedside vigil. Watching, praying, trying to think of something that would help as the person moved from this life to the next. Mostly peaceful, sometimes violent, always in the understanding that sometime profound had happened, perhaps the most profound thing of all.

The sad truth is that I don’t even remember all of them, the bodies I washed, the vigils I kept, the funerals I’ve done. The traumatic ones have stayed. Those I watched over who were close to me remain. Others, sadly, have been lost to time and only remain in God’s memory. Each has left their mark. The first was an older lady well into her dementia. The most violent was a man who died in front of me as he coughed up his lungs into a towel I was holding because it happened so suddenly we couldn’t even get him to bed. The saddest were the man who I watched die in the middle of DT’s in his middle 40’s and the old man I sat with in the Kansas nursing home who had suffered his whole life with both mental illness and the tragic stigma that it came with in those days. Lately, even though I work with Seniors and people who are dealing with sometimes chronic illness, I’ve largely been spared yet the memories remain because once you see death up close and for real everything changes.

Death is hardly ever like the old movies where a person sort of tips their head to one side, after a few last words, and then look like they go to sleep. Death is sometimes traumatic, violent, and bloody, where the life, by virtue of that trauma, is forcibly removed. Death from illness can be long and drawn out, sometimes taking years as the life slowly trickles out from the one who is sick. The body grows weaker and simply can no longer sustain itself. Sometimes death comes quickly with the first and last signs of its arrival only minutes apart. There are as many ways, and combinations of ways, for people to die as there are people and so even if the causes are identical the actual dying may never be.

Death strikes fear in us. Death is the ultimate threat. Yet death is not without its wisdom and the discerning can learn from it if they’re willing to spend the time contemplating it. As people get older, of course, they do this simply by looking in the mirror but one does not have to wait for the obvious signs of their mortality staring back at them to begin to get the larger picture.

You will die and so will I. Outside the intervention of God every single human being will die. It may be sooner, it may be later, but the fight for life will end and you will lose, at least in the short term. I remember seeing a tee shirt that said “Eat right, exercise, die anyways” and that shirt is 100 percent correct. A thought like that can make one morbid, obsessively introspective, and prone to despair because there is truth to it. Life really is short, often troubled, and eventually ends. Or it can set you free if take it just one step further and realize that since life really can be short, often troubled, and does end, there are so many things you think are important, things you’ve been told or tell yourself, that just simply, in the bigger picture, aren’t. As you come to realize this they lose their power over you, they lose the ability to compel and imprison you. It really is true, you can’t take it with you, so why get too upset if you don’t have it now and if you do have it why tie yourself to the chase of getting more instead of sharing? Death will take everything from you that doesn’t truly matter, that’s not eternal, but everything that matters is both good in this life and remains.

The Psalmist asked God to teach him to number his days so he could increase in wisdom. In Orthodoxy we talk about this as the contemplation of our own death not as a morbid thought rooted in brokenness and despair but rather as that which can, properly understood, be the wings we’ve always wanted to fly high and clear from the sad, broken, gravity of the world as it is. The wisest of people live life as if they are dying because, quite frankly, they are, but they do this not as simple thrill seekers trying to pack in as much “life” before the end but rather as souls who realize where, and in Whom, life in its fullness actually occurs and, that in finding that eternal “more” they find life here as well.

 

I Sometimes Envy the Dead…

in a certain kind of way. Yet, before you get worried or call 911 or think I’m off my rocker I need to explain what I mean because in a Christian context that statement is remarkably different from how it may be expressed in the world.

As I get older I have the advantage and disadvantage of having more experience, of having seen more of life than I did when I was in my youth and physical prime. There’s a good to that because one can learn much and gain wisdom if their eyes and ears and heart is open through the years to take in and learn the lessons of life. I sometimes tell people that I wish I had everything I know about the world now and my 18-year-old body. Alas, my whole self has had to travel through time to get to this point and while parts of my body are already beginning their slow decline,  I feel a sense of depth, wholeness, and understanding flourishing within of the kind that only comes with age.

The disadvantage that comes with age is that experience is also the experience of years of struggle and pain. The longer one lives the more one sees of war, poverty, brokenness, all the pathologies birthed in human sin. Such things stack up over the years and they can be wearying to the soul. Within myself I am continually reminded of enduring temptations and challenges and without I see a world simultaneously full of great beauty and great pain. It can be overwhelming.

And because of that as I get older I am growing less wary of death. Yes, I would still like to live because there is much that is worth keeping alive even in a fallen world. There are places to go, things to see, people to meet, and above all there is still, despite our best efforts to extinguish it, love and hope everywhere if people would only look up from their phones to see it. This world is still a place of God’s grace and an arena where we can know and live in it.

Still I see the gift that is death, at least if you see it from the Orthodox perspective. While death is an expression, the ultimate expression, of our brokenness and alienation, it has within it it, because of Christ, the seed of eternal life. It would not be good, I think, to live perpetually in a broken world. It would be wearying and deadly to us to experience over and over again the countless challenges and struggles of this world as it is. There is a kind of mercy in death, a mercy God provides so that we can rest and be taken from this world to be with Him until such time as God returns this world to what it was meant to be. In that sense I sometimes envy those who have gone to be with Christ. Their course is finished. Their tasks are completed. The pains of this present world have no power over them. They rest, and there are days when that rest in Christ can be quite appealing.

Still, my turn, for sure, will also come. I don’t plan to either hurry it along or needlessly attempt to delay its arrival. When it comes it comes and I hope that its presence will find me in faith and doing good things until the very last. Christ’s transforming death is also, for me, Christ’s transforming of life. My prayer is that because death has been transformed I can be transformed even now in anticipation and hope of that day when I, too, will rest in hope.

22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. Philippians 1