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Many Births, Many Deaths

 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. John 3:8

One of the central points of embodiment is that the me that we consider as our life is not a single entity. Our life is actually many lives held together loosely by a single identity. In order to understand our death and dying it is helpful to acknowledge that, at least on the physical plane, there is no specific I am that is us throughout our lives. Our bodies are constantly changing, with component parts being added and eliminated, dying and being reborn. In addition, who we are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually changes on an on-going basis, too. There is a uniting force holding us together, but it is in the spiritual realm where it remains mostly hidden and beyond our understanding. When we equate our life with our body, we tend to see our physical death as an annihilation because the ever-changing form we know as our body will not last another day, let alone forever.

In general, we prefer to keep most of the physical regeneration process out of view by covering our wounds and having dead animals removed from the sides of our roads. Some of our fear of death is from poorly understood projections about the recycling processes of our bodies. Our images are fueled by grotesque recreations like The Living Dead and The Zombie Apocalypse. Such theatrical productions are geared towards macabre entertainment and not reality. We fear what we do not understand, and we clearly do not understand the amazing process of physical regeneration. The parts of creation that make resurrection possible by deconstructing old life forms – worms, maggots, mushrooms and other fungi, buzzards, and various types of bacteria – tend to be viewed with disgust, but new life would not be possible without them. The fact that nothing of the earth is ever annihilated, only reformed, should give us hope that at our death our essence will not be annihilated, either.

Our lives consist of a never-ending series of deaths and rebirths, both physical and non-physical. Every night when we go to bed, a day in our life dies. We do not fear this death because we have confidence that we will wake up (be reborn) the next morning. Every time we celebrate a birthday, wedding, birth of a child, or graduation we celebrate a death of the old and a birth of the new. Again, we do not fear these types of deaths because we see something good on the other side of them. We only fear letting go when what comes next is unknown. For example, it is easier to let go of one home when we are moving into another home by choice than when we let go of a home not knowing where we will find shelter going forward. In the prolonged death journeys of my mother and grandmother, my sense was that the closer they got to death, the more they welcomed it. They began having visions of and experiences on the other side that made the transition more comfortable. It is the unknown nature of the life after this life that causes so much of our discomfort about death.

The Bible is not necessarily a helpful source of information about what happens after physical death, either. It is probably safe to assume that the biblical authors were as much in the dark on that topic as we are. Certainly, there are sporadic references to heaven and hell, but the fact that they make up such a small portion of the Bible may indicate that these presumed afterlife destinations were not as concerning to them as they are to us today. There are many possible reasons for that, some of which I will reflect upon in the coming weeks. In short, I believe that how they saw the afterlife was vastly different from how we see it. Jesus talked frequently about the kingdom of God, but there is good reason to believe he was talking about a present state of being in the here and now, more so than a possible future state after death.

While we have little ability to see or understand the afterlife with any certainty, we should take comfort in knowing that everything else we know in God’s creation is reborn and that only forms are annihilated. Because God created the spiritual realm, too, it seems reasonable to assume that rebirth and resurrection exist there, too.

This is the 5th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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Embodiment, Part 3

 God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing, Embody me.

Flare up like flame and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Rainer Maria Rilke[1]

When I began this reflection on embodiment two weeks ago, I noted that the Hebrew word rauch is translated as Spirit in the creation story of Genesis. The same word also means air, breath, and wind. This allegorical story provides a vivid image of God’s spirit (rauch) as the animating force that brings the materials of earth to life. The broad meaning of rauch gives us a clearer understanding of the intimate presence of God’s spirit. It was not just something that entered the earth in the beginning and then retreated to parts unknown. God’s spirit continues to sweep over the face of the earth as air and wind. God’s spirit enters and exits our bodies with every breath we take and envelopes our being with every breeze. That same spirit creates and sustains the life we know. When we take our last breath, that spirit leaves the body, carrying our soul with it. The form we once knew dies, but everything making up that form assumes a new, resurrected form.

The Hebrew people, in the time of Moses, believed God’s name should not be spoken. The name of God, as revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14, is YHWH, or what we pronounce as Yahweh. It means I am. Some believe we breath the name of God with every inhale and exhale. We breath God’s spirit (as air) into our physical body with each inhale – Yah – and we return God’s spirit into the world around us with each exhale – weh. Consciously breathing the name of God is a practice known as the Yahweh Prayer. It is the first and last Word we utter in the earthly chapter of our lives. It is quite literally the spirit of God, through our breath, that keeps our earthly form alive.

Richard Rohr, in his Daily Meditation for October 3, 2019, wrote, “We are only afraid of death as long as we do not know who we are, but once we know ourselves objectively to be a child of God, we are already home and our inheritance is given to us ahead of time.”[2] As the significance of the presence of God as our very breath begins to sink in, it becomes apparent that we are quite literally God’s children. The moment God’s rauch is removed from us, our physical existence ceases.

The life force flows from the spirit of God as our soul and animates our earthly embodiment. God enters us, enlivens our physical form, and sees and works through us. Most of the time, most of us are unaware not only of the intimate nearness of God’s presence, but also of the work God does in and through us. We feel closest to God when we become conscious co-creators with God in the world around us. This is how we develop a relationship – by acknowledging God’s presence and finding ways to listen for God’s guidance through practices like Centering Prayer, presence to the moment, and mindfulness meditation. In the process of tuning in to the divine presence with and in us, our fear of physical death dissipates because we learn that the connection with the eternal transcends our physical existence. As Rilke encourages: “Don’t let yourself lose me.” Our body is only the vehicle through which God’s work is done through and with us on earth. Although we do not know how the relationship will look after our physical death, we are assured that the bond of our soul to God’s spirit will continue because we have learned that we are inseparably united.

This is the beauty of embodiment, that our soul wraps itself in the substance of the earth for a time in order to experience the extraordinary beauty, depth, change, and pain of physical existence. And with us for every step of the journey is the spirit of God sweeping over the face of the earth as it continues to create, animate, experience, and lovingly claim us as the children of God. Through Rilke, God says, “Give me your hand.”

This is the 4th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Riverhead Books. 1996.

[2] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations. Meditations.cac.org, October 3, 2019

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Embodiment, Part 2

For every matter has its time and way, although the troubles of mortals lie heavy upon them. Indeed, they do not know what is to be, for who can tell them how it will be? No one has power over the wind, or power over the day of death. Ecclesiastes 8:6-8a

As I began this discussion on earthly embodiment last week, I wrote that things of the earth are temporal, but things of the spirit, i.e., our souls, are eternal. Regarding things of the earth, this is only true of specific earthly forms, like our bodies. As we observe creation in our specific space and time, we see people and things all around us that were once alive that are now dead. In the woods outside my window there is a dead tree that fell into the crook of another tree. I have seen the dead bodies of friends, family, and loved ones. The leaves of the maple trees in my back yard turn red and orange each autumn before they die and fall to the ground. But is any of this really dead?

The answer to the question depends on what we consider to be alive. The specific earthly form that I knew as a loved one, a tree in the forest, or a maple leaf is no more. But the elements making up that body, tree trunk, or leaf are eternal. Bodies, tree trunks, and leaves, once vibrant with life, lose their old form as they go through the natural decomposition and re-formation process. When I was young, we would rake leaves from the yard into a pile and burn them, reducing their forms to a small pile of ashes. Even so, their elements remained, either being released into the air in the smoke or becoming part of the ashes. Nothing of the earth was lost, only transformed. This is the nature of earthly immortality, as it has been for billions of years. Will we live forever in our current form? No, but the elements our bodies are made from will, as will the soul that coalesces and animates the earthly elements.

We see this process of formation, destruction, and reformation all around us, although much of it occurs on a timeline alien to us. There is geological evidence that my home state of Kansas was once a vast ocean, although it is a thousand miles from the nearest ocean today. A small Missouri town that once sat on the eastern banks of the Missouri River is now a small Kansas town on the western banks of the same river. As the floodwaters of decades past receded, the river changed its course and the town changed its resident state. Over the centuries, rocks crumble and mountains erode. Families, corporations, and dynasties come and go. Teacher and author Richard Rohr says the natural course of everything in creation is order, disorder, reorder. Depending on the form, this life-cycle may occur in hours or eons. Resurrection plays out all around us all the time.

We tend to think of our physical bodies as stable and unchanging, which is far from true. Approximately 50 to 70 billion of our cells die and are replaced each day. Every part of our body is replaced every seven years or so. We exchange elements with the world around us with every breath, and our bodies integrate elements from other earthly beings with everything we eat. There is a constant exchange happening between our bodies and the world around us. Over the course of a lifetime, our bodies will have integrated elements from all over the world. The point is that, appearances aside, these bodies that seem so solid are actually fluid and dynamic.

The separation process of soul from body, as occurs at physical death, almost always requires some sort of major trauma to the body, rendering it uninhabitable. This is often the failure of a key bodily organ or some other traumatic event. Despite the advances in medical practice, and in spite of the constant remaking process, physical bodies reach a point where the soul can no longer hold the form together. The earthly elements of the body remain with the earth, and the ethereal elements of the spirit return to the realm of spirit.

This, then, is a view of the nature of our earthly lives and deaths. A portion of God’s spirit – our soul – takes on elements of the earth and embodies itself for a time. When that time is up, the body and soul go their separate ways. Nothing, however, is lost or annihilated. The form is re-form-ulated, and our soul – the true essence of who we are – lives on.

This is the 3rd in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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Embodiment, Part 1

 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. John 1:3-4

In order to reflect on our death and dying, I want to start by sharing my view on how our earthly lives begin. I vainly claim this to be “my” view, although as with all of “my” thoughts, they are far from original to me. I borrow heavily from many contemplative authors and teachers, including Fr. Richard Rohr, James Finley, Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Merton, and others, as well as the teachings of Jesus and the biblical authors. “My” thoughts are formed from my limited understanding of theirs, and that synthesis may not always be true to their insights nor helpful to you. I offer this as fodder for your own ruminations about life, dying, and death.

We have an eternal nature that was never born and will never die. That part of us is our soul. It is a unique expression of the spirit of God, which is the same spirit that “swept over the face of the waters”[1] at the dawn of creation. In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the word translated as spirit is rauch, which also means air, breath, and wind. It is the entry of spirit into the material of the earth that causes creation to spring forth into what we know as life. In the creation story at the beginning of the Gospel of John, the resulting creation is referred to as the Logos, which is Greek for Word. This Word is the spirit in an earthly body, or embodiment. The image of God’s creating power as Word follows from the Genesis description of creation occurring at God’s verbal command: “And God said, let there be…” This Word can perhaps be better understood as a strong, creative, vibratory impulse – an energy field – more than simply spoken words as we understand them. Our human ears only hear sounds in a very limited vibrational frequency range, but waves of energy exist along an infinite scale above and below our auditory limits. They arrange and rearrange matter in ways that we often consider destructive. Think, for example, of earthquakes, tsunamis, tidal waves, and storm fronts. These are powerful waves pulsing across the earth, often recreating whatever existed before it. A small-scale example of this is often the theme of science fair projects where a student shows how different sound waves arrange grains of sand on a hard surface into different patterns. Those patterns are consistent with and unique to the frequency of the energy, rearranging the sand as the wave frequency changes.

The point is that a part of God’s animating spirit – our soul – embodies itself in earthly garb in order to become the life we know as us. This is how we begin. Like Jesus, we are a perfect and unique blend of spirit and matter. Our physical body is animated by our ethereal soul. Unlike Jesus, however, we become so consumed in the physical nature of our being that we neglect, ignore, and even deny our spiritual nature. There is a story I’ve read in various forms where an older sibling, perhaps three or four years old, asks his younger sibling to tell him about God because he is starting to forget. By the time we begin school, by the time our intellectual functions of reason and logic begin to develop, we lose connection with the spirit and spiritual life which first animated our existence. Our ego takes root and focuses our conscious attention on the material aspects of our lives, or that which makes us comfortable, rich, famous, or otherwise desirable to others. Of course, none of what makes us comfortable, rich, famous, and desirable is inherently bad, but it is all a part of the earth and will die with our body.

This, then creates much of our fear of death – that we will lose our stuff, as well as everything we identified with during our earthly existence. The seduction of the temporal things of the earth leads us to overly identify with what will necessarily be annihilated at our physical death. Like the folks at the funeral of a rich man wondering how much of his fortune he left behind – he left all of it. When we forget about our eternal, spiritual nature, we fear there will be nothing left of us when we die. In actuality, our true self will remain, as it always has. As we learn to identify more with our eternal, spiritual nature, our dread of physical death lessens.

This is the 2nd in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

[1] Genesis 1:2

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