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Dying Before We Die, Part 2

 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… Ecclesiastes 3:1-2a

Nature has no edges. Sharp, straight edges and clear lines of demarcation are human, not divine inventions. In my former work as a landscape designer, much of my work was to soften the edges created by the human need for distinct lines of separation. As such, it should come as no surprise that dying is not a precise occurrence. The medical definition of physical death is the cessation of all vital bodily functions. Sometimes, however, people come back to life after having been pronounced dead. Some have quite interesting stories to tell of the experience. I was told after my father’s death that some bodily functions would continue for some time, like hair growth. I had the opportunity to spend considerable time with my mother and grandmother as they passed from this life. Both transitioned over a period of weeks as they gradually withdrew from their material interests. Awakening and finding themselves still in this reality was not always a pleasant experience for either of them. They were becoming familiar with their new destination and were ready to move on.

We all are dying all of the time, even though our final, physical death may be many years away. Death is an on-going process. An estimated 50-70 million cells in our bodies die each day through a natural process called apoptosis. The inescapable cycle for all earthly life is birth, growth, decline, and death. Each stage is its own wonderful process and occurs in its own time. And the stages overlap. We see and accept the pattern all around us, but we have difficulty seeing or accepting it within ourselves. Each new day births with a sunrise, matures its way to sunset, and dies into night. The passing of a single day does not diminish the number of days. Seasons move deliberately from spring to summer to fall to winter – birth, growth, decline, death – only to repeat the cycle over and over again. What we know from nature but deny in ourselves is that death is not the end of life. Rather, death moves life to its next phase. Death is transformational, not terminal. The cellular and structural combinations forming everything around us must decline and die in order for its elements to be reborn as something new.

Our souls draw physical elements from the earth in order to embody themselves for a time. When that time is complete, the soul releases the physical elements back to the earth and both soul and elements move on to a new adventure. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. We cannot stop the sun from rising any more than we can prevent our own maturation. All things happen in their own sovereign time. When we let an unhealthy addiction die, when we move beyond an emotional wound, when we cease clinging to the tyranny of a painful injustice, we die before we die. We take control of something that has been controlling us. We recycle the energy that was required for the maintenance of the old and free it for something new. The season for that is over; now is the season for this. It is all part of the beautifully relentless cycle of birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth. Our life is an endless series of second chances. All are glorious gifts from our Creator.

A contemplative life tunes itself to the natural rhythms of our physical and spiritual being through contemplative practices. We assess the parts of our lives that are no longer useful, and in the spirit of dying before we die, we allow those parts to be recycled as their season passes. In this progressive and eternal context, there is no good or evil because, together, all things move us toward the perfection of God’s creation. In the Revelation to John (21:5), Christ says, “See, I am making all things new.” Our pain, our suffering, the injustices of the world all work to set the course upon which our collective life is relentlessly heading. Those combinations that move us toward a more inclusive and just existence are strengthened, and those working in the other direction are recycled. Nothing is wasted or lost. It seems a slow process, but in the context of eternity, there is no rush. Rather, for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.

This is the 8th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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Dying Before We Die, Part 1

 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  Romans 8:13-14

Many people fear death more than anything else, including spiders and snakes. This is understandable since the life we perceive through our senses is the only life we know with any certainty. Whenever a loved one dies, our senses no longer receive evidence of their presence, so we assume they either no longer exist or they have traveled somewhere far away from us. We do not know, and not knowing makes us uneasy. When someone dies, he or she is just gone, leaving us with grief and questions. We feel sorrow for those who die young and celebrate those who live into their 90’s and beyond, as if our physical existence were more about the quantity of days than the quality. We cannot get a logical handle on death because it defies logic, and that makes us squirm.

Christian mystics talk about death regularly. So did Jesus. Scientific, irreversible, physical death occurs once for us, and most of us go to great lengths to deny its nearness and delay its arrival. We are not anxious to come to the end of the only life we know. And that is exactly the problem with the education most of us receive – the life we know is but a small part of the life we are. The apostle Paul names two aspects of existence. In his letter to the Romans, as well as in other writings in the New Testament, Paul distinguishes between “the flesh” and “the Spirit,” making clear that both were present there and then, just as they continue to be present here and now. The word flesh is Paul’s code word for our ego’s interpretation of the concrete world of the senses – what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. It is easy to read Paul in a way that assumes he condemns the world of flesh, but that understanding is incomplete. Paul wants us to know that our ego’s view of the world of the flesh is only one part of our life. It is the impermanent, temporary part. It is also a beautiful, seductive part that can tempt us into actions that are inconsistent with and antagonistic to the larger, immortal, and invisible part of life, which is the realm of Spirit. Paul writes, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die.” This is the death we know is coming, the death of the flesh. If we identify solely with our ego’s experience of the flesh, our physical death will be the end of the little we know ourselves to be

On the other hand, according to Paul, if we live by the Spirit, we will live. This poses a difficult dilemma to reconcile – the tangible pull of the flesh vs the ethereal speculation about the Spirit. In fact, the dilemma cannot be reconciled; it can only be accepted, embraced, and lived. Fortunately for us, dying to “the flesh” does not have to mean physical death. Paul encourages us to live in the flesh, tempered with the knowledge and perspective of the Spirit. Our physical existence is a tangible manifestation of the Spirit, so the two are not separate. The flesh is not evil, nor is our ego, but they can be misleading and the cause of much unnecessary pain and suffering, both to ourselves and to others. Paul says, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (emphasis added).

Dying before we die does not mean ending our life in the flesh before its time. Rather, it means letting go of our attachment to and identification with that which has no permanence. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Dying before we die is resetting our priorities, being intentional about what we choose to treasure, and saying “Goodbye” to that which serves no eternal purpose. In this way, our lives are made whole – body and spirit as one – and we become children of God. Both body and Spirit are beautiful and together create the fullness we long to experience in this phase of life.

A contemplative life seeks an inclusive balance between the flesh and the Spirit, experiencing and enjoying the pleasures of the flesh within the context and under the guidance of the Spirit.

This is the 7th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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Peace! Be Still!

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. Mark 4:39

Jesus had been teaching to a crowd on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. Evening came and Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” Jesus fell asleep in the back of the boat when a “great windstorm” arose and threatened to swamp the boat. His disciples woke him up and said, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus got up and rebuked the wind, saying to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind stopped blowing and “there was a dead calm.” Jesus said to his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

How many times in life have we felt beaten and drenched by the winds and rain of life’s challenges and wondered, “Lord, do you not care that I am perishing?” Serious health issues, suffering loved ones, job insecurities, troubled relationships, bills piling up – name any issue and many people experience the feeling of drowning under that particular pressure. Difficult times seem to attract more difficult times. Old wife’s tails like “God will never give you more than you can handle” are discouraging, at best, if not patently false. Even so, Jesus looks out over our situation and says, “Peace! Be still!” In my experience, the seas have always calmed, although seldom on my timeline. During the calm after the storm, I hear Jesus patiently whisper, “Have you no faith?”

And yet, this is our journey. Iron is sharpened by iron, and our faith is strengthened by our challenges. Anyone can be faithful when life is easy. Life, however, is never smooth for long. Our emotions rise and fall like the waves, turbulent and rough one moment and smooth as glass the next. We tend to believe we have life under control during our moments of calm, only to experience something that sends us flailing in the waves again. We become victims of our emotions, unless and until we learn to rise above the turbulence of our surroundings to the dead calm of Christ.

A little-understood fact of life is that there is no security, no stability, and no calm outside of our total reliance upon the provision of God. There is no bank account large enough, no home solid enough, no body healthy enough, no relationship strong enough to stand against every storm that may come. There is no insurance policy comprehensive enough to assure the restoration of life to a previous state. Everything of the earth deteriorates and dies, as has been true for billions of years. Our world is in a state of constant flux as God creates and recreates new life in its stunning diversity. If we are unwilling to consciously change with our surroundings, we will be worn down like a boulder stubbornly fixed in the middle of a raging river. The wearing down over time, however, will not be the fault of the river or the rock – it is simply the nature of creation.

Perhaps when Jesus looked out over the stormy sea and said, “Peace! Be still!” it was as much a command to his frightened disciples as it was to the sea. “Trust me – I’ve got this,” may be another helpful translation. Yes, life will be rough. But it is our own resistance to what is that makes it so. It is our lack of faith that is on display, not God’s lack of care for who we are at our essence, which is eternal.

Some changes to our world – hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, fires – cause immeasurable suffering to many of the individual lives who inhabit it. But life, as a whole, survives and thrives. Individual life on earth was never intended to be permanent because the earth must continually redistribute the elements that compose our bodies and all of creation into new life forms. We are blind to the grace of every circumstance because we mourn what we believe we have lost instead of rejoicing in what is gained.

Jesus’ words, “Peace! Be still!” are a directive, calling us to trust God’s sometimes-raging river. When we strap ourselves in and commit to enjoying the ride wherever it takes us, we are less likely to be consumed by the seeming tragedies that occur along the way. We, too, will perish in God’s stormy sea one day. Paradoxically, only then will we truly know the peace of Christ. Until that day, faith is our best option.

This is the 38th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 7: Resurrection is a Reoccurring Reality

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24

I do not know how I missed it, but resurrection is all around us, all of the time. To be sure, it is called by different names – the changing seasons, graduations, marriages, childbirth, death, sunrise, sunset – but the changing from one stage of life to another is constant. The cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth is forever present in us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

As a Christian, I associate resurrection with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What I missed, however, was that the same pattern is repeated in all of life as a natural, ongoing process, albeit not always in as dramatic a fashion. The resurrection of Jesus is the core belief of Christianity, and the resurrection – having its central figure return to life from death – is the distinguishing feature separating it from other enduring religions.

Among Christians, we debate about how much of the biblical record we believe literally, but we tend to overlook how much of the lives recorded therein serve as a metaphor for our lives and the life around us. Science confirms that rebirth is an ongoing process. Every cell in our bodies is replaced at least every 7 years, so we are entirely remade many times over the course of our lives. Jesus talks about wheat in the passage from John 12. He says unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and “dies,” it will forever remain only a single grain of wheat. Once the seed dies, however, it grows into a plant that forms a seed head with hundreds of grains of wheat. When those grains fall to the earth and die, thousands of grains of wheat result. Knowing that, did the initial grain of wheat die, or did it transform its existence? Clearly, it was transformed, and so are we whenever a part of us dies. When Jesus rose from the dead, he was not the same person in the same body. He was transformed. Even his own disciples did not recognize him until he spoke.

The moral of resurrection is that change is good and necessary. New life cannot begin until an old life passes away. This is rebirth, and death is its prerequisite. It is what provides second chances and new starts. Much as we may feel safe and secure in our current life, nothing remains the same for long. We are designed for change, and we are led into numerous transformations over the course of a lifetime. We can change willingly, or we can go kicking and screaming. Either way, we will die to our old self and be reborn to a new one.

Resurrection is a reoccurring reality. How did I miss that?

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