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We all will experience it.
Does it matter?
Does it matter how we die?
Death is something we all must think about, especially as physician assisted suicide becomes more and more accepted in our world.
If, as I argued last week, there is a created order to all things and therefore the way we think about and live out all things matters, then it matters how we think about death and dying.
If we do not, our culture will.
And we may not like our culture’s decisions.
As life becomes more individualistic, so does death.
Most of us, when asked our preferred manner of dying, would say that we would rather slip away peacefully in our sleep without any warning.
For most of Christian history, the answer would have been different.
A common prayer was A subitanea morte, liber nos, Domine – From a sudden death, deliver us, O Lord.
Why? Christians understood that they existed in community. They understood that they were interwoven with the people around them and they wanted the chance to say their goodbyes, to make right any lingering feuds.
We seem to have become more frightened of death.
There are two extremes in our culture, neither of which seem to fall within the confines of our Christian faith.
The first is to preserve life at all costs.
The quality of that life receives no consideration; doctors are asked to keep people alive regardless of the misery in which they may be existing.
It is a fear of death that keeps people clinging to a pale semblance of life.
The second is to end life prematurely.
It is autonomy run amok, autonomy that says I have the right to do whatever I wish with my life, including the right to end it, autonomy that rejects our creatureliness, our dependence on God.
It is a fear of a life that is “less than” that sends people seeking the oblivion of death.
We, as Christians, can accept death. We can recognize that God holds all times in His hands, that there is a time to live and a time to die, and when it is our time to die we are held close in those hands.
I have watched one I love recognize this and choose quality of his last days over the miserable clinging to a side-effect filled life that might have gained him a few months in the span of a full life well lived.
We, as Christians, can resist death. We can use the power of medicine to heal and see it as a gift of God for gaining more time to love those around us and to do His work, to bring His kingdom rule here on earth.
I have watched many I love fight for life while there was still hope and accept whatever was given to them by the hands of God.
What we, as Christians, cannot do is to accept either extreme of avoiding death at all costs or aiming at death with all purpose.
We must all consider it.
Does the manner of our death matter?
Culture is making its decisions.
Will we make ours?
Thanks to Dr. Todd Daly for his research and thoughts on this topic.
I pray that writing about my own feeble beginnings with this Habit are encouraging to you. As I wrote last week, for any who, like me, are just beginning to explore this idea of retreating with God, of spending “wilderness time” with Him, I don’t want you to come away with the idea that I am any good at this. I am experimenting and stumbling in this new Discipline, yet am convinced that the practice of it is worth my fumblings. Whichever new Discipline you are determined to begin, do not be discouraged when you are not proficient from the beginning.
For my second period of retreat with God, I went to a local church. I almost left before I even went in because of signs threatening dire consequences if I parked there. I could feel a war waging inside of me, but I had nowhere else to go so I entered the church with a quick prayer that my car would still be there when I returned.
A lady in the church showed me the sanctuary and was very hospitable, making sure I had what I needed, even offering to find a minister with whom I could speak if I so desired. After assuring her that I truly did simply want solitude and silence, I sat in a pew and again tried to simply be still.
I find that I am most drawn to the presence of God in the presence of beauty, and so my eyes and my heart were drawn to the stained glass on either side of the sanctuary. It was a rainy day, which made the figures in the glass difficult to see, but I attempted to discern the story each section was telling. I asked the Spirit to speak to me through each Biblical story depicted. I again struggled to still my thoughts so that I could hear God.
There was a striking cross on the wall at the front of the room, with a glowing light coming from behind. My eye, however, was drawn to another cross. It was a plain, rough-hewn wooden cross, lying on its side on the floor. There often seems to be an inner beauty to a rugged cross that is missing from one that is more ornate.
Henri Nouwen suggests using just one word or phrase over and over in an attempt to bring your mind down to your heart. I used a phrase from Elizabeth Goudge’s writing: “Lord, have mercy. Into Thy hands. Thee I adore.” Again, either my thoughts took over or I repeated that phrase in vain, without any success of emptying myself so that God could fill me.
I don’t know what to expect, neither do I understand exactly for what I am hoping. I pray that I will know it when it happens.
I ended my wilderness time by participating in an Ash Wednesday service. Included in the service was a liturgical confession spoken by the entire church. This drove home to me both the terrible heft of my sin and the truth that all of us in the Church are sinners together, falling short of the glory of God. I will never understand the reasons why Jesus bore our consequence, and all I can do is to offer my thanksgiving to our Father.
I went forward to receive the ashes. The priest marked my forehead with the ashy shape of the cross, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “You are marked by the cross and the forgiveness of Christ.” The weight of that struck my heart and, at least in that moment, I understood that if I never in my life hear from God except through Scripture, He has given me more gift than I deserve.
Whether or not I ever have the joy of having a tangible experience of God’s presence, I trust in His promise to always be with me. He asks me to spend time in the wilderness with Him, and so I will obey, whether or not He ever chooses to allow me to experience His presence in ways that I can comprehend.
Art credits: all cathedral photographs are by the talented Kirk Sewell; candle photographs are copyright 2018 by the mediocre Made Sacred
I thought it might be helpful (and amusing) for you to read about my first experience with an extended time (eight hours) of practicing this Discipline of silence and solitude.
For any who, like me, are just beginning to explore this idea of retreating with God, of spending “wilderness time” with Him, I don’t want you to come away with the idea that I am any good at this. I am experimenting and stumbling in this new Discipline, yet am convinced that the practice of it is worth my fumblings. Whichever new Discipline you are determined to begin, do not be discouraged when you are not proficient from the beginning.
“I think of what the Desert Fathers said of the spiritual life. We are always beginners. We fall and we rise, we fall and we rise.” Judith Valente in Atchison Blue
As it was my first time to spend so many hours alone with God, I strove to hold my expectations for this wilderness time lightly, but I will confess that I came away disappointed. I had hoped to experience God in some way, to feel that I had truly met with Him, but I ended my time feeling more like I had failed. I was encouraged afterward by my professor who confessed that he, too, struggled when he first began this Discipline. It was encouraging to know that I am not the only one who didn’t have intimate moments on the first try, that I only need to persevere. This is one of the few areas in which my stubbornness can serve me well.
I began my time wandering a path through some woods that are a short drive from my home. It was cold and snowy, and I was struck by the stark beauty of the bare tree limbs against the bright blue sky, the kind of blue that only seems to happen in the crisp cold of winter. I spoke to God as I walked and tried to listen. The silence all around me helped, but it was difficult to still my thoughts. I considered the imagery of walking a path as I wandered, praying that the Holy Spirit would guide me in this pursuit of Him.
I sat for a long time on a large stone, watching a stream that was mostly frozen over. Just below the icy surface I could see the water racing furiously. My mind kept trying to consider how I could use this experience in my writing, and I kept trying to rein it back in. I felt fairly disgusted with myself for trying to use my wilderness time for non-spiritual gain, but I simply kept confessing my struggle to God and asking His Spirit to help me keep my thoughts on Him.
As I walked, I came across an outdoor chapel. There were large logs lined up in rows for seats, so I sat and tried again to be still. A rough-hewn cross was set up at the front of the chapel and I tried to keep my eyes and my heart focused on it. I don’t know how long I sat there, but after awhile I felt that I should kneel before that cross. So I obeyed and began confessing my sins as I knelt. For a brief moment, I felt an overwhelming gratitude for all that the cross meant, for Christ’s death and forgiveness. Then I was distracted by the creaking of the trees in the breeze and the moment was lost.
My path took me across the road to a cemetery. It is almost impossible to wander through a cemetery and not be filled with thoughts of life and death. As the path meandered around the tombstones, I read the messages of hope inscribed on many of them, messages of hope in the coming life for those whose lives are hidden in Christ. The small stones with dates that spanned only days or months were weightier than those whose dates spanned full lifetimes. I spoke with God about my own children, asking Him to give me the courage to remember that they belong to Him and not to me.
Just next to the cemetery is a chapel. It is a small, white, clapboard building, with a simple beauty to it. There are two aging family Bibles set under glass and I wondered what sorts of people had handled those pages, what tears and laughter had fallen over those words. I sat in the wooden pews for a long time and attempted to just be.
I tried so very hard to empty out my own thoughts so that I could hear God speaking to me. It is difficult to know what to expect when listening for an unseen Spirit. I am a very solid introvert, and a mother of four little ones, therefore I cherish my snatched moments of being alone, yet my introvertedness also gives me a rich inner world and I often have a difficult time stilling that world. I did not succeed this time. It is difficult to quiet my thoughts and listen to a voice deep underneath my own self. I left the church and walked slowly back through the woods to my car.
I had to break my wilderness time into two parts. As this post is already too long for most of you to reach the end, I will share the second half of my time next week.
Art credits: Photographs of snowy woods with cabin and snowy woods with fence are by Kirk Sewell; all other photographs copyright 2018 Made Sacred