..."and a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the way of holiness; evil minded people shall not travel on it, but it shall be for those wayfarers who are traveling toward God. (Isaiah 35:8, adapted)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Process of Dying Daily

Much in our life experience is actually an experience
of death. Death surrounds us in many forms. Jesus
speaks much of death, but he speaks of it in widely
divergent ways. There is a death that produces
death, and there is a death that produces life.

How do I know that my experience of death will
result in the new life of resurrection or whether
I am simply dead in my sins--dead the worse
possible way? For in either case, a genuine death
occurs but of two completely varieties.

I love it when Jesus tells people that certain dead
people are "just sleeping." You really have to laugh.
We are human. We know dead. Lazarus is stone
cold dead. Dead 3 days in the hot sun dead.
Abutting the decomposition mode dead. Jesus,
however, tells his disciples that dear old Lazarus
is just "sleeping" John 11:11. Because they are
nowhere near smelling range of Lazarus, they
think he really is just "sleeping." "Ok," they say,
"that's a good sign, he'll rest and feel better." But
Lazarus is utterly dead. Sleeping won't help him
if Jesus doesn't do something.

Then there is the little girl who has died. Jesus
tells the family that she is "just sleeping"
(Mark 5:39.) His assessment of the situation is
not met with a lot of respect. The girl is dead.
I'm telling you, we are human. We know dead.
Jesus, stop being so mean to the family! But
Jesus is by no means "mean." Christ's
assessment of what dead is and my assessment
of what dead is, are two different things. In His
assessment, people can look to be completely
alive but really be "whitewashed sepulchres"
(Mat. 23:27) and completely without life. He
tells people to come and follow Him and "let
the dead bury their own dead (Mat 8:22) ."
Yes. Hmmm.

I notice that the early church picks up Jesus'
term of calling physically dead believers simply,
those who have "fallen asleep." Stephen "fell
asleep" (Acts 7:60) as he is stoned to death,
Paul preaches that David accomplishes his
earthly journey and "falls asleep" (Acts 13:36).
Many of the Lord's followers have "fallen
asleep," (I Cor 15:6, 18, 20); and that at the
Lord's table, many are sick or "have fallen
asleep" (I Cor 11:30). Those who die in the
Lord, fall under Jesus definition of "falling
asleep." Death has lost its cold, hard sting.
For I must say to you that we who are the
Lord's experience a real death process long
before we get to the grave. It begins, in
great measure, with our baptism. It by
no means ends there.

T.S. Eliot, reportedly reflecting on
his own baptism, in the poignant
poem: The Journey of the Magi

"All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen
birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
this Birth was Hard and bitter agony
for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old
dispensation, With an alien people
clutching their gods. I should be glad
of another death. "

Eliot reflects that the Magi coming to Jesus
know that everything will now change in
their lives. A certain death of the "old
dispensation" has come and will leave their
future uncertain. For make no mistake about
it, our baptism ushers us into a genuine death.
For what is death but a process of being put
out of the control of one's self? Our future as
believers is anything but uncertain, but before
we can enter into the glory of this heartfelt
knowing, a real death must come. A death that
sweeps us away from all that we have known
before. It is a complete death, and it is without
escape. It is not a physical death but the
experience of a spiritual one.

A death, our death, is what births us into our
new life: the life of God. Of course we are
already spiritually dead to begin with. Then
we come to a place of accepting God's
forgiveness and receiving His life. We are
baptized with Him into His death (Romans 6:3)
and all of our old identity dies with Him.
And then Jesus promises us the another
baptism, this time one of fire! First I will
be drowned, and then I shall be burned!
Dear Lord, shall there be anything left of
me? Well, if you put it in those terms it
seems to move away from the strictly
theological understanding to one
connected to our everyday lives.

Paul says, "I die daily"(I Cor. 15:31). Dying
to ourself is both a one-time event and a
continual process. If we were expecting clear
sailing every day, we would be very naive
sailors indeed. What we are not prepared
for is the intensity of the death that we will
experience. Not just a little scary ride through
the "fun house" but a force so overpowering,
that, well, it could only be Death.

Ah, but dear reader, our faith is about Life
and resurrection. Yes, but first we must speak
of death. And back to our question, how do I
know that I am dying unto Life, or dead into
eternal death? It is only by my simple, childlike
faith in Christ.

We must follow the Lord where He leads us. If
that be through death before it is through life,
and most assuredly it will be, then follow Him
we must. It is our faith in Him alone, faith
stripped naked and bare, that gives
us the assurance that we are kept by Him. Do
know that He himself has made this journey
before. Alone. He came forth the Victor. He did
it for us. He experienced the height and breadth
and depth of Death. For me. For you.

There will be days when we will be sure that death
has won over us. It is for those who are in those
days that I may be writing. To those I have but
one word of advice: Do not focus on the process of
death, but on the One in whom you have believed.
Death is meant to overwhelm us, and to conquer
our natural strength. It will finish us off unless we
reach our hearts ever so slightly to the One who
conquered death even from the midst of death.
We have all seen those movies where someone
has become so paralyzed that they
can only move the smallest part of their
finger to signal for help. It is no different with us.

Call unto Him, even if the call is seemingly
imperceptible, and He will not forsake you.
Death is real. Life is more REAL. Life is our
glorious Christ, risen from the dead. In Him
we most certainly die, but in fact, we have
fallen asleep in His arms.

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