When I was training for a marathon, I would fill my pockets with orange slices in Ziploc bags. As weariness snuck up, one or two slices popped in my mouth would push it back and give me strength to press on another few kilometers. God's words and His encouragement sometimes come in bite-sized slices -impressions, experiences, encounters - and are just enough to push weariness back and keep us pressing on a little further...

Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Beauty of Dying (November 25, 2011)

His eyes crinkled in the corners as he gazed across her face and looked up. The shadow of a wink passed with a twinkle, belying an ageless soul though he spoke of days more than sixty years back.

“We used to park out in the orchard,” he started, one gray bushy eyebrow barely raised with the saucy implication, “Back when we were dating”.  Her swat on his arm was fully expected but he continued, the softness of memory filling the aged cracks in his voice.

“She didn’t know, but I always turned the car so that the moonlight fell on her face”.  He looked at her, and she at him, the memory so vivid for them both that we who watched nearly saw the moon ourselves, beaming flashes of silver betwixt the golden rays of that late afternoon.  His weathered fingers reached for her arthritic ones, the years in between melting with that touch.  He sighed at the memory.  “It was a little slice of heaven.”

Nearly a year and a half ago she left him, bound for the heaven he saw slivers of in her face.  Last week, he joined her.   Tonight I look up at the silvery moon that kissed them both, hoping for a glimpse of the magic that bound them in their orchard and under every moonlit sky since.

Pop’s passing comes during the season that has long astonished me.  Autumn, for all intents and purposes, is the season of dying.  Trees, flowers, grass - every green and colored thing that once bloomed with freshness and promise in the rites of spring now struggles for breath, leaning into the brittleness of death.  The glorious sweeping boughs of summer now bend barren and bald in chilly November winds.

And yet, there is a loveliness to autumn that no other season possesses.  Showers of golden rain fall beneath those windswept branches, tawny leaves drip like honey down a sweet blue sky.   Other leaves blaze red and rust, carrot and tangerine; a thousand subtle shades span the gap between red and yellow, and the trees of autumn boast them all.  Their fire is quelled now and again by splashes of pine and evergreen, a contrast that only fills the graceful swan song of flaming foliage with greater poignancy.       

I admit that my eyes get hungry this time of year.  Whether the sun slants bold through fiery vistas or the gray of overcast drizzle forces browning leaves to loosen their ever more fragile grasp on trembling branches, I (too aware the coming white of winter), thirst for the sight of it.  It is a crisp elegance, an aching beauty, one that overtakes the senses, toasting the soul though cheeks and nose are reddened by frosty winds.  I am drawn to all manner of windows with a rabid sense of wonder.

Every gilded leaf yielding to its inevitable delicate dive, every breath laced with the scent of scuffled forest paths, the evolution of painted fields from green to blistered gold to earthy shades of emptiness hums the repeated refrain of autumn I cannot escape: even death is beautiful.

The admission of it grates at first on our understanding of life’s mechanisms.  We instinctively fight for life, grasping for even feeble breaths, venerating those who are robust and strong.  Though the doldrums of daily existence may dominate our hours, there beats beneath them a hunger to thrive, a desperate longing for the tangible taste of life, verdant and green, blooming with possibility and hope.  We are jealous of those who posses it and pity those who we suspect never will.  Life, after all, is LIFE and better than the alternative.

Yet, the God who drips gold on dying trees and covers the corpse of last season’s earth with blankets of startling white gives us no indication that any stage of our existence is wasted.  In fact, He speaks of death as a necessary path to life, a loosening of our fragile grasp on meaningless things, forcing the inevitable delicate dive from our trembling sense of self-sufficiency into His all too capable waiting arms.

“We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?  Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
If we have been united with Him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, He cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over Him. The death He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life He lives, He lives to God.  In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”Romans 6:2-11

It seems, then, that death is a gift.  How fitting that the Author of autumn should hide beauty even in the most feared of experiences.  Truly living is a voluntary dying, a continual turning from myself to Him, a steady replacing of my wandering feet into His footsteps.  Surrendered souls savor the flavor of tangible life and when I strike out on my own, I discover (again) that nothing else can taste as sweet.    

There are days I feel cords of selfishness and foolishness reaching around to bind me, thick strands of pride pulling me down and away from the verdant possibility of hope I know resides in the presence of my God.   Struggling against them is useless; I am weak and feeble on my own.  Although my ears are deafened and I grapple with a sense of being utterly alone, my mind holds tight to God's promises and I know what I cannot always hear - He calls me to Himself.  The challenge at that point is to reorient my soul, to point my heart resolutely in His direction, no matter how loudly the rest of me protests.  It is then I must remember that even death is beautiful – dying to my desires is a fiery process sometimes, but one that proves golden when I find myself breathless and alive again on the other side.

The rhythm of earth echoes the rhythm of life which, in truth, is simply the echo of our souls: the spring of new birth gives way to a summer of growth, culminating in the glorious dying harvest of autumn; the grave of winter melts again into a spring of rebirth.  My life is the continual incarnation of this rhythm, living, growing, reaping, dying, being resurrected from each struggle with temptation.  It is a crisp elegance, an aching beauty, the overtaking of my soul.    

God is the goodness and the strength calling me to Himself.  He reaches out as I strain against the cords of my sin, shattering the brittleness of death when I ask Him to bring me back to life.  It is His to be the life within me, continually making me new.  It is mine to not fear the most feared demise, to let go the trembling branches and die to self, turning with every ounce of spiritual might my soul back to Him.  When I do, His light shines on my face and I am bathed with a beauty not my own.  It’s a little slice of heaven.      

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