WHAT I’M LEARNING ABOUT DEATH & LIFE

 

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My son brought a furry caterpillar home with him from our camping trip at the Wild Goose Festival. He found his new friend on our tent, and he named it Cali the caterpillar after one of his cousins. He played with it all morning as we prepared to leave North Carolina and head back to Georgia.

As we sat on the ground and listened to Frank Schaeffer speak in the closing session of the festival, Eliot showed that caterpillar to everyone around us, and when Frank was done speaking, Eliot ran up to him and introduced him as well. Frank put his hands on Eliot’s face and spoke a kind word of blessing over him, saw in him a love for all created things. He played with his caterpillar the whole drive home, watching it crawl around in a cup, on his leg, in the palm of his hand. He brought it home and put it in a bug container where it stayed all night.

But the next morning, we found him, and he’d died. His furriness was gone and he was tiny and broken looking. My son wept.

Later that day, we found out that a dog we’d owned years ago before gladly passing him onto someone else in our family had been put to sleep. We looked at the photo of Charlie and Eliot. We told stories about him, we laughed and we cried. We had a full day of memorializing his life with us.

 

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12Eighty-One Photography

 

Our husky, Sam, is also growing old. He’s slowed down dramatically over the last few weeks, and we can see it in his eyes–he’s holding on with us, but he’s tired. So we stroke his fur a little more gently now, we tell him he’s a good dog more often than not, and we cherish the moments we’ve got with him. But death is always in mind.

 

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Photo by Travis Curtice

 

The boys ask a lot of questions about life and death, a lot of questions about how people and creatures grow old, how health fails and bodies grow frail. As parents, we want to avoid these topics sometimes, but it’s better that we don’t. It’s better that we talk about it and process it so that when it comes, we know what it looks like and feels like, what it tastes like and sounds like. We need to know it with our human senses so that our souls can try to comprehend it.

Death is difficult and complicated and everyone experiences it in different ways. I reminded my five year old son that he had really wonderful moments with this caterpillar on the drive home and the morning he found him on our tent, and to hold on to those memories.

It may seem silly, but it’s a life lesson.

We make memories here and now with those around us, so that when they pass on, we have something to hold on to.

And sometimes, if we let it, death is a doorway into life, into becoming more of ourselves when someone we love leaves us. It is a way to mark our humanity, to mark our dust-to-dustness. 

And sometimes death comes in the close of one season and the opening of another, when one thing ends and another thing begins. Even there, death plays a part in our lives, helps usher us into a new space.

Last week I served my last Sunday as worship leader at the church we’ve called home for a few years. As I drove to the church one Sunday morning, God reminded me that faith is a kind of stretching, and that it’s often painful.

 

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Photo by Kristen Koger

But it’s death and life. As I leave some things that I’ve known for a while now to step into whatever is next on the horizon, I’m acknowledging life and death. I’m acknowledging that when we end, we also begin—steps into a new and unknown journey.

We talk all the time about how, as individuals, we live and die, so that we can be reborn again and again. Do we not allow that same gospel message to reach the church, and those outside the church as people trying to find our way to the kingdom of God?

What if death wasn’t something we feared, the journey ending to make space for a new beginning?

What if this era of the church is making way for a new era, something we don’t understand but something God has always seen on the horizon? Instead of fighting it, we get to embrace it and let it teach us.

If we acknowledge that death is natural, it doesn’t mean we’re saying it’s easy.

It’s hard. It’s really, really hard, and healing doesn’t always show up the way we want it to.

But the world has taught us from the beginning that life and death are what keep us going, and we can’t deny that it’s the journey we’re called to.

May we be kind to one another along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

A Lesson Among Graves: where there is death, there is life

The National Cemetary downtown has graves stretching in every direction.

And instead of a harrowing fear of ghosts and ghouls, you experience the beauty of a botanical garden and an array of sculptures, all bringing life to a city of headstones and tombs.

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As we strolled the brick walkway in the chillled morning, I explained to my oldest son what it’s all for, how we remember each other by the place where some of us are laid to rest.

It’s a history lesson. It’s years and years carved into stone, memories that we’ll never intimately know, but that we can imagine in the broadness of daylight.

We looked into the iron doors of tombs, families placed under one roof in death, like they’d once been in life.

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And we didn’t think any harder than we needed to. We didn’t expound on the implications of death in our society, the taboos and horror stories related to haunted graveyards and creepy resting places.

We just walked in the sunlight and examined stillness. We just watched bees gather and butterflies sip from the freshly bloomed yellows.

We ate our grapes and pretzels in the shade of a tree, we watched the pooling water of a table-turned-birdbath, and we put our fingers in the brown dirt while a Mister and Misses Someone rested far beneath us, under those same trees.

There is death somewhere in all of us. There’s a dying, a grieving and burial of something from ages past. But there’s more life in us, more breathing and pulsing and exchanging moment and moments of community every single day.

Even in the tombstoned town where we walked, life walked with us.

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In Death’s Hovering

I don’t understand much about Death. In fact, I barely know his face or the smell of his breath. I’ve never experienced him close enough to feel the constant hover of his shadow, but this week he’s been nearer. A friend’s mother died suddenly; my parents lost one friend to a failed heart, and another breathed irregularly in the comfort of hospice until he quietly went home.

I am swimming, flailing, really, in overwhelming empathy, and it feels uncontrollable. And I wonder how God possibly handles the grief of the world, how He collects our tears when they are so, so many.
Here in this household we have life. In this bed I lay by warm bodies and I hear breath and I watch chest rise, fall, rise, fall. A dream-wimper. A twitching finger. Life.

One day, though, it will all be gone and it will all be quiet in the shadow for a moment, until great light takes us and we see breathing turn stagnant in lungs. We fear the day, but we think on it. Of the last moments, we think, “What will we think? What will we say and promise and do? For how long will our eyes meet and how tender will our embrace become?”

I grieve with these friends, pray over them from the Georgia border, and trust that peace spans all boundaries- especially fleshy ones. A friend said that in the face of this Death, she holds her loved ones a little bit tighter to remember the life that passes between them.

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The light of the sun beamed over Isaiah and me, and we felt the warmth on the cool, breezy day. We walked the chilled paths of grass and poked at each other with weeds. We smiled and he cooed “BALL!” and all was cherished.

We choose to pass life back and forth between us, and we make all of this living brighter and kinder, even as Death hovers, and we prepare for all of it.

We prepare for all of it by living now, our hearts and flesh joined together in embraces unending.

I don’t understand much about Death. But life’s been pretty sweet. I’m hanging onto that nectar a while longer.