Practicing Dying

Hair flipping outside her helmet, knees narrowly missing the silver handlebars, with a fierce  yet wobbly determination, my daughter gripped the handles of her bubblegum-pink bicycle freshly shorn of its training wheels.  “Don’t get ahead of yourself,” I said.  “No need to worry about whether or not you are going to fall because you are definitely going to fall.  So first, let’s practice falling.  When you get the hang of falling, maybe you will be less afraid of riding your bike.”

I don’t remember all the details about how I was taught to ride a bike.  I don’t remember if someone tried to steady my shoulders as I balanced on the hefty banana seat.  I don’t remember if I was coached to look out, not down.  But I am fairly certain no one helped me learn how to fall, and no one assured me that I would fall before I had even tried to ride.

I don’t remember being taught about falling, but I have been hearing all of my life about the fact that I will die someday.  Mostly, I heard this in church and from church people.  Sunday school lessons and a fair number of sermons were primarily concerned with my death (and anybody else’s who happened to be present).  All of us will die.  I was encouraged to live with my death before me.  Would I be ready when the time came?

“Give your heart to Jesus because when you die you want to go to heaven and not burn in the fiery pit of hell,” they said.

“On the day of judgement, when you stand before the throne of God, having left behind this earthly life, you will have to account for all that you have done and all that you have left undone.  Live today as if it is your last,” they said.

“If you leave this place tonight, if you die in a car wreck on the way home, will your soul be in eternal peace with Jesus?” they asked.

I believe these statements, and others like them, were intended to help me live a more full and loving life.  If I could be free of the fear of dying and death, I would be free to live as a person motivated by agape love, a person characterized by faith, a person grounded in hope.  I think these admonitions were supposed to encourage me and provide a foundation of perseverance when I found doing the “right” thing too hard or too loathsome or too boring.  In a way, the church was saying, “You are going to fall.  Maybe you won’t be afraid of falling if you know how to do it well.”

I am born to die.  You are born to die.  We are all going to die because life encompasses death.  As a person of Christian faith, how I proceed to my death, how I recognize and negotiate the terms of my death, how I incorporate the eventuality of my “falling” into death has the potential to give balance to my wobbly life and to serve as a reminder to look out, not down.  The problem is that the primary ways I was taught to practice dying were built on fear – fear of failing to return God’s love, fear of God’s disapproval, fear that I (or anyone else) would be too weak to choose the leading of God’s Spirit if the punishment and reward failed to be utterly persuasive.  The problem is that focusing solely on this system of punishment and reward seems to disregard prevenient grace, the grace of God at work in us before we are able to respond, the divine spark within human beings that longs to be united with the All Consuming Fire of God’s love.  This emphasis on the reward and punishment which accompanies death seems to belittle God’s ability to woo us as God’s Beloved and to demean the capability of God’s Spirit within us to reciprocate God’s love.  Cannot God’s love do more than we can ask or imagine?  Cannot God’s love defeat the power of death?

I am still practicing dying but in a way more akin to falling or maybe sky-diving.  My practice of dying is less rooted in imagining a certain home in a Revelation kind of heaven (though many times I find great comfort seeing my loved ones walking streets of gold or strolling in peaceful green pastures).  Instead, my practice of dying is unveiled in a daily acknowledgement of my limited self and an awareness of the cosmic nature of God in Christ.  I practice dying by letting go into the unknown, immeasurable, immense nature of God’s presence that has known me before I was born, that knit me together in my mother’s womb, and that will receive me in death – though I do not know exactly how.  I practice dying by trust-falling into the presence of God when I am still and quiet and simply breathing, an experimental existing non-existence.

Why do I practice dying?  Because I believe I will live a fuller, richer, more abundant life if I see my death as part of my life.  I practice dying because I believe that the fear of death, in its many forms, is the cause of most human suffering.  Afraid of the death of a relationship, we manipulate and control the other or ourselves.  Afraid of the death of a way of life, we seek any and all means to prop up failing circumstances never counting the cost of greed and an unquenchable thirst for power.  Fearing the death of our influence, we fail to give ourselves in service to others or to promote a way of living which mirrors a wounded and suffering Christ.  Fearing the death of another’s approval, perceptions, or affirmation of us as “good people,” we fail to expose weakness, vulnerability, and struggle and so keep up the pretense (in cooperation with many around us) that we aren’t “one of those people,” all the while forgetting that healing is  undeniably tied to our willingness to uncover our wounds before the loving gaze of Grace.  I practice dying because I believe that fear and unconditional love exist at cross purposes to one another.  I John 4:18 says it much better than I can.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” 

So, if you were to ask me to give you some tips on learning how to live well, I would say, “It’s like riding a bike.  Learn how to fall, and maybe you will be less afraid.  Maybe you will then be able to look out, not down.”

bike riding

How have you practiced being less afraid of death?

© Amy Persons Parkes 2013

14 thoughts on “Practicing Dying

  1. As a teen, someone said to me ‘look at the worst possible thing that can happen’ they said.’if you can handle that, you can handle the rest of the matters that come your way.’
    We were not allowed to panic as student nurses. We learned to deal with death and then to deal with all the measures needed to sustain life. We learned more about life/death in our first year than many folk learn in a lifetime.
    At a bible study with Sam, we were introducing ourselves with a short statement of why we were ther. I said that I was preparing for my finals.
    ‘nothing imminent, I hope’ was Sam’s reply. LOL

    • Liz, as a nurse you do know more about death than many. Sometimes I am concerned that our Western culture has separated the “places” of death too much outside the regular life of people, and I find so many people are surprised by death and do have any familiarity with death before they have to deal with their own deaths or a loved one’s. And as usual, your humor is appreciated! Thank you!

  2. We sing I,ll fly away at church. I change the last verse and proudly sing..just a lot more happy days and then I,ll fly away. I refuse to say just a few more weary days are happy and I love life. I am not afraid of death..I just have lots to live for and my faith is not based on fear but my trust in God,s grace. Miss you!

    • Thank you, Liz. I love the way you change the verses and tell a different story, your story. Phyllis Tickle has a wonderful video in that talks about her near death experience and how that removed any fear of death for her. If only all human beings were willing or able to offer themselves up to trusting. As for me, some days I’m better at trusting than other days. Miss you, too, friend!

  3. Amy,
    Thank you for your clarity of Presence in the here & now. Like the old fellow said, “Keep a looking up, ye’ll see more”. Fear always finds you looking down. And falling? Some of my most vivid moments of vision & insight came in the act of “falling”… all are lessons well learned… and you can’t get up looking down at where you fell.

    • Oh, how I love to hear from you! Thank you for writing this note and for your reminder that falling has so much to teach. Sending my love to you and yours; you are often in my thoughts.

  4. Thanks, Amy. I’m still sometimes afraid of the death of some of those things you mentioned, but by grace I’m learning to look out more often. Say hello to Sam for me.

  5. I’m not a Christian, but I don’t have to be to appreciate the raw honesty and beauty in this blog entry. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Leigh, wow – that is a big thing for me to hear, and I am grateful for your response. Thank you.

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