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

Advertisements

A Girl Catching Bees

Like a hair perm gone terribly awry, frizzed, unmanageable, and impossibly unkempt, the wisteria tendrils and shoots amassed around the base of the towering black walnut tree in the side yard of Grannie’s house, that is, until sometime in late February or early March when the unruly mass of vines inconceivably transformed into a living, throbbing, buzzing island of lavender blossoms, green stems, and black-headed and yellow-headed bumble bees.  The wisteria was alive with color and sound, alive with an invisible cloud of perfume luring the bees and me to her tangled mess; the wisteria with her siren song of smell secreted pheromones like a trail of little candies leading her children home.  So summoned, so lured, so enticed, we all presented ourselves before her.  She needed us; we needed her, the bees and me.

wisteria2 2011

The black and yellow-headed bumbled bees penetrated the purple concave openings of each tiny bud sipping her nectar, brushing against her pollen, retrieving the first food of spring flowers draping trees and bushes in our small region of south Alabama.  A week or two more, and she would have been competing with the azaleas on the front side of the house.  I was not bedazzled by the flowers, by the pollen or the nectar; I was drawn by the bees.  As an eight year old, I thought I was playing with the bees; but as an adult I know, I captured and suffocated them.  In hindsight, I came to kill the bees.  I know now that the reason I went to her, following the bees, was because I was bored.  I was also powerful, and the bees were available.

With my bare hands, I caught the yellow-headed bumble bees.  I stalked the blossoms, waiting for the moment of in-between hovering when I could see for certain that the head of bee was stained with a patch of yellow.  (The black-headed bees would sting.  I didn’t catch those.)  When I snatched one in mid-air, I marveled at my ability to contain the bee’s aliveness in my young fist, to feel its beating wings and throbbing thorax in the palm of my hand and on the underside of my fingers.  I felt the power of defying my natural enemy without being stung, of glorying in the impotence of these yellow-headed bees.  I always wanted to catch more of them.  How many could I catch?  With a sharp butcher knife, I stabbed slots into the flat shiny surface of a mason jar lid.  I deposited bee after bee into the quart jar, with a balance upwards of twenty most days.  In the jar, the bees fell silent, no humming buzz, no beating wings, no vibrating body.  Disoriented and drunk for lack of freedom and air, they stumbled and fell upon one another while my marvel wilted alongside the cluster of wisteria blossoms I had picked to keep them company.

I was a little girl enamored with the chaos of a living, throbbing, buzzing island of flora and fauna.  I was a little girl unaware of the living, throbbing, buzzing island of chaos at the base of my little tree of life.

© Amy Persons Parkes 2013

Safe in the Lion’s Den

Image

blog 12.21.12

Daddy laid the lion across the top step leading into our single-wide trailer.  Like a farm cat proffering a slain field mouse as a fit sacrifice and feat of strength to his human, Daddy’s eyes gleamed  with pride.  His grin widened when in reverence I whispered, “You killed a lion!”  As a three-year old, I did not know the difference between a bobcat and a lion.  With sharp teeth and sharper claws, either could kill me.  I knew all I needed to know.  Daddy could kill lions. I suppose Daddy knew what he needed to know, as well.  At least he could keep me safe from lions.  This is my first memory.  Little did I know when I was three, lions are the easiest predators to keep at bay.

© Amy Persons Parkes 2012

Made You Look

“That mole on your nose makes you look like a witch.”

Eyebrows knitted, thoughtful and yet direct in his tone, my little friend continued to chew a bite of his sandwich.  He had no intention to offend.  Contemplating my face with sincerity, he articulated the obvious relationship between me and a witch.

For a stunned moment, I paused to realize how often such a thought had flitted through my own mind.  He, however, said it out loud with unbiased conviction.

I dared not laugh.  The manner of his comment implied a certain gravity of exchange.  Isn’t every witch’s face identified by at least one mole on her nose?

“Hmmm. Yes, you’re right.  I do have a mole on my nose.”

I do have a mole on my nose.
Yes, I do.
A big mole.

I said that out loud, and I didn’t cry.
I laughed.
I laughed, inside.

© Amy Persons Parkes 2012

A Prayer of Praise

While the earth and the sun
and the mountains and the streams
sing your praise, great God of heaven,
I offer a little praise of my own.

Praise God, with muddy floors and sticky counters.
Praise God, with dusty computers and lint-filled dryers.
Praise God, with toothpaste on shower curtain.
Praise God, with big smiles and loose teeth.
Praise God, with cardboard boxes transformed into time machines.
Praise God, with low bank balances and big bills.
Praise God, with no meal plan one hour before dinner.
Praise God, with children – sick and late to school.
Praise God, with Sunday school lesson half-way prepared and wrinkled dress.
Praise God, with sniffling noses and uncombed hair.
Praise God, with gutter leaning and shutter peeling.
Praise God, with one hubcap missing.
Praise God, with litter box in need of cleaning.
Praise God, with mascara smudged and a cut from shaving.
Praise God, with shoe soles flapping and missing buttons.
Praise God, with deadline looming and surprise visitor.
Praise God, with broken toe plus an unruly in-law.

In all times and in all places,
and in all manner of faces and spaces,
let all that is real and immediate and present
bellow and whisper
scream and whimper
cheer and wail
praise to you, O God,
creator, sister, sustainer.

Written as part of the final project for the Academy of Spiritual Formation #30 and appropriate for Thanksgiving.
© Amy Persons Parkes, 2011.