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.”
How have you practiced being less afraid of death?
© Amy Persons Parkes 2013