Formation

Embracing Lent: The Art of Dying Well

For dust you are and to dust you shall return…” (Genesis 3:19)

With those words, the Church’s long, annual sojourn towards the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus begins, passing as it does through Golgotha’s dark gates into everlasting life. Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, we edge our way back into the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of how our God has taken the dark curtain of death and transformed it into the “everlasting doors” of which the Psalmist spoke (Psalm 24).

We are — all of us — slow to believe these things.

On Ash Wednesday, we edge our way back into the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of how our God has taken the dark curtain of death and transformed it into the “everlasting doors” of which the Psalmist spoke (Psalm 24). Click To Tweet

I grew up in a triumphalist version of Pentecostal Christianity. I am deeply grateful for the gifts it gave me, not least a deep and abiding sense, carried with me now even into my adult years, that to love and worship the God revealed in Jesus is to know ‘Deity as everywhere’ – always powerfully present, able to save. The one Life made known in the Word’s pilgrimage among us continued by the power of the Spirit to cascade down from the Divine heights to our abysmal depths, lifting us up from death — this we accepted as axiomatic. We contended for supernatural healings and miraculous divine interventions, and saw them regularly. Robert Jenson’s words could well have been our motto: “The main difference between a living God and a dead god is that a living God can still surprise us.”

We lived for the divine surprise, for the unexpected incursion of Life.

I still do.

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My friend Brian is a realtor in town. Not long ago a man called him about putting his house on the market. Brian agreed and went to the man’s house to begin the process. While there, he learned that the man was selling his house because his marriage was on the brink of collapse. He and his wife were already living separately, and it no longer made sense to keep the house. 

Brian is a Christian, with a lively sense of the divine surprise. He told the man that God could save his marriage and asked if they could pray together. The man agreed. Several days later, with preparations for the sale of the house fully underway, Brian found himself on the phone with the man’s estranged wife. He told her what he had told her husband: “God can save your marriage. Can we pray?” She agreed as well.

The market here is slow, and so a couple weeks went by with no movement on the house. One day, the man and his wife called Brian, this time together. “We’re not selling our house. And we’re not getting divorced. We have decided to reconcile. We have you to thank for that.” Brian remarked to me, “It was the first time in my career I was happy to cancel the sale of a house.” 

I sat listening to Brian tell this story, beaming.

This never gets old. God. Only God.

And yet for all such stories, I am aware of so many that do not end on a similarly triumphant note. The marriage is not restored. The disaster is not averted. The body is not raised.

We struggled with this in the church and tradition of my upbringing. When the desired outcome slipped through our fingers, we wondered whose faith had failed, or worse — whether God had faltered. A heavy load of condemnation and a shattered image of Deity were the price we paid for a one-sided and triumphalist understanding of the Christian faith.

I have come to see in the years since that this is a problem not just for Pentecostals and Charismatics of my ilk, but for a great many Evangelical Christians caught up in what Luther described as a ‘theology of glory and what Kristen Kobes Du Mez has recently called a ‘Jesus and John Wayne’ spirituality. Kobes Du Mez describes with unflinching accuracy the devastating effects of an Evangelical spirituality that makes winning (in politics, in the culture wars, in the home — you name it) the ultimate goal, with faith serving as the means by which victory is achieved. 

The damage done by such a spirituality is inestimable. I am thinking in particular of:

    • The families who never said goodbye to dying loved ones because they were convinced beyond doubt that God would raise them up.
    • The countless ministries that chewed up and spit out employees in their obsession with numerical growth.
    • The incalculable damage that has been done to the Evangelical witness by those who were certain that God’s highest and best for the church was to take back the culture for Jesus — whatever the cost.

These are but the tip of an iceberg of death ironically created by a Christianity desperate to avoid death itself. 

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So here is the spiritual paradox: there will be no health in us as long as we refuse to die.

Jesus knows this well, which is why in the gospel passage traditionally preached on the first Sunday of Lent (Matthew 4:1-11), Jesus, assailed in the wilderness, refuses any path to the kingdom that does not involve the cross. Jesus knew well that the temptations thrown down as gauntlets before him by the Evil One are precisely that: ways of being the Son of God that do not involve suffering and death. ‘If thou be the Son of God,’ the Tempter says to him, ‘feed yourself, prove yourself, gain power for yourself. And each time, Jesus, face already set like flint on the Passion that looms ever on the horizon of his life, steadfastly refuses. The way of the ‘Second Person In Flesh’ is the way of the cross from the very first. This is why, for instance, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus is not publicly acclaimed the Son of God until he dies: “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’” (Mark 15:39).

So here is the spiritual paradox: there will be no health in us as long as we refuse to die. Jesus knows this well...Assailed in the wilderness, Jesus refuses any path to the kingdom that does not involve the cross. Click To Tweet

It has been said that Christian discipleship is a long study in the ars moriendi — the art of dying well.

The fathers and mothers of the desert understood this well, that the embrace of death was the root of a wise and wholesome life. Abba John the Dwarf remarked that a virtuous person would be someone who would “live as though buried in a tomb and already dead, every day feeling death to be near him” (Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers, 4). Likewise, Amma Sarah said, “I put out my foot to ascend the ladder, and I place death before my eyes before going up it” (Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 230).

It has been said that Christian discipleship is a long study in the ars moriendi — the art of dying well. Click To Tweet

In a similar key, the late Irish priest-poet Father John O’Donohue has written:

From the moment you were born,

your death has walked beside you.

Though it seldom shows its face,

you still feel its empty touch

when fear invades your life,

or what you love is lost

or inner damage is incurred…

 

Yet when destiny draws you

into these spaces of poverty,

and your heart stays generous

until some door opens into the light,

you are quietly befriending your death;

so that you will have no need to fear

when your time comes to turn and leave,

 

that the silent presence of your death

would call your life to attention,

wake you up to how scarce your time is

and to the urgency to become free

and equal to the call of your destiny.

 

That you would gather yourself

and decide carefully

how you now can live

the life you would love

to look back on

from your deathbed.

(Fr. John O’Donohue, “For Death”)

We can freely embrace death like this as Christ-followers, because we believe — in agreement with the paschal troparian from the Eastern church — that Christ has trampled down death by death, destroying him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and freeing those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).

It is our fear of death which makes us afraid to lose, afraid to die,

      • Which robs us of our humanity
      • Which makes us unwise
      • Which thwarts our lives.

Lent teaches us to say: Only those who by the cross have abandoned their fear of death can befriend their death and so live a life worthy of the calling.

Lent teaches us to say: Only those who by the cross have abandoned their fear of death can befriend their death and so live a life worthy of the calling. Click To Tweet

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Jim and Jeannene are a lovely couple in my congregation. They have been married for going on five decades. They love Jesus, each other, their family, and the church, deeply. They are an example to me of wise, human, and holy living.

Two years ago, Jeannene was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It is slowly robbing her of strength and vitality. It is also pulling her and Jim’s life together out of its longstanding proportion. Parkinson’s, as with so many degenerative illnesses, is in its own way a living death — for each day, week, and month presents the afflicted and their loved ones with new losses. Life gets smaller and smaller and will not widen again until the Raising.

Parkinson’s, as with so many degenerative illnesses, is in its own way a living death — for each month presents the afflicted and their loved ones with new losses. Life gets smaller and will not widen again until the Raising. Click To Tweet

I sat with Jim two days ago. It is a sore trial. For him. For Jeannene. And yet, there was light in his eyes and joy in his heart. “This is what I signed up for,” he said. “It’s hard. But I’m happy to do it.”

Tranquility, wisdom, and high holiness radiated from Jim, springing up from a diamond-hard resolve not to deny or run from the reality of encroaching death but to stare it in the eye and even extend to it the hospitality made possible by the Pasch. This divine hospitality enables Jim and Jeannene to gather themselves and decide carefully how to live the life they love – a life full of gentleness, grace, and confident hope. And though they would surely welcome an incursion of the miraculous, they know that nothing — not even death itself — can separate them from the Love that holds the sun and all the other stars. They have come to rest in this. Indeed, they have pinned all their hopes to it. And this makes them saints.

///

I am writing this long, elliptical meditation, friend, because I am wondering about you. The wise writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for everything, a season for every activity under the heavens. A time, yes, to be born, and to build, and to mend, and to heal, and to gather, and to search…but also, a time to let go, a time to relinquish, a time to die (Ecclesiastes 3). I suspect that you have things that you’re fighting for that are right to fight for. Marriages and healings and turnarounds. God fights for this stuff as well. It’s right to contend for these things, as Mary and Martha contended with Jesus for the raising of Lazarus (John 11).

But even Lazarus died, succumbing to the mystery of death that Jesus has made his own. No miracle this side of the kingdom is ever final. Each is a sign of that Grand Miracle that God will finally bring about at the end of all things — raising up as a New Creation this wonderful, wounded, weary world tumbling like seed into the dark soil of death.

Nothing will live that won’t die. Everything that dies will live. The gospel is an invitation to trust that in letting go, in losing, in dying, we’ll find our lives.

I hope that this Lenten season you’ll do just that.

///

Each is a sign of that Grand Miracle that God will finally bring about at the end of all things — raising up as a New Creation this wonderful, wounded, weary world tumbling like seed into the dark soil of death. Click To Tweet Nothing will live that won’t die. Everything that dies will live. The gospel is an invitation to trust that in letting go, in losing, in dying, we’ll find our lives. Click To Tweet

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