Sunday, June 10, 2007

Death, mystery, bravery.

When I was younger and even up until the time I was engaged, I did a fair amount of thinking about death. It's not as morbid as it sounds. I thought about it in a healthy way, a way that Rich Mullins described once by saying something about how good it can be to live your life with a "healthy appreciation of death." I wish I could find the exact quote, but when I first read it, I remember thinking how much sense that made to me. I'd always thought that if we were daily aware of each of our impending deaths, it may compel us to really 'seize the day' (and yes I still really like Dead Poets Society, always one of my favorite movies, as corny as it may be).

It's easy to think sort of fantastically about death when you're young, before you've really experienced much grief. I can remember conversations with friends where I'd say a bit proudly that I wasn't afraid of death, that it was even something I looked forward to because I'd get to experience heaven. My Grandaddy died in January 2001 and that fall, I re-read The Last Battle, the final book in the Narnia series, and I sat there at my tiny kitchen table awe-struck at the possibility of what heaven might be like. I remember even praying that it would be like it's described in this book, telling God that this is how I think it should be. I got really excited about seeing Grandaddy again, along with Rich Mullins and a few other of my heroes. Maybe we'd even pack a picnic lunch and cross over to the further hill to go visit Reepicheep and Puddleglum.

Even now writing this, I get teary thinking about that last chapter in The Last Battle.

I've noticed in the last few years that I have a certain...anxiety about death. Last year, Ted dropped a bombshell on me one Sunday morning right before church. He told me that he'd been having a strange pain for several weeks right behind his left ear and that he'd even seen a doctor about it who wanted him to have further tests run. I'm not sure how to describe the feeling this news gave me; suffice it to say, I barely held it together during church. For the next several days, I couldn't stop looking at Ted. I couldn't stop imagining my life without him. We talked a good bit during those few days about life and death and human frailty. Just like that we could be gone.

It turned out to be nothing but a pinched nerve in his head. It eventually went away. The doctor said he gets patients regularly with a similar pain who think they're dying of brain tumors. We were some of them. Joke's on us, I guess.

That experience got me thinking more about death though. I don't like the idea of it as much these days. When I was younger, there was something that felt glorious about it in the safety of how far away I believed it to be for me. I could voluntarily bring a certain reality of it up close and personal to me because it didn't feel real, not in the grief and pain of it. I'd just associated it up until then with the glory of heaven, a good thing. But when I was faced with the possibility of being a 30-year-old widow (albeit only four days of wondering), with so many unfulfilled things in our lives, death regained its sting.

This morning at our church, the guy who gave the message was talking about fear. His main idea was that there was no way to intellectually keep our fears at bay. The only way to overcome fear is to bring it to that gut level at which we feel it and allow Jesus to comfort us. As he said, our holy fear of God trumps any earthly fears. He even asked us to close our eyes and think about our biggest fear, bringing it to the gut level and letting God in to be the Comforter. I didn't participate. It's not that I don't think it's a valuable exercise, it's just that I wasn't sure what would happen if I did this during church. Would I end up curled up in a ball underneath a pew?

He, the speaker at church, shared that his biggest fear was of death, that he'd been run over by a car at age 17 and gripped by a fear that there was no heaven as he laid there under the car looking up at the muffler. I thought it was brave and honest of him to admit this, especially as a pastor who's supposed to have it all together.

The church was dimly lit, and we were sitting near the back, and the band started singing this old hymn, "Jesus Savior, Pilot Me" and I was overcome by sadness. I got caught up in this swirl of thoughts about situations around me full of heart-break and grief. I thought of the sweet young mother of two toddlers whose husband just walked out on her and who is left desperate and broken. I thought of close relatives who are bearing the weight of broken trust. I thought of Ted's dad, whom I have quite a soft spot for, who jokes continuously about his death as a way with dealing with its reality but who believes there's nothing at the end. I thought about the dream I had last night about my little brother when he was two and so goofy and so lovely.

I also thought about the conversation I had yesterday with a brother-in-law about the many mysteries in life, the desire and waiting and confusion in the unknown. We talked about his job as a nurse and the difficulty some of his terminal patients have in not knowing the cause of their illness, how hard it is not to know the name of the monster that's killing them. He encouraged me in this process we're in now in forming our family, and we talked through occasional tears about the mystery: the mystery of what happens when our dossier is mailed off and the mystery of why two completely healthy people whose countless medical tests are nothing but the healthiest of healthy aren't swimming in babies already. And we talked about the letting go that parents go through and the satisfaction and joy that comes when our kids "have what it takes in the clutch."

So I sat there during the hymn with all these thoughts swirling, in the service but a bit out of it too. When this verse was sung, I heard it through the ears of all the people who were swirling in my mind:
Jesus, Savior, pilot me
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock and treacherous shoal.
Chart and compass come from Thee;
Jesus, Savior, pilot me.

I wondered if the broken around me believe that Jesus will pilot them. I wondered if they have lost all faith during their grief. My heart broke for a man who doesn't even recognize his need, who has no desire to meet his Pilot when he "crosses the bar."

And then I thought of myself, the fears that are so real sometimes, the fear of not being able to mother, that the tenderest man I know will only be looked up to by nieces and nephews and not his own children, the fear of writing all this down, the fear of being judged for wavering faith...

As a mother stills her child,
Thou canst hush the ocean wild;
Boisterous waves obey Thy will,
When Thou sayest to them, “Be still!”
Wondrous Sovereign of the sea,
Jesus, Savior, pilot me.

More than anything, there's a fear of a life not well-lived, a safe life free of risks, free of pain, free of the moments in the clutch that require courage. That's my biggest fear. Ted made the comment during the last episode of Lost, when Charlie daringly saves the day because he knows this is his moment to die, "It's amazing what someone will do when they have no fear of death." Exactly.

We really are all going to die. What will I do with the time I have? Will I live courageously, knowing that any safe nest I build for myself here on Earth is going to end one day? Can I bravely bring myself close to the pain of the grieving and broken around me? Do I have what it takes to live self-sacrificially? Can I see beyond myself, my desires and my fears?
I wanted this song sung at our wedding, just because it means so much to me, but Ted rightly pointed out that some might see it as more of a funeral song than a wedding song. So for at least one of my life's ceremonies, I hope to have it played. It's my reminder of God rescuing me, empowering me to live that fabled "life less ordinary." It makes me realize that having fears is okay, as long as I allow God in. He's the brave one. I just let Him carry me through the mystery.

What I'd have settled for
You've blown so far away
What You brought me to
I thought I could not reach
And I came so close to giving up
But You never did give up on me
I see the morning moving over the hills
I feel the rush of life here where the darkness broke
And I am in You and You're in me
Here where the winds of Heaven blow
--from "Home" by Rich Mullins


The Elliott Family said...

What a beautiful way to start my day. That is the honesty that God wants from us. Just like a father loves for his child to crawl into his lap for comfort, so does God. I have literally pictured myself doing this during a time that I need such comfort.

Thank you for this. It reminds me of a Chris Rice song, "Life Means So Much"..."Today is your currency, will you invest or squander?"

Rusty Spell said...

Don't get me started on death... :)

I really just wanted to leave a comment here (and a smiley face) since I check this every day and read every post but haven't left a comment yet.

tara said...

thanks for precious thoughts that are so obviously words from a tender heart.

Kristi said...

Lori....I am Jill's sister. I read your blog every now and then. Loved this entry. You have amazing insight. I love your honesty....thanks for sharing it with us.

tara said...

this seems very insensitive after this post, but in regards to your comment on my would be so great if we got to travel together!! we are pretty excited to not just pick up out little one but to also just be in africa and be in that culture- were always up for traveling!