Learning How To Die

Twenty years ago this Easter I got news I wasn’t expecting.

“Shawn? Shawn? Wake up.”

I opened my eyes. My mom was standing beside my bed with a confused look on her face. I could tell she had been crying.

“What’s wrong?”

“Grandpa died this morning,” she said the words as if she was watching herself talk from somewhere else, somewhere impossible. “At his house in Florida. You can stay home from church – I have to make some calls and make sure Grandma gets back okay.”

I remember laying there in bed, staring at the ceiling, feeling shocked. I felt guilty, too, because I was glad I didn’t have to go to church that morning.

* * * * *

When I was young, I went to a charismatic, evangelical church. Easter revolved around celebration. The cross at the front of the church was vacant, and I had no idea what Ash Wednesday was.

When I was young, Easter sort of came out of no where – one day I was mowing the lawn on a cold, spring afternoon, and the next day I was in church, singing “He is Risen.” Then I’d go home,  enjoy a huge meal, look for some Easter eggs and eat about five pounds of candy.

Maybe it was my immaturity, just my own particular focus, or perhaps it was a deliberate choice by the church, but the Easter season in those days barely had room for the cross. Two angels sitting on top of a stone? Check. An empty grave? Sure. But death? Death was the foul smell we were eager to cover up with the flower-laden aroma of Easter morning.

* * * * *

Incarnation. Death. Resurrection. Redemption.

These are four of the key tenants to a Christian world view – can the last two even exist without death? Without death, there is nothing to resurrect. Without death, there is nothing to redeem.

Miniature deaths can lead to all kinds of good things, like freedom and simplicity and social action. When I die to my selfish longing for revenge, I find myself in an unexpected place of freedom. When I die to my selfish longing to have more material things, my life is actually simplified by having less to worry about, less to take care of, less to replace. When I bury the idea that I am the center of the universe, I find myself caring for others.

What about major deaths? What about major losses? Could it be that what fills the vacuum after those larger “defeats” is incrementally greater than the victories that follow “smaller” deaths?

* * * * *

I’m gonna miss you
I’m gonna miss you
When you’re gone
She says, I love you
I’m gonna miss you
And your songs

And I said, please
Don’t talk about the end
Don’t talk about how
Every living thing goes away
She said, friend

All along I thought
I was learning how to take
How to bend not how to break
How to live not how to cry
But really
I’ve been learning how to die

* * * * *

During this season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday two days ago, I am trying to enter a space of death, a space where things that are rotten and putrid and entangling me are allowed to die. For 40 days this process will continue, I hope.

In the words of Jon Foreman, I am “Learning How to Die.”

My hope? A better understanding of Easter, of resurrection, of redemption.

* * * * *

* * * * *

For a beautifully written piece on the cycle of life by a Jewish friend of mine, check out “Living a Life in One Day” by Sara Eiser.

And I know it’s late, but you should also check out Rachel Held Evans’ recent blog post: “40 Ideas for Lent”

One Reply to “Learning How To Die”

  1. Wow, Shawn, the more you write about Christianity, the more you end up sounding like Thich Nhat Hanh!

    Even more seriously: In a six-week period spanning Christmas of one year, my mother died; a month later to the day, her mother died on my sister’s birthday; my then-husband had cancer surgery; and we had to have our cat euthanized because he had cancer. It staggers belief. But maybe surviving all of that somehow gave me the courage, only a few years later, to leave the same man when his verbal and emotional abuse turned physical. Think of Lear: “The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.'”

Comments are closed.