The thing about autumn - this season whose hallmark is death - is that it falls short of our expectations. It cuts short our sun-splashed summers, the boating and vacationing; the harvest is over, and whatever food we've stored from our gardens is it. Often it brings a sense of failure: failure to capitalize on a limitless amount of fun we could have had, work we could have done, yard improvements that languished and friendships we left fallow. In his classic book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why, author Laurence Gonzales tells us that our survival - eluding death when the moment beckons - depends mostly on our ability to change our expectations. If you continue to exist in the old reality - "Holy crap! I am about to die! Here it comes!" - then you probably will do just that. But if you construct a new reality - "Holy crap! This is dangerous! How do I get out of this?" - your chances of surviving are vastly higher.
So consider this your moment of truth. You watch the world around you spin slower and slower and farther away from the sun, the plants going into hibernation, the animals hungrily feasting on any food they can find to sustain them through the months of hard winter, the people scurrying to and from cars exhaling clouds of cloying exhaust to the stores that breath their exhaust from high stacks into the thin, cold air. You know, deep inside, that this world is dying. You know, even truer and closer to the surface, that you are dying, too.
You are the pumpkin plucked at the height of harvest, now shrouded with the fringe of frost and dripping condensation after the last lingering warmth of the 4 o'clock sun. Your days are numbered. Someday soon the blackness that even now lies coiled in your cells will explode in a haze of mold all over your beautiful skin.
You are the grass growing ever drier and more yellow as the land leeches it's water deep within, preserving itself - the earth - while it's ornaments die a slow and beatific, colorful death. Soon you will flutter away into the winter wind, or you will be buried deep in the icy piles of snow crystals where you cannot breath or see the sun, the whole world become a giant prism of white-blue light forever dancing meaningless around your rotting remnant.
Do you accept this fate, this reality? Do you shut your eyes and sigh and think this is just how it is - dust to dust, perhaps, or maybe (if you're lucky), reincarnation (do it all over again, endlessly, living life forever on repeat) or re-absorption into something greater than yourself?
If this is true, why do little children smile that knowing smile, that smile that knows that life is beautiful and joyful and purposeful and meaningful? If it is true that life is meaningless, why go on at all? If life is all about becoming part of a great Spirit, or coming back again to try again, aren't you a little exhausted just contemplating it?
You've got to see yourself, first of all, as the tiny speck of nothing on the grand span of illustrious time.
To know oneself, is above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against the Truth, and not the other way around. ~Flannery O'ConnorGod puts it another way: None is righteous, no, not one (Romans 3:10). Even in the Bible, we hear the echo of the long exhale as one of the grandest men of Scripture concludes that life on this earth is meaningless: Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun--all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 9:9)
Okay, you've got the picture in your mind now, right? Kind of like a scene from "Where's Waldo?" Your tiny body in a sea of billions of other bodies, on a planet spinning beyond your control toward a fate you cannot comprehend much less predict or change. It's a depressing picture, isn't it? Almost makes you want to give in to it, just lay down and give up, and say UNCLE! Everything's upside down anyway, headed toward disaster, and you're just along for the ride. Right?
Wrong! Here is the moment of decision. Your moment of truth. The moment in which you decide whether you expect the reality you've been given - the reality you understand and can casually navigate on a daily basis without even having too many deep thoughts. Do you want the old reality, the one that has you dying during heart bypass surgery when you're old and wrinkled, or maybe riddled with cancer and begging for pain killers in hospice, or suddenly in a car wreck you never saw coming?
Or are you going to try to change that reality? With a change of plans, might it be possible to survive death? To become beautiful in death?
One guy did it.
And He says you can do it, too: For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (I John 5:4-5) How does everything end in this world? With death. So if we overcome the world, that's what we overcome. Death.
Now you need to move yourself from one plane of reality - the one where death is inevitable - to the other plane of Truth - where death has been overcome. To do that, you need to know just one thing: Christ modeled this for us and tells us exactly how to accomplish it.
If you don't want to rot back into the soil only to feed the next generation;
If you don't really care to repeat this meaningless life a few thousand times until you get it right and head to Nirvana;
If you don't want to be re-absorbed by a changeable, amorphous Spirit being you've never been able to understand;
If you don't want to try to navigate some class-based or deeds-based hierarchy along with a bunch of other dead folks in an Underworld or Afterlife...
This is what you need to know:
There is a home for you...a nice one, without any hierarchy to navigate, any Spirit to become part of, or rules governing your next go-round on the planet earth.
It's called heaven.
The lights are always on, and Jesus is always sitting by the phone waiting for you to call.
As you call, you need to know a couple of things.
- God sent his son, Jesus, to earth to be born of a virgin - fully God and fully man. Jesus never sinned. Not when he was 2, 12, or 20. Not once.
- As a young man, he was persecuted, beaten, and crucified on a cross. During the crucifixion, God poured out the wrath He had stored against the sins of all mankind on the shoulders of his dying son. When Christ died, he descended into hell as payment for the sins of all the world. A curtain was torn that freed men from living by the law (10 commandments) and allowed them instead to live by grace (undeserved favor) because their sins have already been paid for by their Savior's death.
- On the 3rd day, Christ rose from the dead. He walked, talked, and ate with his followers and met strangers on the road. A short time later, he ascended into heaven, where he now sits at the right hand of God, hearing our prayers and waiting for the day that he is reunited with all those he loves - yes, even you and me, chief among sinners!
He told us himself, to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12).
Think you're going to "lose it" - this new paradigm, this new understanding, this new boundless joy - the next time you screw up or are plagued by questions or can't give an answer when someone asks you about your new faith? Not so. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. The key word here is KNOW. You have a ticket to the greatest dance of all time. It's not a paper ticket you can lose or even an e-mail that maybe won't print right when the concert date gets here. It's a tattoo on your heart called the Holy Spirit, a tattoo that matches the piercings on the hands of your Savior, Jesus. He invited you to the dance, He knows you belong there, and He is never going to turn you away.
Because you are beautiful in death.
Just like He was.
And that is the key to this "dying to be beautiful". As your die, your colors come through as all you are squeezes the life deep inside - the Holy-Spirit-life - out to the surface, and your skin glows and you are a rose dappled with mist against the hole-bitten green leaves; you are the golden grass in the green field; you are the tree waving her arms in a dance of praise to the gray heavens; you are the aged green-eyed cat queenly...you are the rusty red tines of a well-used spade...you are seeds on the dying wheat. You are beautiful because death is beautiful...because it will never again be the final moment. Because of Christ, death is no longer extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come (Rabindranath Tagore).
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:13-17)I will die, Father, a thousand little deaths of cancer - I will lose the strength of my voice, I will lose my youthful vigor, I will give up my early mornings to aches and pains and pleadings at your Throne; I will plod through homeschool, and give up field trip opportunities for my kids and trust that You are feeding them in ways I cannot; I will live in a messy house that I don't have energy to pick up; I will suffer physical pain; I will be quiet when someone tells me they think my cancer is because of my sin; I will humbly accept all the myriad pamphlets, web-links, and mass e-mails about healing and I will never laugh in the face of someone who offers me this help; I will pray every day, all day long, that someday I won't have cancer anymore; I will recant and pray for hours on end that you will take me home via cancer if that is your will; I will spend lots of time I would rather spend elsewhere at the doctor's office, the hospital, and the operating room; I will go on "vacations" for weeks or months at a time because of treatment.
This is my way to the broken/beautiful - the way to which He called me - sharing in the suffering of Christ. I pray that He makes me more like Him with every day we suffer in this way. And that He bestows on me a mantle of beauty that overshadows the bruises of life.
Creation brings an offering
As autumn leaves turn to gold
The trees bow down in highest praise
Now made bare before Your throne
The western sky an amber blaze
At the end of the day
In the darkest night of man
we found Your saving hand
For everything must die to rise again
And so we wait in joyful hope
for you to take us home
And so we join beneath the Cross
a suffering from whence we go