“I am happy to be here.” That sentence, uttered often from my lips in the past weeks and months, is more than just a cliche. This past December, I was very close to death after a major heart attack followed by complications of heart arrhythmias. After a week at my local hospital, that combination of circumstances sent me on a helicopter ride for a two week stay in the intensive care unit of major university medical center. I was hospitalized on and off until mid-February.
Around Easter, friends and family were talking about my “resurrection” and remarking about my recovery. As I gradually return to work, family, and other relationships, I hear expressions of gratitude and support. It often feels like a new day!
Not all of us have the opportunity to bounce back from the brink of physical death and recover sufficiently to be able to return to family and work. Yet, we who are impacted by all sorts of human disabilities certainly know what it is like to experience what I call “mini-deaths.”
These mini-deaths are losses which are a part of life, part of what it means to be mortal, to be human. When a child with disabilities is born, that may involve the loss of a dream, the death of certain expectations about what it means to be “normal.” When we acquire a disability through illness, accident, or the aging process, it often represents a loss of certain abilities to do things we once did. This past weekend, I walked up a hill at a retreat center just as I did three years ago at the same weekend event. With a weaker heart and lungs still decongesting, it felt very different. I needed to rest when I finished rather than just move on with the next activity. These are just several of the ways in which a loss can feel like a small taste of death.
In the midst of thinking about this, I recall how Jesus told his disciples that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24-25 NRSV) It is a paradox, for sure, but Jesus essentially says that it is necessary to die–to both gain and pass on new life.
Other religious traditions have their teachings about dying and rising as well, but the Christian claims are remarkable. Not only is the death and resurrection of Jesus at the center of the Christian story, but it is also central to the faith experience of Christian believers.
Losses, disabilities, and death experiences thus become keys to understanding and appreciating life. Life itself is seen through the lens of “mini-deaths” which believers are not only to accept as inevitable but to increasingly embrace as the paradoxical secret to true life, even eternal life.
Why is this? What really happens within us? More words of Jesus come to mind: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24 NRSV)
Denying self is the key. Losing “life” as we each define it for ourselves is the secret. Each mini-death is one more step in letting go of the self-centered life so that one can live the true life.
So if I deny myself as the center of my existence, what is the new definition of the resurrection life that comes out of the death of self? Clearly, it is in keeping the two greatest commandments that Jesus shared with his followers but which have similarities to other religious traditions as well. Instead of loving and looking out for self first, we are to love God and love other people as ourselves.
It is in keeping these commandments that we find the spiritual strength to act in the best interest of others, particularly those who have limited means of caring for themselves.
- Parents care for their children in ways that children can’t care for themselves.
- Family members rally around a family facing particular challenges of illness or disabilities.
- Faith communities pick up the load for families who need a break from 24 hour caring cycles.
- Even the larger secular community gets into the act by providing educational opportunities, sidewalks with curb cuts, adaptive equipment, fundraisers, and many more things.
As I drifted in and out of consciousness during those weeks in mid-December, I felt an inexplicable peace in my own future, whether living or dying. My main concern in dying was all of the people who would need to pick up on the work which had been uniquely mine. My prayer was that whatever happened that God receive the glory.
In the following weeks, I learned of many persons who had also prayed for me. Quite a few remarked how they sensed that despite my critical condition, God still had a plan for me. Now that my days look further extended, I want to live out that plan. In a very real sense, I died. Yet somehow God saw fit to give life back to me, to extend my days here on earth. I am living in these extra days that I have been given, and I want them to count for God’s purposes!
This is not a new realization but a renewed one, now deepened and strengthened. All of us are given the opportunity to experience these “mini-deaths” and find meaning in them, even though they are painful and challenging. In dying to self, we open ourselves to God’s Spirit so that new life can flow through us to others. In this way, new life emerges from situations that feel like death. As people open themselves to God’s Spirit and reach out to serve one another, a resurrection occurs. A new “normal” is created which allows life to flourish. As a community of believers deny themselves to live for God and others, there comes a new life which is richer and fuller in the human and divine relationships which matter most.