Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Doctrine of Death: What My Father Taught Me

 Fyodor Dostoyevsky begins his capstone novel, The Brothers Karamazov, with this verse from The Gospel of John: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."

I had read this before, but never understood it entirely. I didn't start to think about it seriously until about two years ago when I first read The Brothers K. I'm sure I still do not understand in full, but I can at least say I now see in a mirror dimly. The reflection in a pool of water recently disturbed by a tossed stone becomes more clear as time passes. This seems to be the case for myself. There may be some who read this and think it to be elementary, so I readily admit my slowness to perceive and also my child like excitement when I discover something new.

From the earliest days of my awakening, I had known that one had to lose their life in order to find it. As is the case for anyone who awakes to find themselves amongst the dead, they leave behind their dwelling of death and start moving towards new life. Like Lazarus resurrected by Jesus, I too, had to leave the tomb behind and obey His call. As I continued to read the Scriptures I found this death-life symbiosis everywhere. What I discovered as of late is this idea is found in more places than I had originally thought. It's found in verses like John 14:24. Jesus speaks in terms that the mostly agrarian society of first century Palestine would understand. They were intimately familiar with the death-life process of the seed turned to wheat. Perhaps this has never been clear to me because I do not come from an agrarian background. For me, this is a new way of understanding how God reveals Himself through creation. (Romans 1:20)

 C. S. Lewis provides helpful insight:

"Hence as suicide is the typical expression of the stoic spirit, and battle of the warrior spirit, martyrdom always remains the supreme enacting and perfection of Christianity. This great action has been initiated for us, done on our behalf, exemplified for our imitation, and inconceivably communicated to all believers, by Christ on Calvary. There the degree of accepted Death reaches the utmost bounds of the imaginable and perhaps goes beyond them; not only all natural supports, but the presence of the very Father to whom the sacrifice is made deserts the victim, and surrender to God does not falter though God "forsakes" it. The doctrine of which I describe is not peculiar to Christianity. Nature herself has written it large across the world in the repeated drama of the buried seed and the re-arising corn. From nature, perhaps, the oldest agricultural communities learned it and with animal, or human, sacrifices showed forth for centuries the truth that "without shedding of blood is no remission"; and though at first such conceptions may have concerned only the crops and offspring of the tribe they came later, in the Mysteries, to concern the spiritual death and resurrection of the individual. The Indian ascetic, mortifying his body on a bed of spikes, preaches the same lesson; the Greek philosopher tells us that the life of wisdom is "a practice of death". The sensitive and noble heathen of modern times makes his imagined gods "die into life". Mr. Huxley expounds "nonattachment." We cannot escape the doctrine by ceasing to be Christians." (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Ch. VI Human Pain)

This passage was key for me in connecting Romans 1 with John 14:24. I Corinthians 15:35-44 elucidates the matter even further. God uses things like the drama of the buried seed to minister to us. Our bodies die and will be lowered into the ground and then resurrected unto new life and we will be transformed into a new body. Think of the difference between a seed and an Oak Tree! This is God's ministry to us through nature.

But what of the time between spiritual rebirth and bodily resurrection? The place where we find ourselves currently. The day to day. I submit to you that this intermediate time is our passion. It is our time of daily death. It is our time to bury ourselves like the seed. As Lewis said, Christ on Calvary exemplified this for our imitation. Jesus spoke to the mostly agrarian society in terms they would clearly understand. Similarly, I believe He has spoken to me through terms that I can clearly understand - namely my earthly father. This Father's Day, I write to honor my father, who taught me how to die through his living example, and, as is the theme in the doctrine of death, taught me how to fully live.

I will always be haunted by Thoreau's poignantly stinging remark that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." This is true only of the man who allows fear to keep him paralyzed and thus his tongue static like a living repetition of Adam's sin in The Garden. But a man who is already dead to the world is not afraid of the things in it, because the things in it can only destroy his body, but never his soul. My father taught me to peel back the thin veneer of everything ephemeral and reach for eternity by dying to the temporary and living for the permanent. So, thank you, Father, for my father. And thank you, Dad, for your example.

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