Essay

Little Deaths

By May 13, 2015 2 Comments
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A word from Jes: I am traveling today and invited The Reverend Stacey Midge, Associate Minister at First Reformed Church of Schenectady, New York, to share with us. 

The Bridger Wilderness Area is a 428,000 acre primitive preserve in Wyoming, in the Teton-Bridger National Forest. There are no roads or buildings in the wilderness area. No motorized or mechanized vehicles are allowed, including bicycles. They do, however, accept comment cards from visitors. Some of the comments collected by staff members have included the following:

  • Trails need to be reconstructed. Please avoid building trails that go uphill.
  • Too many bugs and leeches and spiders and spider webs. Please spray the wilderness to rid the areas of these pests.
  • Please pave the trails so they can be snow-plowed during the winter.
  • Chair lifts need to be in some places so that we can get to wonderful views without having to hike to them.
  • The coyotes made too much noise last night and kept me awake. Please eradicate these annoying animals.
  • A small deer came into my camp and stole my jar of pickles. Is there a way I can get reimbursed?
  • Escalators would help on steep uphill sections.
  • A McDonald’s would be nice at the trailhead.
  • The places where trails do not exist are not well marked.
  • Too many rocks in the mountains.

Even when we’re in a place where we should fully expect to be uncomfortable and inconvenienced, we’re not always very good at it. Our bodies are wired this way: our nervous systems trigger us to move away when we’re cut or burned, or stop moving when our joints and muscles hurt – which is good. That’s what keeps us from getting more injured.

We avoid pain, which makes sense; who wants to be in pain? In fact, we sometimes try to avoid unpleasantness of any kind. Most of us tend to step back from conflict, protect ourselves from grief, try to shape the world around us to our liking, turn in “comment cards” to let people know when something should be better – when you really should have a McDonalds at the trailhead. We look for comfort and safety. We fear loss – of our loved ones, of our own lives, of the things that make us us. And we, at least those of us who are economically privileged enough to do so, structure our lives and our societies so that we are as comfortable and safe as possible.

And yet, we follow someone who said things like, “Very truly, I tell you, 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it.”

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately in my own life. I’ve had two seizures in the last four months, and dislocated my shoulder both times, which has necessitated some major changes. The constant pain and the practical issues involved are annoying, but really, the things that are most difficult are when I realize that I can’t do things that have made up a part of my vision of myself, of who I am – that I might not ever be able to do those things the way I used to. I may never move as quickly as I have been my whole life. I am probably never going to be as independent as I once was.

It’s not like I’ve made some kind of big spiritual decision to give up the life I had and follow Jesus by not transporting myself anywhere or ever being alone; I just don’t have an option. But what I realize in my better moments is that while I don’t have a choice about the circumstances, I do have a choice about how I deal with them. Parts of me are dying, and I can’t do anything about it. But new things are taking root in their place. I’m having glimmers of awareness that there may be other values, more important than the ones that have been primary to me, that haven’t had space to grow until something else withered. Speed is dying, but its death is leaving space to clarify my purpose and priorities. Efficiency is dying, but greater mindfulness and compassion are growing up in its place.

Make no mistake, I’m far from accepting all of this gracefully. My whole being wants to fight against the reality that parts of me are dying, or deny it and try to live the way I did before. My human nature wants sometimes to just curl up in fear of my own limitations, my own dependency, my own weakness – because these are not things our society values, and they certainly are not the things I’ve valued about myself. But ultimately, I don’t believe that the call of Jesus is to have unlimited capacity to do things, or to be entirely autonomous, or to be individually strong. In fact, I believe it is in many ways the opposite – to recognize and embrace the reality that I can’t do life on my own, to die to the illusion that I can.

Sometimes this life of ours is about taking the long view. The pain, the little deaths, that we experience in one moment are not the forever picture. As people who follow a Messiah who died on a cross, we acknowledge together that life is just not always comfortable and secure. We recognize together the realities of uncertainty, loss, and darkness.

But we don’t follow Christ because we believe that death is the ultimate word. We follow Christ because we believe it’s NOT. We embrace our fragility not because we have surrendered to death, but because we live in hope that life is coming. Life is coming. Life is coming.

Jes Kast

The Reverend Jes Kast is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament and serves West End Collegiate Church as their Associate Pastor.

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