Dying for a Change

– Andy Wade –

 Tragedy on Longevity Mountain

That day is still etched in my mind. It’s been over 25 years since I saw him yet I can still picture his face as if it was yesterday. My wife, Susan, and I were living in Taiwan at the time and were on a much-needed vacation to the other side of the island. As usual, I was snapping pictures as we wandered through this peaceful park.

bauhiniaSpotting an unusually beautiful flower, I wandered off the path a bit to get a closer look. I was so focused on the flower that I didn’t see him at first. In fact one of our friends who was with us called my attention to him. I heard a kind of hesitant, “Aaandy”. When I looked up, there he was. A young Chinese man had hanged himself in the garden, and I stood face to face with him, his body dangling just a couple of feet from me.

Strangely enough, this park was on Longevity Mountain, on the west edge of the city of Kaohsiung. I’ve often thought about the irony of this location for his suicide. We scurried back down the trail to report the incident, only to discover that a crowd had already gathered and were waiting for the police to arrive.

I don’t know the reasons behind this young man’s decision to take his own life. Only a few months earlier a good friend, and our main contact with our home church in Seattle, had also chosen to take her life. She had battled depression for years and finally could no longer deal with it. My heart breaks when I think of her, such a wonderful, creative, and inspiring woman. And yet, like all of us, living with brokenness. While I do not condone the choice of suicide, neither do I condemn those who make that choice. The depths of despair that lead one to that place, whether due to a chemical imbalance in the brain or overwhelming life circumstances, is a place I’ve been to… and it’s not pretty.

So on this “Good Friday”, as we remember Jesus’ terrible journey to the cross, I’m cognizant of our strange relationship with death. Some embrace death as a way of escape, a way for the pain and suffering to end. Others, even in how they speak of faith, deny death, almost making faith in Jesus a “get out of death free card”. And yet Jesus calls us to embrace it. Embrace death not as an escape from our present sufferings but as a way to truly begin to see clearly and to live fully into the life God designed for us to live.

John 12:24-25 The Message

Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.

How many of us live cautiously in our love, grasping tightly to our vision of the way things ought to be, a death-grip on a reality that is not rooted in the soil of God’s love? Ironically, fear is often the motivator of our caution. Holding us hostage to the familiar, fear paralyzes us from embracing the fullness of what God desires. What does it mean to be “reckless in our love”? With so many masterful strokes, Jesus painted for us a picture of that kind of love. A love that:

  • embraces our enemies
  • has fellowship with the outcast
  • visits the prisoners – both those physically in prison and those imprisoned by the brokenness around and within them
  • quietly sits with those who mourn
  • touches the untouchable
  • brings healing to relationships and with the whole creation
  • works to overcome injustice
  • walks in the footsteps of Jesus, who gave himself for the life of the world (Jn. 6;51)

Reckless love is sacrificial love. Love that is costly. Love that requires that we first die to ourselves

I’m currently re-reading a wonderful book by Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest and former Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. For the Life of the World is an amazing little book that both unravels and deepens the mystery of God and God’s relationship with all creation. In speaking of “The Fall” Schmemann writes:

In our [Eastern Orthodox] perspective… the “original” sin is not primarily that man has “disobeyed” God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God.

The sin was not that man neglected his religious duties. The sin was that he thought of God in terms of religion, i.e., opposing Him to life. The only real fall of man is his noneucharisitc life in a noneucharistic world. The fall is not that he (Adam) preferred world to God, distorted the balance between the spiritual and material, but that he made the world material, whereas he was to have transformed it into life in God, filled with meaning and spirit.   (For the Life of the World, pp. 18)

slidefinishedAs I mentioned in an earlier post, Are You an Innie or an Outie”, all of life is sacrificial. The life of one thing depends on the death of another. All the way up the food chain this is true. Even death at the top of the food chain results in life for the micro-organisms at the bottom. God created the world after God’s own heart, to be deeply interconnected and sacrificial.

In Christ, God incarnate entered into creation, into this eucharistic life of sacrifice, offering himself on the cross for the life of the world. God entered into this very system of life, death, and thanksgiving, not in some distant, purely spiritual manner, but by taking on flesh and blood and showing us what it means to live with reckless love and radical thanksgiving.

But, continuing to “make the world material” rather than transforming it into “life in God”, we embrace the curse instead of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We place ourselves over and against creation as if it’s something to be conquered. Rather than living a eucharistic life, a life of thanksgiving, sacrifice, and interdependence, we continue to live as if we are gods, manipulating life and death for our own personal pleasure and gain. In our hunger for power and control we reveal our lack of appetite for God. Failing to enter into the reckless love God offers, we maintain our death-grip on a life that is really no life at all.

So I return to the tragedy on Longevity Mountain. A young man, so hungry for something that seemed so far from his grasp, chooses death as the only path to freedom. The tragedy is that to embrace the life God offers we must indeed embrace our own death, but not in the way of suicide. To live into the fullness of the resurrection we must also live into the fullness of the crucifixion – a sacrificial living and dying, not for ourselves or even from ourselves, but to ourselves, for the life of the world.

The tragedy of suicide ultimately lies in the deep isolation and aloneness one feels when that final decision is made. Disconnected from everything but the suffering within, there is no more joy, no more interdependence, no more Eucharistic dance of all creation. Ironically, in her despair she is keenly aware of a life severed from what God intends.

All this puts God’s self-offering on the cross into sharp focus. Denying the very essence of God and God’s creation, we live our lives distracted, failing to see and celebrate just how finely woven this life truly is. From God’s perspective this must be a kind of slow, lonely suicide. God enters into this mess we’ve created. Plunging his hands deep into the soil of our brokenness, Jesus confronts our noneucharistic lives at the very places where they separate us from God:

  • in our injustice
  • in our prejudice
  • in our lack of love for one another
  • in our exclusion
  • in our exploitation of creation
  • in our divisions and hatred and violence
  • in our inability to recognize and celebrate the reckless love of God that sustains all things and holds all things together

Christ is our peace, reconciling us to God and God’s purposes, healing the brokenness; the strife and stress of our choice to hunger for that which is not God. Jesus, the Incarnate One, beckons us back into the Kingdom where the fullness of God’s love embraces all creation. Eagerly the whole creation waits for our true selves to be revealed. Groaning, as a woman in labor, the whole creation, including you and I, waits, dripping with anticipation (Romans 8).