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Death

Unless a Kernel of Wheat

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24

These are the words of Jesus that Dostoevsky chose to open The Brothers Karamazov  with, words that are now etched as the epitaph on his gravestone.  I want to know what he was thinking and feeling when he chose that verse; take away all your critical essays and footnotes and academic speculations, and just let me see that man’s heart before his God.

Was he feeling what I feel today?

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24

These are the words of Jesus that have been on meditative repeat all day long, washing away the fear that dirties my eyes and clogs my ears.

The fear has lied to me for years, spouting its logic that such a sacrifice is not meant for me, but for another follower. “You,” the fear whispers, “must make your primary goal self-protection, you must do everything to prevent yourself from this daily death. You are fragile, brittle, weak, and the grand paradox must be experienced from a safe distance, in the acknowledgement of the One who set the precedent and in the reading of stories of followers who were so much stronger than you. Don’t think you need to follow in their footsteps; it is your spiritual mission to achieve a peaceful control. Control over anxiety, depression, and your unpredictable emotions is what will make you most useful to Him. For what good is a desperate child, weeping, fumbling through the day without finesse or passion or plan? Only when you feel confident and competent will you understand what it means to live victoriously.”

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24

The death is meant for me too, though, I realize as I walk along icy streets awaiting spring’s breath. Safety doesn’t equal freedom in His kingdom, and it is beauty, not shame, to be in the place where I have to cry every morning “your grace is sufficient for me, for your power is made perfect in my weakness.”

This death is meant for me, and the words of Christ nudge me to stop and consider if the goals I’ve subconsciously set for July and beyond really align with his calling. Five months of living in chaos external and internal has tempted me to exchange the word adventure for comfort, a concession I never thought I would make. Yet here I am, tricking myself into the smallness of stability.

“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.” John 12:25

Jesus’ next words defy logic, proclaiming a paradox that I have been so scared to embrace. I love my life too much, and in trying to barricade it against harm, I suffocate and starve it.

I may never get control of my “issues.” Depression and anxiety may very well make regular appearances throughout my life. And I may not ever feel like I have it all together. But the words of Christ make me realize that gaining control of my emotions, my relationships, and my vocation shouldn’t be my goal. My goal, however unsafe and unfair and impossible it seems, should be to embody John 12:24-25.  In each feeble step forward to breathe “He must become greater, I must become less.”  To reclaim adventure by embracing this paradox of life through death.

To Be Too Conscious

 “I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness — a real thorough-going illness.” –The Underground Man, Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

There is truth in the words of the Underground Man; over-consciousness can drive us to despair, to depression, to step heavily through each day to the beat of Ecclesiastes’ moans of meaninglessness and futility.

There is truth in the words of the Underground Man, but they stop short of acknowledging that this “sickness” has the power to shake us from a zombie-like going through the motions, to push us to fix our eyes on God and eternity.

There are days that I am tempted to give in to the negative side of this “sickness,” when thoughts of life’s futility beckon me to despair. These are the days when I am content with blindness, choosing to scorn hope, not having faith that my immortal inclination in the face of death, death, death is the most human of states because it points to the truest truth.

I bite my lip as I examine the broad order of things, people scurrying to and fro like ants, building houses and advancing careers and endlessly consuming, unconscious that one misplaced step, one turn of the steering wheel could propel them into eternity. I see them distracting themselves from over-consciousness,

knowing that it will pierce them,

knowing it will kill them,

not realizing that the death of the meaningless will birth a life of meaning.

I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness- a real thorough-going illness.

I am told that I think too much, that life must be lived, that the order of things is the order of things. I am over-conscious, morbid, in constant awareness of my own mortality, of the mortality of others, of the insignificance of striving and ambition and trying to make one’s mark.

I long for meaning in a place where people seem set on ignoring meaning, where people seem content in pretending, in trying to force meaning into promotions and white picket fences.

I almost give into despair, then real meaning calls: his name is Christ, and I reach out in feeble faith.  Real meaning calls, and for now, no one on earth can squeeze my hand in understanding.  But the time that we hoard and coerce and try to stop is insignificant; I will blink and be seventy and blink again; the dream will have lived its life and I will wake up, rub my eyes, and finally see.

If over-consciousness is a sickness, then I wish this disease upon everyone, confident that its ache might direct them to the deeper cancer that needs to be purged to save their lives. Death and history chug along, and the unconscious walk off cliffs into hell with smiles on their faces. I know intimately that over-consciousness can lead to depression when it turns inward, when it narrows itself into the claustrophobia of self-consciousness.

But I know that an over-consciousness that looks outward to the infinite Creator is a vivid gift, filled with joy. Its sharpness tells me that mortality is a distortion of the original plan. Its depth tells me that we are not a mistake, but crafted in the image of God, each of us one of his poems. And its constant pulse tells me that there is purpose, and that purpose is to pursue a life that joyfully sings “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

This Poem Made My Day

Earlier this morning, I was paging through an old copy of Longfellow poems my grandmother had given me. I had always treasured the old volume from 1896, embossed with silver etchings and delicate roses. I thought that I might bring it with me to share with my students in Russia; after all, Longfellow was from Maine and it would be a unique thing to share with them. While scanning the yellowed pages, I happened upon a perspective-giving poem that is a must read for any Christ-follower who gets a little too focused on the “meaningless” cries of Ecclesiastes, who forgets that for us, mortality is truly of little significance,  that trials of this life pale in comparison to the hope to which we are called. Thank you Longfellow, for reminding me of who I am, of who we are.

A Psalm of Life

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What the heart of the young man said to the psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

“Life is but an empty dream!”

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”

Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act,— act in the living Present!

Heart within and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;—

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.

‘Tis Time, My Friend, ‘Tis Time

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time! For rest the heart is aching-

The first line of my favorite Pushkin poem has faithfully rhythmed in my mind day after day with increasing intensity as graduation has drawn near. I have savored these words like a piece of butterscotch candy through every brain-aching, burnt-out final paper. I have heard their hopeful serenade urging me forward to repeat and re-repeat the trekking down a familiar hill then across the geese-laden quad. Far into the woods, running in lonely, free New England beauty, they have ignited my veins with hopeful endurance.

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time. Four years of deeper and wider and knowing more and knowing less, to knowing that it is finally time. Time to frame the pictures and pack the suitcases and let restful release and the ache of goodbye intermingle.

Days follow days in flight…

Time is not a big enough concept to hold the soul, the nuances of reality past, present, and future. Yet time is a sort of accelerator, propelling us to movement when change is the thing needed to keep us alive and purposefully being. These college days were and still are and will be, but with our human constraints we find it comforting to find closure in squishing them in a box labeled “past.”

Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking

Fragments of being, while together you and I

Make plans to live. Look, all is dust, and we shall die.

Time would take fragments of being if we were mortal, which we are so often inclined to believe. But we are not subjects to the tyrant of time. Four years and questions of “what’s next” and “where are you going” are actually the least relevant of utterances to a people not slaves to the rigid ticking of the clock. We make plans to live, plans to live, always planning, gathering, yearning for the next thing beyond and better, but all green grass turns to dust so it is better to fix our eyes on the stars than on the ground. It is better to not move forward into the future but into the Creator.

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time. Tomorrow, we graduate. We are confident and full of fear, joying in newness while feeling the acute pinch of a backward look. We are elaborately equipped and nakedly unprepared. We are messy paradoxes made in the image of a paradoxical, faithful, untamed God, who beckons us to life with him and through him. Let us press this “now” hard into open palms. ‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time.”

Excerpt from “Tis Time,” by Alexander Pushkin

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time! For rest the heart is aching;
Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking
Fragments of being, while together you and I
Make plans to live. Look, all is dust, and we shall die.

Пора, мой друг, пора! покоя сердце просит —
Летят за днями дни, и каждый час уносит
Частичку бытия, а мы с тобой вдвоем
Предполагаем жить, и глядь — как раз умрем.

 

Remembering the Future

Dedicated to my Beloved Grandmother, Marie Ann Tingley, 1935-2013
“She loved.” The past tense is cruelly abrupt. There is no apparent beauty in the transition from the smooth, continuous sounds of the present to the hard stops of the past. “She loves” loses it infinite, unfettered s and replaces it with an uncaring, blunt d. You can’t hold the sound of a d. Try it. It’s impossible.
~
There is a little house tucked away in a grove of pines, far away from the road. Knick-knacks decorate the wood-walled living room, and there is always hard candy in the colorful porcelain box on the coffee table. We don’t go there very often, but when we do, there are usually lots of sweets and cable TV and relatives I’ve never met. We always go there on Christmas Eve, where we open presents around a fake pine tree with jewel toned glass balls. The living room is toasty, and I feel happy and full. The roaring vent at the foot of the plushy carpeted stairs is my favorite; I like to stand on it and feel it puff up my forest green dress like a hot air balloon. I don’t know her yet, not really.
 
~
The past tense is unacceptable. Mom and I walk by her car, and “her tires need air” slows into a little cry at the realization that we have to alter a lifelong grammar. “She is a wonderful- was a wonderful woman.” “She is- was so gentle.”
~
Grammie lives with us now, and I am nineteen. There is a little thrift store down the road, and it is our tradition to go out on weekends when I’m home, “messin’ around” as she calls it. We love to paw through piles of musty garments, determined to find a hidden treasure. When I’m not there, she likes to fill up her bags at Marshalls in thought of me. One time she brought me home a dress that had been marked down to 89 cents. We both know that that is a great victory. Most of my jewelry comes from her. Whenever I get a compliment on my black and white pearl necklace or on my chunky jeweled pendant, I proudly respond that my Grammie Tingley gave it to me. She has an eye for pretty things.
She complains about getting unwanted attention when we go out on the town. “Do you have guys starin’ at you all the time?” I smile and shake my head. “Well, I’ve got guys starin’ at me all the time! Golly! It’s the red hair…” She feigns annoyance, but I can see past it to the mischief in her light green eyes. When she is at home, in the little in-law apartment connected to our guest room, she plays with her big Persian cat, Caesar. “He’s just an old love bug,” she likes to repeat as she strokes her faithful pet of fifteen years. And when he jumps on the table or lets out the occasional snarl, the loving look remains on her face. “You little donkey!” she says as she wags her finger. In the summer, she sits with us on the deck and tells the story of how her mother had to hide the grapefruits from her father when she was a little girl. He loved grapefruits, and he always ate them up right away. It drove her mother crazy.
 
~
“Marie, who was a devoted wife, mother, grandmother and friend, will be remembered for her love of gardening, her sparkling green eyes, her flowing red hair and her gentle friendliness. She had a knack for making friends wherever she went. She loved with a generosity that is rare, lavishing gifts, time and kindness on her family and friends without a thought of receiving anything in return. Marie brought beauty and life wherever she went, and her quiet love will never be forgotten by the many people whose lives she touched.”
 The obituary seems obsessed with persuading me that the present reality doesn’t line up with the present tense. The thing is, I wrote part of the obituary, but my own words still haven’t convinced me that my grandmother needs to be shoved into an ending that she is not yet ready for herself.
 
~
It is the February of my senior year, and Grammie has just gotten home from three months of cancer treatment. She still puts on vintage jewelry and a coat of red lipstick every morning, even though she is too weak to hang up the dozen dresses she bought in Florida. We talk about graduation, about how nice of a day we hope it will be, about how her arm hurts.
“This stuff, yuck!” She motions towards the potassium powder drink she is reluctantly sipping. “Your mother says I have to drink this stuff to get better, but yuck!” She makes a face. I laugh softly, and I believe her with all my heart.
She lets me go through her closet and I find a flowy, golden dress that is perfect for Gordon Globes. “Doesn’t it just look beautiful on her,” she says to Mom, then reminds us that her arm hurts. Grammie sits on her bed with me as I splay her antique jewelry on the coverlet, and I can’t choose between pearls and a golden pendant. “Why don’t you just wear both?” She suggests. I look in the mirror and see that she’s right.  
Her arm hurts, and we’ve worn her out, and we pack up the jewelry. I hug her goodnight and I am shocked by her sudden frailness. Early Monday morning I go over to her place and give her a quick goodbye. “I love you Grammie. I’ll see you later.” She smiles softly, and I am sure that later will be soon.
~

The past tense is harsh in its reality, but hope tells me that it is malleable, somehow temporary. Hope urges me to press an ear to the wall and eagerly eavesdrop, waiting for the moment when а new language will flood the senses with an understanding that outshouts the tyranny of time. For now, the phantom pains of losing her strike at the most unexpected moments, in the most unexpected ways, but the understanding that I don’t truly understand gives me a gentle peace. So I will believe that “she loved” can turn to “she loves,” and then finally, to a heavenly form that I can’t yet articulate, but will someday roll off my lips with ease.

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