Thinking of Death Surrounded by Life

On this sixth day of May, 2019, Connie and I have just come off of hosting a four-day, Gordon Watt-led training clinic for sheepdogs, and leading two days of sheepdog demonstrations at Kline Creek Farm in DuPage County. And like Lilli Von Shtupp in “Blazing Saddles,” let’s face it, we’re pooped.

At my age, and in my condition, with knees that feel for all the world like they are much older than the rest of my body, I sometimes think about my own death. How will I handle it? What will it feel like? What will meet me on the other side? Will my faith let me down, and will there be no “other side?” Golden streets and crystal fountains do not excite me. What am I to hope for and expect?

This morning—the morning after the demonstrations, these thoughts crept into me as I was exercising the dogs around our alfalfa fields. Fields of deep green, dripping and sparkling with last week’s rain. Sky of blue. Tree leaves finally bursting from their buds. The air filled with the trills of house finches, robins, red-wing blackbirds, meadow larks, and noisy sparrows and starlings. Thinking of death, surrounded by life.

Death thoughts numbed me a bit—wetted my eyes, clenched my chest. I thought, of course, of the halo of holiness that was spun around me by mother, father, faithful pastors, noble friends, and heroes. All these things formed me, but what would happen to me after they shoveled the soil on my casket or consigned me to the flames of the crematory?

Then that organic, cosmic, bright green birthing thing that surrounded me finally seized my imagination, and I felt invited to rightfully take my place as part of the All.

I recalled the cardinal teaching of the Buddha–that striving to possess is the problem, and that “no-self” is the path to the solution. As a Christian, clinging in my particularly western way of understanding the resurrection of the Body, I used to be repelled by this idea of ultimately losing my self in death. But, if I now understand the Buddha rightly, the self is what we construct when we cling and strive to differentiate ourselves from all “other” things. The emptying of self may well be a necessary step toward living (and dying) not as islands, but as part of the sea.

But are we western Christians reading our Bibles rightly? Wasn’t the first Adam an earth creature, made of the dust of the earth, and made a living creature not by it’s own physiology, but by virtue of sharing in the breath of the Creator? Before all the “chosen people” stuff, doesn’t the Bible fix us firmly among all the people’s of the earth ala Genesis 10? Isn’t anyone chosen not chosen to bless—to heal and nurture the webwork that connects us to the All? Have we ever begun the plumb the depths of Jesus as the vine and we the branches; or of the image that “all things have been created through him and for him…[and] in him all things hold together (Colossians 1.16-17)?

And right smack dab in the middle of this “no-self” idea, funded as it is with the idea of the life of all things, and resonating as it does with Jesus the Vine and the holding together, is the glory of difference. When Connie and I demonstrate the grace of Border Collies it’s natural to stress that each dog is different. And that is a great good thing. We used our Hector for the first time in a demonstration yesterday. Excited by the crowds he reverted to his old ways of bossing the sheep around with little (or no) regard to my commands. It was a bit embarrassing to me as a so-called handler. But he was indeed showing off his amazing power over the sheep. Tired and hot with their fleeces still intact, the sheep tried to hide in the midst of the panels the farm volunteers had set up in the shape of a Maltese cross. These barriers frustrated our other, much more obedient and careful dogs; but Hector, like a little bulldozer, had little regard for the obstacles, and quickly pushed the sheep to me.

So, I explained the audience, “All dogs are different, just like people. But each has gifts to share.”

And when I compared that to the people of the world, and commented on the widespread, irrational fear of immigrants and refugees who are coming to our borders, I could see many nods of agreement.

But what about this on the cosmic scale? On the scale of eternity? What of the Buddhist, or vine-and-branches, or Holy Eucharist scale. Are we not invited to a banquet that does away with the poisonous aspects of self? Is this vision true: The “other side” is a banquet with guests from the highways, and byways, and alleyways—all those places where we relegate the in-valid ones? Will we not be seated with the people we fear and have even grown to hate?

Perhaps this loss of self is a doorway to the “abundant life” of difference! Perhaps the loss of our selves is something good. Perhaps we should have taken care of it a long time ago when we realized how our own insecurity, and competitiveness, and fear of difference were impoverishing our lives. Perhaps what awaits us on the “other side” is a dissolving for the sake of a Great Rejoining. Perhaps hope is indeed one of the things that remains; but hope not for a new hermetically sealed, resurrected body that keeps coveting and acquiring, and indulging, but a rejoining of us to the eternal birthing that surrounds us every day of our lives—something like the perfect love that casts out all fear (1 John 4.18).


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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