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Dying to Self-An Eastertide Meditation

  • Posted on May 8, 2018

Eastertide Meditation—Dying to Self May 2018

This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15

When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In our Gospel readings, we have returned to the Farewell Discourses of John. These are the final words that Jesus left with his disciples on the way to the cross. These words represent not only what Jesus wanted his disciples to know, but, indeed what his disciples remembered. Remembered on the road to Emmaus, by the sea of Galilee, in the garden. One word dominants the Farewell Discourses–LOVE.

When we love one another, we lay down our lives for one another in many ways. When we love, we die to self as we give ourselves to another. Some of us are called to give our very life for another.

In my Contemporary Ethics class at Frostburg State, we are coming to the close of the semester and I like to end my ethics class with a discussion of the non-violent actions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr King gave his life so that others might live. Following in the ethical philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Ghandi, Dr King believed in overcoming evil with good. No “eye for an eye” response to violence. Rather, Dr King believed in love; a strong, demanding love. A love that bids us come and die for one another.

Not many of us are called to this kind of love in action. For most of all, we are called to die to self in small ways. In his book on civility, P.M. Forni asked his college students at Hopkins to give examples of uncivil behavior. The number one answer was the act of snubbing. His students talked about “peers who selectively ignore others in conversation, or who get up from a cafeteria table when someone they don’t like joins them.” There is a great deal of heartbreak for these types of unloving behavior in high school and college. Behavior that continues into adulthood in exclusion in work and social circles. One young high school tennis player–the number one player on the tennis team–was asked why he chose to play with Mike, an unpopular outsider in school. One day, a teammate asked the young man: “None of us wants to play with Mike. He’s such a nerd, but whenever the coach asks us to choose a partner for doubles, you always choose to play with Mike. No one else will play with Mike. Why do you play with him?” The young man answered his friend in a quiet voice: “That’s why I play with him.” (from The Rules of Civility by P.M. Forni, p. 56ff)

Many of us have the choice to die to self and love another each and everyday. And once or twice in our lifetimes, we will have the choice to die to self in a life-changing way. Belden Lane, professor and theologian, cared for his mother in her final years. His mother was suffering from dementia and cancer. What Belden Lane thought would be a few months of care turned into several years. In that time, he learned what Teilhard de Chardin said: “Don not forget that the value and interest of life is not so much to do with conspicuous things….as to do with ordinary things with the perception of their enormous value.” Lane learned a dying to his own self in love as he tended his dying mother. Of this time he said: “Her acceptance of death’s delay made me reconsider my restless impatience. I had to rethink the meaning I’d sought from her death. Death wasn’t this tragic confrontation–over as soon as possible...Rather, it was in time pushing the wheelchair, changing diapers, sitting through long periods by the bedside, waiting for nothing… that I realized that life is not a matter of running away from fears….life cannot be “fixed”–at least not in the compulsive and controlling way I’ve attempted….There was no cure for my mother and myself. Only healing. We are all terminal cases.” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes by Belden Lane, p.93ff)

But it is in this terminal case of life that resides a graceful glory.

We can find this glory all around. During the Parish Garden Day, there was furious raking, weeding and mulching. We all were trying to get much done in three hours on a Saturday. Mike Clark was trimming the hedge by the parking lot with his electric clippers As he came to the middle of the hedge, he stopped abruptly. There in the midst of the hedge was a mother dove sitting on her nest of baby doves. She gave Mike a fierce look. New life in the midst of a trimming. She would die to protest her chicks. In truth, we all had to die to getting the hedge perfect for the saving and loving of fellow creatures in their life. And now our hedge has a strange tower of fir in the middle.

Then, as the Parish Garden Work Day on May 5 was winding down, Edie and I walked around to the Rector’s Garden to survey what needed to be done. As we rounded the corner of the church past the flag pole and headed towards the garden room door, we were stopped in our tracks. The two tall lilac trees were awash in brilliant purple blooms. The scent was overpowering. A slice of heaven. Lilac blooms only last about two weeks and then no more blooms until next year. Those lilacs were so alive, blooming for all they were worth. Dying to self for the love of God’s creation. On an ordinary Saturday morning.

Where have you died to self and known what it is to truly live?

(c)2018 The Rev. Martha N. Macgill