Death is a critical and overlooked part of the spiritual life. This is because part of growing into someone new requires the death of who we are now. The person we are is a compound of the certainties, injuries, stupidity and wisdom of our life so far. The me who is today has inherited assumptions and understandings from all the people I have been before. Some of those people were healthier than others but if I uncritically carry forward their assumptions, I cannot grow into life.
The childhood certainty of Monsters Under The Bed, if carried into adulthood, can lead to a stunted form of life. Less humorously, early in in childhood development we ask and answer some profound questions about the world. Questions like “is the world a fundamentally safe place” and “is it OK to be me?”
We develop lives based in the answers to these questions and if we get the hurtful answers, we carry them forward into difficult lives. In order to grow spiritually from those places, the old certainties have to die. And since those certainties powered, directed, and shaped our lives to this point, we have to die.
This is the part of spiritual living that is often glossed over in the Happy Living Forever books but that our sisters and brothers in the 12-step programs know is true. This is in part because in order to live in that program, one must be fearlessly honest. Half measures, like half truths will “avail us nothing,” the person must let go absolutely of the life they have in order to have sobriety. In short, to grow we have to die.
Death is scary, letting go and dropping into the darkness with nothing more than the bare promise of well… something is not a long term strategy for self-preservation. But what self are we trying to preserve here? The spiritual self we are now (with our half understood vision of God which is based on stuff we learned in Sunday School only enarged to scale with our lives)? Or is it our life-as-it-is: this collection of childhood assumptions, positive and negative experiences, and unexamined assumptions about life?
Regardless of the source, this is US, our life. It brought us this far but cannot bring us farther. And so, the me that I have brought to today needs to die in order to have a tomorrow. (or, if I really can’t face death, I could just eke out a bare existence being “just this big” as long as my biological process holds out).
The first part of facing death as part of spiritual life is remembering that while we do die with the bare promise of resurrection, it is not an empty promise. In fact, it’s a promise which has been given meaning and power through Easter Morning (but that’s coming up Next Sunday, so let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves). More than that, the psalm points out that while we are dying to our old life, we are not doing it without support.
“You are my God” the psalmist says. As Luther put it, “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress” In other words, in the midst of all the things we meet each day that tell us “trust me and I’ll make your life better” (all the gods that litter our landscape), we turn to the True God and say “this is my God, this is what I will trust.”
Further, when the psalmist says “my times are in your hand” they are saying something very important about our times and the hand that holds them. The first is that it is all our times (the word is plural in Hebrew). The bad, sad, mad, and glad times, the times of triumph and of defeat, the times of joy and sorrow, all our times are held. And where are they held? B’yad-cha “In the hand of you” i.e. “in your hand.” Every single time of life, chronos (clock time) and kairos (“and it came to pass” time), birth and death, sobriety and acting out, all our times are in God’s hands.
It is into these hands, nail-scarred and loving, relentlessly faithful, that we die. It is into these gracious and merciful hands that we give up who we were in order to begin our becoming into life.
So yes, the spiritual life includes death. It includes letting go absolutely of all the certainties which brought us to this moment and, graced by the bare and true promise of the cross and empty tomb, letting our life and our days fall into the hands that already hold all our times.