Parting with life...

I once saw an interview with (now retired) Archbishop Rowan Williams in which he talked about reciting the Nunc Dimittis during the Compline (Night Prayer) Liturgy; that particular part of the service, and indeed the whole of the Compline service, he said, was a way for Christians to practice laying down and yielding their lives into God's hands as we lay down and close our eyes each night; it is practice for that final day of life when we do fully surrender ourselves into God's hands.  He hoped for himself that, after much practice, he would finally be able to do it with faith and trust at the last.  The Anglican tradition knows well that the rhythms of prayer we habitually practice will shape who we become; in keeping with our Anglican liturgical heritage, the Nunc Dimitis is also included in the Night Praise and Prayer Service in The United Methodist Book of Worship.

There are different sorts of "giving up of life" for the Christian and indeed the call of Christ Jesus to all of us, "Come, take up your cross, follow me" has rightly been described as "a call to die."  That "death" might of course take the form of literal death because the believer has clung so closely to Christ - many martyrs are murdered each year for no other reason than their being baptized, their being faithful, their being followers of Christ.  Indeed today, at the dawn of the 21st Century, Christianity is the most persecuted religious community in the world.

Yet for most of us in the American Church, that "death" may come in other forms as we yield and surrender our own will to the will of our heavenly Father, in the likeness of, and in conformity to, the Lord Christ who "was obedient even to the point of death."  That may mean surrendering our time, or money, or energy to serve others precisely when such surrender means we must forego some want of our own.  The 'death to self' may mean giving attention to someone and listening long hours to them as an act of self-giving love, even if we do not think they have much of interest to say.  It may indeed mean suffering the loss of reputation or good opinion among others because we affirm Biblical teachings even where they run against the grain of our culture.  It may mean turning away from a desire or even a whole lifestyle that we would greatly prefer when God is in fact calling us to walk in another, more difficult, way (this is why the debates over sexual sin and God's true plan for our sexual expression are, in my mind, striking near the core of what it means to live as a Christian; I do not see how any of us, or any church body, can walk far with the Lord if our own desires are guiding us instead of his revealed will and his call for us to come and die to ourselves and follow him).

Upon the solid truth of Resurrection, we trust that death with Christ ultimately leads to truest life.  Perhaps you have found that some of those who seem most fully alive - whose spirit's are full or joy and peace and even celebration - are precisely those who have given themselves most fully in surrender to the One for whom we all were made, and in whose name alone we can find true life, the One who says to all who will listen, "I am the way, the Truth, and the Life..." (John 14:6)

I've been meditating on this for some days not only because of the recent Holy Week observances, but also because of a fantasy novel I am reading called The Paradise War by Stephen Lawhead.  Lawhead (himself a Christian believer and one-time seminarian) writes fantasy and historical fiction, much of it dealing with Ancient Celtic culture.  Much of Lawhead's work is saturated with a Christian worldview but (thanks be to God) is not to be found in the "Christian fiction" section of the local bookstore, but rather in "regular" the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section.  Like Tolkien, Lewis, and even Bono, Lawhead is not so much interested in contributing to a "Christian (sub)culture" but simply to the larger culture, in a way that points (sometimes subtly, sometimes quite explicitly) to the Living Christ.  I believe it is a true blessing when "popular" fiction can indeed stir one's faith because a fellow believer has used his gifts and talents for the Lord, in a way that may be seen of others, without having to put a "Christian" label upon it (the precise point at which many outside the faith will stop paying attention).

Here is the conversation between Lewis (the narrator, an Oxford student who becomes a warrior after tumbling into an ancient Celtic world) and Scatha (a trainer of new warriors) about Lewis' fears that got me to thinking about some of this:

Scatha stopped walking and turned to me.  "Is life so piteous where you come from that you must cling to it so?"
Piteous?  Certainly she had it backwards.  But then, the language still threw me sometimes.  "I do not understand," I confessed.
"It is the poor man who clenches so tightly to the gold he is given - for fear of losing it.  The man of wealth spends his gold freely to accomplish his will in the world.  It is the same with life."
Suddenly ashamed of my conspicuous poverty, I lowered my eyes.  But Scatha placed a hand beneath my chin and raised my head.  "Cling too tightly to your life and you will lose it, my reluctant warrior.  You must become the master of your life, not its slave."

 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
-The Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:25, ESV)

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