You Must be Ready: An Advent Meditation

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“Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man will arrive at an unexpected hour.” Matt 24:44.

Lately I’ve been wondering about how I might meet my death. I wonder if I’d be as courageous as Peter or Paul or any one of the martyrs if someone held a gun to my temple shouting, “Your life or reject Jesus.” (Hearing this question and stories of courageous Russian believers was one of my earliest memories while we sat in the Tabernacle and watched grainy movies and listened to preachers thunder their challenges.)

The Psalmist often reminds us,”Teach us to number our days that we might apply our hearts to wisdom.”  Everyone’s days are numbered. Some people count to one, two, three and they are gone. Others count up to 100 and then leave us. As for me,  time has sped up. Days slip by as quickly as my feet on water over ice. But I’m not so sure this makes me wise, just deeply uneasy.

Would I have died before I died, by denying self, by leaving enough old lives behind, to be practiced at leaving this one go, so that I can meet my end with bravery, maybe even light on my face or maybe even joy or would terror sweep over me?

I think terror because stepping from here to there is like stepping into a great unknown, a saying goodbye to our most familiar home, our body. I can’t hardly imagine the sorrow a person feels leaving this good world, and the warm flesh behind.

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But every time I step on my horse I learn to breathe through this fear, to unlock my tension and let my back and hips move with Tessie’s stride. When Bruce’s mom was actively dying, she was breathing like a woman giving birth, or a Thoroughbred, held in tension, galloping on the track. Dallas Willard has said he wants to be so close to Jesus that he doesn’t know he’s gone from one body to the next. That’s what I want.

There is John in his epistle where he says, “But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (John 3:2b – 3, NIV). That’s what I want, to be glad when God shows up, not terrified or ashamed, but glad and at long last cleaned up.

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It’s a dark time of year. The world seems to be vibrating with the footsteps of W.B. Yeats’ beast slouching towards Bethlehem and a center that does not hold. I feel it, something awful looming just over the horizon. Whether that something awful is glorious or appalling or wild mix of both, I don’t know. But I know it’s coming and the true work is to watch, to train, to fill the lamps with oil, to buy an extra bottle of virgin olive. Stay awake. But that’s not always easy when the news is relentless, when our world looks like a train slowly, gracefully and with much power, going off the rails.

I have invested in a hundred dollars worth of planners to help me use my days better, not fall into the sleep that comes with scrolling through Facebook, while becoming too aware of the news, what the biblical types would call the cares of the world. I feel the call to hunker down in the green pastures by the still waters, to drink and eat the stuff the Lord provides, to rest for this season, but I haven’t taken Him up on this invitation. (I know, the green grass, the quiet waters will turn into rushing torrents and the valley of the shadow. I know.)

This business of dying before you die happens when a person is broken open, when their old life doesn’t fit any more. Richard Rohr explains,“I continue to find people inside every religion and profession who are on the true further journey. These are the ones who have ‘died before they die,’ who have let great love, suffering, or prayer lead them beyond their small self into the Big Self. They have let go of who they thought they were, or needed to be, to discover who they always were in God.”

To discover that we always were in God, might be news that’s better than good. That Jesus lead the way through death, so that he is always with us–nothing separating us from his love.

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But then there’s judgement, the terror of standing before God, all the mistakes of your life out there with no more covering than a badly fitting bikini, cringing.

I was browsing my Bible this time last year, and found the idea that judgement might not be so terrible, so full of accusation as I have feared.

Imagine being presented into the presence of God’s glory, the God before whom Isaiah cried, “Woe is Me for I am a man of unclean lips and I come from a people of unclean lips,” before whom Daniel was knocked cold as one dead, and John scared out of his mind, with joy. Imagine the depth of grace and love that is for us.

And yet, I think that in relation to God, to how very clean He is, we do wear rags, we smell bad, we are dying, and we do each other dirty. Somehow I don’t think we can escape doing harm, to ourselves, each other, the world around us. The way I see it, that’s one reason Jesus came. But I also think we are the pinnacle of God’s creation, that God saw that making us was good. We have original blessing, and original falling short, both of these at the same time.

There’s a story in scripture that shows this. The prophet Zechariah has a vision of the high priest Joshua covered in rags in God’s presence. The text says that Satan is accusing him. “The Lord says to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, Satan!” Not only that, but God sends an angel to change his clothes for new ones, to put a turban on his head. “Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him,’Take off his filthy clothes.’ Then he said to Joshua, ‘See I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.” (Zec 3:1 -5, NIV)

A famous benediction goes like this: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25)

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All I can do is trust these words, trust that God is like Tessie who walks down the trail, stays steady, doesn’t flinch when mallards fly off the river, doesn’t startle when the other horse does, despite my fear, despite my breathing down below it, and unlocking my back to move with her, even though my nerves are rattled. My friend Deb just reminded me that when God showed up and terrified people He or his angels said, “Fear not.” To the shepherds the night Jesus was born they said, “Fear not for we have brought you tidings of great joy. A son is born, in the City of David…” Tidings of great joy that only now am I beginning to catch a hold of.

12 Comments

  • With my off-kilter and sometimes inappropriate sense of humor, I always think about two things Woody Allen says about death. “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens,” and-my particular favorite-“Death is nature’s way of saying ‘Howdy!'”
    Now that i’ve gotten that out of my system, Katie, I am deeply moved by your blog. Your courage and your honesty are a source of comfort and inspiration. Stephen Levine, who studied with Kubler-Ross, says that every time we are sick or injured, any time we have any kind of physical pain, it is an opportunity to practice our dying, to practice for the day when the pain will come that displaces us from our bodies. I think what might save me from that terrible existential fear is to try, every day, to practice mindfulness and especially mindfulness of my mortality. I do find I sometimes envy those of my friends who are very very sure of what they’ll find after death, of what’s waiting on the other side. I often take a funny kind of comfort in the fact that I don’t know. I really don’t have any idea. One of the many things I love about Judaism is that the basis of everything (from Micah) is that what is required of us is that we “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Anything behind that is, in a nutshell, none of my business. And in Jeremiah, God assures us that his plans for us are for our good and not for harm and that he will restore our fortunes and bring us back to the place from which he sent us into exile (Her 29:11-14). I look for joy everywhere because it in joy that I am connected to God and when I am connected to God, breath to breath, I can get about five minutes free of fear 🙂 It’s just hard and, yes, every year now feels sometimes like borrowed time, time stolen, time given as grace. At age 70, I count the days, I try to loosen my hold on the people and things that bring me pleasure. The Buddhists say that the source of all pain and fear is attachment. I think I’m rambling here. “Jesus, you are the Way through the wilderness. Show me your Truth, in which I journey and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, be in me the Life that draws me to God.”

    • katiewilda says:

      What a wise and wonderful comment. I love what you say about how Micah’s words to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” are how we should live in a nutshell. And the rest is none of our business. Very true. Your reminder to look for joy where we can find it is well taken. Yesterday while the snow fell, I found it while dusting books that had long been allowed to gather dust. When I first got word about my mother’s cancer, and I was in a new job, I recited that gospel song, “The Lord knows the way through the wilderness.” So much wisdom here. I hope you shape this into a blog on your site.

  • Mark says:

    Katie, I love what you’ve written here, and I love what Dean wrote in comment too.

    You and I have had a good bit of conversation the past couple of days about Death and dying and, even, killing, haven’t we. Is this piece here an extension of that or just coincidence, I wonder. Either way, it’s really good.

    My friend who is a high-ranking officer in the United States Marine Corps and is also the Godliest man I know said something that I’m sure he didn’t originate, but it was the first time I’d ever heard it. My friend said, “Every one wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die!”

    I turn sixty next month. My days are beginning to fly by now too. My date with Death will soon arrive. The line from the movie Gladiator comes to mind, “Death smiles at us all . . . all a man can do is smile back.” I’m NOT brave, but there’s something in me that wants to laugh in the face of Death because I can just about see the One who stands behind the monster, and He is looking at me with such love and compassion and acceptance that I can’t any longer wait to see Him face to Face!

    • katiewilda says:

      Thanks so much for reading this. It was a hard one to write and publish. Our email conversation was coincidence or the topic being in the air or something as I’d worked on this a week or two before I actually posted it. The topic came up in our Bible class just before I posted it. I hear you on what you’re saying about smiling back at death and love what you say about “the One who stands behind the monster, and He is looking at me with such love and compassion and acceptance that I can’t wait any longer to see Him face to face.” Yes and again yes. Our pastor in that Bible class mentioned how he was called to a person who was dying. Her heart stopped several times and she described the tunnel of light and seeing the face of Jesus. Between shocks on her heart, he kept asking her what God’s face looked like. She said it looked like every face that offered acceptance and love. He thought that was a wonderful way to portray the Lord’s face. I was gobsmacked by how he seemed to know without my saying what was on my mind. I bet the practice for us these days is to spend time with God, maybe like Adam and Eve, walking in the cool of the evening. After all that relationship has been restored, though through a glass darkly.

      • Mark says:

        I’ve been thinking about Death a lot lately for some reason, Katie, as you know . . . maybe too much for my own good . . . I don’t know.
        But a stray lyric from Bob Dylan’s song, “Idiot Wind,” woke me up just now and made me think of Death again.
        “You hurt the ones that I love best
        And cover up the truth with lies
        One day you’ll be in the ditch
        Flies buzzin’ around your eyes
        Blood on your saddle”
        I don’t know to whom it was that Dylan wrote those words, but I was thinking just now that maybe the bard spoke of Death personified and that goddamned monster’s ignominious end. One day someone’s gonna kill Death, shoot him dead and leave him lying in his own uncovered, unmarked grave by the side of the road somewhere like he deserves for all the bad he’s done. Actually, some One already has killed Death. Least ways, that’s what we so-called “believers” say we believe, isn’t it?
        Maybe our biggest problem is that we’re just too damned dumb to know that Death is already dead.
        l

        • katiewilda says:

          What a great line from Bob Dylan. Do you know if he wrote it after he became a Christian?

          I agree with you about our not realizing that death is dead, and that Jesus went there so we don’t have to be afraid of it. When my parents and brother died, I had the profound sense, deep as my bones, that death was truly dead. I know I have said this before. Here’s a poem I wrote about a dream I had the morning my brother died. (I won’t show you part one because it’s too racy. If the book that it’s in gets published that’s a different story.)

          2.
          “I lay back afraid
          at what I just told,
          slipped into another dream.
          At the same house in the kitchen,
          I saw demons jumping into the sky.
          Gryphons, wings clacking, mechanical.
          A locust song.
          I ran outside, shook my fist.
          “You are dead.”
          The barns and woods
          smacked an echo: dead.
          One circled back.
          Laughed. My black dog
          vomited a bone and blood.
          He lay down, stiffened.
          I looked at a soup pot, saw blood
          and intestines. I jolted awake.
          I touched my husband’s back.
          He flinched but not awake.
          I slept.

          3.
          At a barn, the trainer wanted me to work
          a black horse with a sculpted head, quiet eye,muscled and powerful.
          My thighs ached to cradle
          his heart, ribs, and hide; a little bit wild
          as when a man lies between them.
          But I had no boots. The first rule I learned– you ride with boots and hard hat.
          The trainer said my sneakers were fine.
          He tossed me up on the horse.”

          I drew much strength from this dream as I went through some difficult things in the wake of my brother’s death.

          Thank you for stopping by. We’re getting to be that age where our time is getting shorter…

          • Mark says:

            “Idiot Wind” comes from Dylan’s album, “Blood On The Tracks,” which was released in 1975, about four years before Dylan released “Slow Train Coming,” the first of his three so-called Christian albums. In “Idiot Wind,” I doubt Dylan was singing about Death in the song, but about some personal enemy who was filling the press with lies about him. I just thought that the words might also nicely describe Death’s well-deserved demise.

            But actually, my satisfyingly-violent imagining has it all wrong. I know that you’re right when you wrote me recently, “I keep thinking that Jesus defeated death by dying, because if he defeated death by violence, he might have liked it too much and become evil himself.” Your thoughts sound heretical, at first, to think that Jesus could have ever “become evil,” but then again, He was tempted in all things just like we are, yet without sin, the Bible tells us.

            It must have been the ultimate shock when Death embraced the Lord of Life, Himself, and was, itself, killed thereby . . . praise the Lord!

          • katiewilda says:

            Yes I think it was the ultimate shock when Death was killed. The older I get the more I think the whole Christian story is a deep mystery that I have to trust. That however God works out the end of time it will be right and good but also very unexpected. It’s so good to hear your voice. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • I love your musings. I always do. Sitting here sick in my cave this year, I’ve done much of this same musing. As my illness knocked me down, Jesus felt closer and nearer to me, as if leaving my body would be the most glorious reality. He has been with me in it, even when all I could do day after day was cry. I’m so glad you write from the heart, Katie. You do it beautifully.

    • katiewilda says:

      Melinda thank you so much for so faithfully reading my work. What a testimony to God’s faithfulness that you share, “As my illness knocked me down, Jesus felt closer and nearer to me, as if leaving my body would be the most glorious reality.” I am sorry you’ve had to suffer so much, but am glad that God has been with you. Your encouragement means so much and keeps me writing. Sending along a hug.

  • Lynn D. Morrissey says:

    Katie, this is really a courageous post for a Christian to write. People look askance at me when I say I’m afraid to die, and I sense their judgment. But it’s my honest heart. I think for me, it’s more the fear of not being resurrected. Do I believe that Jesus was, or that a number of people mentioned in the Bible were? Yes, I really do. So I’m not sure why I have such difficulty in believing that I will be. I think it’s the decaying part . . . as if it’s easier for God to resurrect a person who has just died, that one who has rotted in the grave. I realize that God made Adam from dust (I believe that), and that He created a whole universe from nothing (I believe that), so I don’t know why this is so hard to believe about myself. I have been asking God to give me a deep faith to believe in the reality of heaven. If we know our final destination, though we may fear the actual act of death, I think we will have great hope. The more I have prayed about this for the past several years, God keeps showing me that if heaven and resurrection are not real, then absolutely nothing makes sense. Everything about Scripture points to eternity!!! Wrestling with you and asking God to strength my faith.

    • katiewilda says:

      What an honest comment. I’m sorry that people judge you for admitting you’re afraid to die. More and more I think that judgement is a very bad thing for people to do to each other. (I’ve felt the sting of it from the election.) I don’t know if this will help or not, but when my parents and brother died, I had an almost mystical sense that the resurrection as happening right then and there, as though time were bending around. I had a deep sense that death was dead, that this was not the last word. Maybe funny things happen with time, so we are resurrected right when we die. I don’t know. I hear you on wondering how God will put us back together…I wonder if N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope would be useful because the whole thing is a meditation on the resurrection. His work builds my faith…Thank you for wrestling with me.

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