Thesis 8: Life Is Death Is Life
This post is part of a series of meditations on each of Luther's "95 Theses." You can view all posts in the series here.
8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying.
We should certainly return to the idea of priests reserving canonical penances for the dying. This practice took off while, as Luther says later, "the bishops slept." Lots to talk about and relate to the contemporary church, particularly as it relates to denominational superstructure and authority.
I'm struck in thesis 8, though, by this purported division between life and death, that they are states in opposition to each other, rather than friendly residents of the same space. When I see churches in decline who are afraid of change, what they really seem to be afraid of is their own demise. I am not saying anything new here. I believe, though, that the same could be said of our growing, "healthy" churches.
When they refuse clear indications that the Spirit is calling them in a different direction, or in one that might create stasis or decline, they are refusing death.
Jesus is constantly calling us to die, every single day. In this death, we truly find life, a gorgeous paradox that we have difficulty grasping with our Western minds. How many times throughout any given day do I yearn to be right and end up sacrificing an attempt to heal a relationship? How many times do I forget that it's not a newer, shinier, more comfortable set of American luxuries that creates true life?
A cheap death creates cheap life.
Cheap death looks something like this: Sacrificing oneself to working harder, faster, better to make more income to become more comfortable in the ultimate belief that it is God's blessing that allows us to be happy. Cheap life, then, looks something like this: "I've sacrificed my time to working harder and making more money. Now I can give more of my extra money to the poor because I've worked harder, faster, better and I have extra money to give away. And yet, my life continues to get more stable and comfortable. How blessed I am!"
A true death creates true life.
True death looks something like this: "I don't even know that I'll be part of what happens to bring the Kingdom about, but my ego needs to get out of the way of the Spirit at all costs. I am not mine, but God's. I must divest myself of what my culture tells me about purchase price." True life, then, looks something like this: "Look at how the hungry are being fed, the poor clothed, the widow taken care of, the orphan loved. What do I need to give up today more than yesterday that would allow me to be closer to those things happening in my midst?"
A true death creates true life because they are one and the same. One begets the other, yes, but it is more similar to a cycle, not a unidirectional causal relationship on a line. One causes the other which causes the other which causes the other, and so on: a path that is constantly unfolding in many directions and dimensions. Not one death creating one life, in other words, but many small deaths adding up to one huge life that is emptied of the self so that so much God and so many others can fill it.
Eventually, our perceived self (Richard Rohr's "shadow self") fades away. What emerges is the true self, the self that God has always treated us as, even before we knew it, even before we accepted the prevenient grace that is surrounding us at all moments.
How much stronger would our United Methodist Church be if our dying congregations realized their honored chance at creating new life out of their inevitable deaths, that their deaths must necessarily create life? God is giving them a chance to be wise midwives! How much stronger would our United Methodist Church be if our living congregations realized their honored chance at creating new death out of their inevitable growth and prosperity, that their lives must necessarily create more beautiful death every day. Our growing UMC's are too comfortable, too complacent, too focused on a salvation that is integrated into American individualism.
They must die so that they may live.