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Death is a New Beginning
All the passages below are taken from Elisabeth Elliot’s book “The Path of Loneliness,” first published in 1988 and reprinted in 2001.
My friend Kathy has just married off her second daughter. She has one left at home. Her way of facing the loneliness of the "empty nest" differs radically from the usual. This is what she wrote to me:
As painful and emotional as it seems now that Amy will be at home only one more year, I know that then there will be grace sufficient and a new set of marching orders. And this gives such hope, for the Giver of the promise may be trusted!
The promise Cathy refers to, of course; is God's Word to Paul: "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:19, NKJV). And a new set of marching orders. That is what always follows loss of any kind---a mother's loss of her child, a wife's of her husband, a lover's of his beloved, a man's loss of his job, his health, his self-esteem, his home---if only we have ears to hear those orders, eyes to see the gain God intends to bring out of our loss. Even when trouble stops our ears and clouds our vision, He goes on working in secret and perhaps years later reveals what we had not faith to lay hold of.
"I do not want to miss one lesson," I wrote a few weeks after Jim died.
Yet I find that events do not change souls. It is our response to them which finally affects us. I find that though I am in a new place of yieldedness before Him who has thus planned my life, little things remain between me and Him---big things in His sight: lack of patience with the Indians, laziness in myself, failure to discipline myself to prepare properly for school [literacy classes which I was teaching Quichua girls], etc.
Two days later:
Got so impatient with the girls in school that I had to come downstairs for awhile and write a letter just for a break. Then the afternoon held the instruction class for those who teach the children's meeting. I feel helpless without Jim---he always taught that class. A thousand little things come up constantly---gasoline for the lamps---where did he store it? Someone broke into the storeroom---what did they steal? I don't know what was in it. Hector [teacher of the Indian school] came up to discuss his salary---such a complicated business, I don't understand it at all.
I include these entries, samples of many similar ones, to show that although my spiritual ambitions were high, the gift of widowhood certainly did not catapult me into sainthood. I can look back and see that the Spirit of God did not stop His work in me---His work in a soul is often "without observation," a hidden thing like yeast. While I understood that in so great a loss God surely must have some great gain in mind, I was not nearly saintly enough always to see the little needling trials of the day as my "marching orders," the very process itself through which God's great gain would be realized. I was to march, not to leap and bound. It was left, right, left, right.
Waking in the morning was always the worst time---Oh dear, another day without him! was my thought. Then the Lord's loving reminder, in the words of an old hymn:
Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh,
When the bird waketh, and the shadows flee;
Fairer than morning, lovelier than daylight
Dawns the sweet consciousness, I am with Thee.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
The consciousness of His presence had never before in any special way seemed "lovelier than daylight." Now, because of death, it did.
Death is a new beginning. Lilias Trotter's little gem of a book, Parables of the Cross, illustrates this mysterious principle with watercolors of flowers and seed pods. Beside a painting of a calyx which has released all of the petals she writes,
Look at the expression of abandonment about this wild-rose calyx as time goes on, and it begins to grow towards the end for which it has had to count all things but loss: the look of dumb emptiness has gone---it is flung back joyously now, for simultaneously with the new dying a richer life has begun to work at its heart---so much death, so much life---for
"Ever with death it weaveth
The warp and woof of the world."
... The seed-vessel has begun to form; it is "yielded to bring forth fruit."
Deeper and deeper must be the dying, for wider and fuller is the lifetide that it is to liberate---no longer limited by the narrow range of our own being, but with endless powers of multiplying in other souls. Death must reach the very springs of our nature to set it free: it is not this thing or that thing that must go now: it is blindly, helplessly, recklessly, our very selves. A dying must come upon all that would hinder God's working through us---all interests, all impulses, all energies that are "born of the flesh"---all that is merely human and apart from His Spirit.1
"Deeper and deeper must be the dying." The vocabulary sounds morbid, a word which comes from the Latin for disease, related to the verb "to die." But the spiritual meaning of death which Trotter's book illustrates, far from being a diseased and unwholesome thing, is actually the wondrous matrix of health, well-being, vitality, life. Loneliness is one kind of "dying" most of us learn about sooner or later. Far from being "bad" for us,
a hindrance to spiritual growth, it may be the means of unfolding spiritual "blossoms" hitherto enfolded. The full-blown beauty of the wild rose, its very "fulfillment," depends on its continuously dying and living again. The death of the seed that falls into the ground produces a new cycle of life---the fresh little shoot, the full stalk, the bud, the flower. The flower must die in order to produce the fruit. The fruit dies to allow the seed to fall once again into the ground. The seed dies and there is a new beginning. Nothing is ever wasted. Dead leaves, dead flesh, natural wastes of all kinds, enrich the soil. In God's economy, whether He is making a flower or a human soul, nothing ever comes to nothing. The losses are His way of accomplishing the gains.
. . . . .
The same Mind which fashioned the cycles of seed life also fashioned the continuous death-and-life cycle of an individual human life. Our lives could not begin without the mother's life-giving. Spanish calls the giving of birth the giving of light. Yet this very initiation into life and light is in itself an experience of death---death for the mother, who puts her life on the line to deliver her child, and death for the child, who leaves the security and warmth of the womb to travel a terrible passage into a cold and unfamiliar world.
Every passage is both a death and a new life. When the child is weaned there is the severing from the only source of comfort and nourishment he has known. Suddenly he is lonely. So is the mother, as she experiences the first separation from her baby who has been intimately and physically a part of her. Weaning is thus a death for both baby and mother.
When the child learns to walk he walks away from his mother. When he leaves for school it is the end of measureless freedom and the security of home. He finds out what loneliness is, and so does the mother, for even if she feels that for her it is the beginning of a new freedom, she must also realize that she has lost her baby.
Puberty, the foreshadowing of the new life of fatherhood and motherhood, is death to the old one of childhood. Jesus made a break with His parents at the age of twelve to be about His Father's business. The time of irresponsibility was over for Him (Is there a lesson here for teenagers and their parents? How long can playtime go on?). When Amy goes to college, her mother "loses her baby" all over again, as Kathy's letter depicts.
Graduation ceremonies are called commencements. They celebrate both an ending and a beginning. Young adulthood is a new life, eagerly welcomed, yet seldom entered upon without some pangs of nostalgia, not to mention qualms about the future. So it is a death as well. One is jolted by the realization that he is no longer protected and cared for, he is on his own and has obligations he never had before. It dawns on him, for example, that he is single, although he has never been anything else. What does it mean? Death to self-will, a new life of acceptance of suffering, a serious seeking of the will of God concerning marriage.
Nowhere is the life/death cycle more obvious than in marriage. While bride and groom, consumed with joy, may well make it through the wedding without tears, the parents often do not. Newlyweds focus on the new life. Parents focus on the one that is over. It does not take long after the wedding, however, for the young husband and wife to discover that marriage is both a new life and an unexpected death. At this point each is likely to feel that a horrible mistake has been made. Marriage is death to privacy, independence, childhood's home and family, death to unilateral decisions and the notion that there is only one way of doing things, death to the self. When these little deaths are gladly and wholeheartedly accepted, new life---the glory of sacrificial love which leads to perfect union---is inevitable.
Then, in the normal course of things, follows parenthood, fraught with joy and pain. A new life, and a radically new laying down of life begins---through all of the sacrifices and sufferings of birth, weaning, training, school, puberty, adolescence, marriage, each with a different kind of loneliness. Thus the cycle goes on---life out of death, gain out of loss.
This is what the Crucified Life is all about. The Cross is a sign of loss---shameful, humiliating, abject, total loss. Yet it was Jesus' loss that meant heavenly gain for the whole world. Although secured in a tomb with a heavy stone, a seal, and posted guards, He could not be held down by death. He came out of the grave as the Death of Death and Hell's Destruction.
His death was a new beginning. Those who accept that truth receive not only the promise of heaven, but the possibility of heaven on earth, where the Risen Christ walks with us, transforming, if we allow Him to, even an empty nest. [65-71]
1. Lilias Trotter, Parables of the Cross (London: Algiers Mission Board and North Africa Mission, 1964), 24-25.
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