I went on a long bike ride yesterday. There's a fifty mile path around Minneapolis. I went from our house to the Mississippi River along downtown, down to Minnehaha Falls, along the Minnehaha Creek past lake after lake: Hiawatha and Nokomis, Harriet, Calhoun, and Cedar, back to home.
We've had a wet summer. A really wet summer. The falls were flowing more than I've ever seen. Along the creek, the path was flooded. In one place I had to pedal through about a foot of water for a hundred yards or more.
Water is at the core of life. It was there at the beginning of creation. The flood cleansed the earth. The Israelites passed through the waters of the Red Sea to escaped slavery; they passed through the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Jesus gave us the sacrament of baptism--dying to self, rising in Christ.
Without water, we cannot llive. But water is also destructive. When concentrated, it destroys. It washes away. The flood plains along the river smelled of dead fish, a smell found pleasant only by scavengers. Undoubtedly, the flooding brough death, just as the waters bring life.
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A week or so ago, we were camping at Jay Cooke State Park. I explored an old pioneer cemetery there from the latter part of the nineteenth century. Only a few tombstones remain with recognizable names. The bodies beneath are now a part of the soil.
Death consumed them. For now at least. There will come a time when those old pioneers are given new bodies. Whole, unblemished bodies.
Someone picked wildflowers and put them on one of the tombstones. It's an odd practice--killing a living them to mark the burial place of a dead thing. We do that, though, trying to beautify death.
And there is a beauty in death, but it's subtle and hard to find. It's there in the hope of eternal life. It's there in the continuation of generation after generation. It's there in memories.
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I have had much death in my life. Not so much in people I have lost (though there have been plenty), but in myself. Dark things that bring me death. Places where the light does not reach.
Paul says, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:20).
Dying is something I need to choose to do each day. Dying to my self. Dying to my old patterns and habits. Dying to my selfish desires.
I have failed to do this all too often. It leaves me with more death in my life--it leaves me with a life that smells like dead fish and earthworms on a flooded plain.
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On Sunday I visited the church of a friend I went to seminary with. It's just a short bike ride from my house, but I hadn't visited before. It turned out to be the one year anniversary of an arson attack on their church building. It is a diverse church where reconciliation takes place. Not everyone likes that. But they didn't let the attack on them and their lack of a building for most of a year stop them from being a church.
The message that morning was about new beginnings, about letting yourself be open to being changed and used by God. Like a phoenix, rising from the ashes, life comes through death.
Paul tells us to "put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry" (Colossians 3:5). He goes on in that chapter to tell us to rid ourselves of things like anger, slander, filthy language, and lying.
This is not a one time thing. At least for me it isn't. I need to put those things to death daily. Death only begets more death.
Instead, Paul tells us to put on compassion, kindness, gentleness, humility, love, and forgiveness, as if they were articles of clothing that we dress ourselves with each day. New life. The raging waters have washed away the filth and carried it far downstream--as far as the east is from the west.
So I'm working to get the death out of my life. It's not easy. I've got long-established patterns and habits. But I want to choose life each day. I'm sick of the smell of decay. I want the smell of freshly fallen rain.