Death by Living


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A couple of weeks ago, I picked up N.D. Wilson’s Death by Living to read for the second time.  I got distracted with other books, and the small blue hardback began to gather dust on my nightstand.  Then something happened yesterday that made me pick it back up and read it in an entirely new light.

A friend died.

He was an adventurous soul.  For years, he spent his days jumping from airplanes and riding the wind, defying gravity and glorying in the thrill of speed and height.  He loved Christ passionately and shared his faith with everyone he met.  He was a beloved brother, son and friend to many in my church.  And he was only a few years older than I.

When we got the news of his death yesterday morning, two phrases kept going over and over in my head like a broken record.

The first was a line from Gandalf in The Return of the King: Death is only another path.  One that we all must take.

The second: Death by living.

Wilson’s book has a subtitle that sums up the entire message of the book: Life is meant to be spent.  I read through the entire book months ago.  I was moved.  I was inspired.  I was challenged.  But I see now that, at that time, I wasn’t able to fully understand the importance of the words in that book.  Yesterday, that changed.

One day I will die.  And that day could be very near.

I’ve always known that.  In theory.  But over the past 24 hours, the word “death” has taken on a new meaning for me.  I picked up Death by Living last night with an aching heart and began to read.  I wanted the words to stick deeper this time around, to change me, to shape my soul while it’s still soft and sore.

We are a story, Wilson says.  We are characters in a narrative shaped by the great Author.  What kind of characters are we?  What kind of story are we living in?  When we are met with challenges, do we shrink in cowardice?  Do breathe out complaints?  Do we face challenges with bravery and honor?  What kind of characters are we?

A character I knew spoke his final words.  He laughed, and prayed, and flew for the last time.  His story came to an end.  For the characters that shared his story, yesterday was a dark day.  The chapter was hard to read.  But for him, yesterday was only the end of the prologue.  For him, the true adventure has only just begun.

The beauty about being a living character in a living story is that we can choose what sort of characters we will be.

Do you believe that life is a story, written by a loving Author?  Do you believe that you are a character put on this stage for a purpose?  Then, Wilson says, don’t leave it at words:

“If you think it, live it.  If you don’t live it, you don’t really think it.  You are not what you think (or what you think you think).  You are not what you say you are.  You are what you do.   You are Adam, charged to name yourself.  But you cannot do it with words made noise – only with words made flesh.”

My friend didn’t just believe Christianity.  He didn’t just believe that he was created in the image of God, put on this earth for a purpose.  He lived it.  He made his words flesh through the life that he lived.

He reached his death by living.

And so will all of us.  But how much living can we pack into our lives before our final chapters?

“How fast can we run?  How deeply can we laugh?  Can we ever give more than we receive?  How much gratitude can we show?  How many of the least of these can we touch along the way?  How many seeds will we get into the ground before we ourselves are planted?”

One day you will reach your final chapter.  Your final act.  You will walk off of the stage, into the full light of reality.  You will meet your Author.  He will take you by the shoulders and turn you around to face the stage on which you spoke and laughed and cried and lived.  You will flip back through the pages of your story and see with perfect clarity what kind of character you really were.

This is not a scare tactic.  It’s not a guilt trip.  It’s reality.  It can be scary, sure: it all depends on what kind of character you are.  But it can be beautiful.  Imagine what kind of characters we’d be, what kind of stories we’d live, if we asked the Author Himself for our lines, our cues?  If we allow Him to make us into the noble, courageous, joyful characters He desires for us to be?

On his last jump, my friend spoke words, not knowing they would be his last.  They were the same words, his grandmother told me, that he said before every flight:  “To God be the glory!”

What will my final words be?

What will yours be?

Another Death by Living quote.  This time, Wilson lays out the goals of his life:  “Ride the roaring wave of providence with eager expectation.  To search for the stories all around me.  To see Christ in every pair of eyes.  To write a past I won’t regret.  To reach the dregs of the life I’ve been given and then lick the bottom of my mug.  To live hard and die grateful.

And to enjoy it.”

There is so much of this small blue hardback that I’m longing to share with you, because these words can change your life if you let them.  Buy it.  Borrow it.  Read it.  The words that a man from Idaho wrote down and bound together in book-form are filled with wisdom.  But they are no good if they stay as words.  They must be made flesh.

Ask the Author for your lines.  Live life to the fullest.  Love others.  Be a servant.  Be grateful for your blessings.  Reach your death not through days spent in selfishness, or in the pursuit of comfort, or in ignoring what is most important in life.

Reach your death through living.

Death is only another path.  One that we all must take.

To God be the glory.

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5 thoughts on “Death by Living

  1. This was a beautiful commentary on several levels. One was your process in working through the death of your friend, finding great meaning in his life and his faith, and taking comfort in knowing he is now secure with the Lord. Instead of regretting his rather dangerous choice of lifestyle, you rejoiced with him in the beauty he experienced and the lives he touched with his love of Jesus. It was a worthy tribute to an obviously worthy young man. Another level was your drawing on two of your beloved and trusted authors for words of wisdom on a subject not yet so familiar in your own life, (thankfully!) It’s lovely to see how the writings of others have so often enriched your own life. Also, I appreciated how you have used this sad event to bring yourself and us, your readers, to self-examination, challenging us to consider how we are living our own lives! Pretty good for one post! We join you in prayers for this family and thank you for sharing this with us. Love, Grandma

  2. Oh sweetie, thank you so much for this! It really put everything into perspective for me and really helped me gathering my thoughts about what just happened. I’ve been so encouraged by you, your blog posts, the conversations we’ve had, and the friendship we’ve shared.

  3. Thank you for this post. I just watched a German film called Ordet (“The Word”) on Youtube, which had a very similar effect on me. At one point, a character says “You blaspheme God with your lukewarm faith.” Though it hasn’t a similar impact out of context, during that scene it hit me like a punch to the gut. Do I believe what I say I believe? Are my words of death or of life?

    “The day came coldly, looking like a dead face out of the sky. Then, the night, with the moon and the stars, turned pale and died, and for a little while it seemed as if Creation were delivered over to Death’s dominion.

    “But, the glorious sun, rising, seemed to strike those words, that burden of the night, straight and warm to his heart in its long bright rays. And looking along them, with reverently shaded eyes, a bridge of light appeared to span the air between him and the sun, while the river sparkled under it.”
    -A Tale of Two Cities

    He lives.

  4. Heart-felt and beautifully written, Victoria! I’ll be praying for you and all those nearly involved right now…

    I only just finished Death by Living last night! It’s so easy to get sedentary in our faith. To forget we’re all walking on a cliff edge…that every day we’re battling giants…that our full hands are a gift…that our empty hands and eternal longings are a gift…that death is the consummation of a great joy. So easy to forget what the reality of faith is–the spine-chilling, heart-tingling exhilaration of life.

    Have you ever read any Chesterton? I would highly recommend his Manalive and I very much consider it a *forerunner* of Death by Living. Let me know if you’ve read it–and if not I’ll remind you of it before the end of the summer. 🙂

    Btw, I can’t believe it took me four days to get your post…somehow my blogger was lagging way behind. I’ve now signed up for email updates though, so situation remedied.

    with love and prayers,
    ~Heidi

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