In ancient Rome, military generals returning victorious from war were ceremoniously paraded through streets in a chariot in a great celebration as they ‘inhabited the praise of the people.’ But behind the general, in the same chariot, a slave was placed whose sole responsibility was to whisper in the general’s ear sobering words that served to protect him from the delusions of grandeur that inevitably come to those who find themselves at the center of human praise: Memento mori.
“Remember to die.”
It seems like an odd reminder, considering the fact that none of us have much to say in the matter, and all of us will certainly prove equal to the task when the occasion presents itself. But of all the facts of life, death turns out to be perhaps the easiest to forget. Or perhaps all of life is oriented toward one long attempt to forget about death, because the moment we become aware of death is the exact moment we become aware of a uniquely human desire: not to die.
Life begins with a desire to eat, to drink, to touch and be touched, but one day we wake up with the desire to be gods, that is, to not die. But since that desire proves to provide little practical counsel for the day-to-day task of being human, we busy ourselves with lesser desires in a pursuit toward satisfaction, expanding our kingdoms, our influence, our bank accounts, our progeny, willfully forgetting that all we value as treasure today the moth will value as food tomorrow. And eventually, even the moths will die. But we insist on willfully forgetting what we know to be true–that nothing less than immortality could possibly satisfy the most basic longing beneath all the rumblings of the human experience that drive us ‘to distraction from distraction by distraction’ (T.S. Eliot). Where, after all, are the limits of our desire? When, after all, has anyone ever found enough? When has the satisfaction of desire not given birth to yet another, even if the it is simply the desire to remain satisfied, the desire not to die.
So we live our lives as though we will live forever, often using people likes steps on a Babylonian towers on an infinite trajectory, aimed squarely at nothing less than exactly ‘more’—in all its arbitrary finite forms. But ‘more’ turns out to never be ‘enough’. Desire is always stronger that satisfaction. The human soul is a bottomless pit, grounding our appetites in a boundless, formless void. We are not like the burning bush Moses met on the mountaintop, whose fire did not consume; we are like every other fire burning up the world. So with every met expectation we discover an unmet expectation that lies deeper in the gut, farther from the heart.
“To know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God“: that is Paul’s implicit diagnosis in the form of prescription. But the God-sized love we were created to be filled with has been has been infected with our love of so many lesser things. As the deer panteth for the water so my soul panteth after you, O God, and also after you, O sex, and you, O power, and you, O approval, O praise, O just about anything to distract me from the eternity God has stubbornly placed in my heart, in order that I won’t find anything this side of eternity more than temporary satisfaction (Eccles. 3:11)—in order that I might eventually become dissatisfied with temporary satisfactions. Until then, our pursuits will continue to tear us in two opposite directions, driven by two geometrically opposed loves. We love to be loved by God, but we also love to love our sin.
Every particular sin has the same genealogy. Every sin is begotten of (a) a desire (b) based on a deception (c) organized against love. The Bible calls such desires temptations and attributes deception to the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). Temptations are experienced as an appeal to freedom, but they are precisely the opposite because they ultimately function to enslave freedom to desire, not to satisfy desire through freedom. Such temptations are not an appeal to freedom but, ultimately, to pride. Pride always feels like freedom because pride always gets to say, “My will be done.” But human freedom is not simply the power of the will to act; it is the power of the will to love, because love is the ultimate and essential human desire. With the will not oriented toward its proper end the power of the will to act is nothing more than the will to power: the drive of life toward infinite desire rather than infinite satisfaction. That’s why, for example, the will that sacrifices one’s lusts in order to love only one wife leads to far more satisfaction than the will that sacrifices one’s wife to go lusting after to some other man’s wife—more satisfaction for all parties involved, I might add. Just imagine the family Christmas photos in either scenario twenty years down the road. There’s far more satisfaction in short-term sacrifice than there is in long-term regret.
But the will to power, as Nietzsche called it, pursues an indefinite future without ever finding rest in the present moment; it is the urgent now, not the eternal now, instant gratification, not grandkids and gratitude. It is about survival, not life, the will’s appetite for more, not the soul’s appetite for enough, for fullness, for God.
This becomes more practically obvious as life in the body ages with the body. Eventually embodied life begins to feel like an endless pursuit of escalating goals, with each step up the ladder revealing more clearly only how high our Infinite desire truly is, and thus how low human striving gets us. Every promise turns out to be only half full because we are always left at least half empty. Youth are naïve; their step-grandparents are bitter. All are forgetful. To remember to die in the light of eternity begins by letting our desires die in the light of today.
Thus, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is our essential reminder—the story of the God who became a backseat slave to whisper into the front of our chariots: Memento mori. The season of Lent, beginning today, is our annual pilgrimage into the desert with Jesus (Mt. 4), where our subterranean temptations to forget rise to the surface with the serpent who seduces us to rise up in war against our mortality. If you are the Son of God, pursue pleasure! (cf. Lk. 4:3) Pursue power! (Lk. 4:6-7) Pursue praise! (Lk. 4:9-11). It is the temptation of Son of God, because the Son of God became Son of Man. And this is the temptation of every man, woman, and child: the lust of the flesh (good for food), the lust of the eyes (delight to the eyes), the pride of life (desired to make one wise), indeed, the forbidden fruit—to be as gods—not to die (cf. 1 Jn. 2:15-17; Gen. 3:1-7).
And so we enter the desert today, where we confront the twisted shape of our two-pronged souls, fashioned after the forked shape of that tempter’s deceptions. We desire God, yes, but we confess too our other desires, splintering forth from the divisions in our soul. We do have a passion for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, but we confess there are other gasoline passions. We desire God’s will, but we confess we never desire “not my will.” We never desire to let ‘my will’ die, and so live into the eternal will of the Father.
And so we must return to the desert fast to search ourselves for areas of amnesia, reminding our obstinate wills to die, to remind ourselves of the direction we are all headed, lest we continue to chase empty upward promises that only push the deeper side of the soul out to the surface, thinning it out, so that life just becomes a series of unexamined actions and reactions, like a restless pinball with an impenetrable surface—no stability, no connection, no depth, no anchors, no stillness, no reflection, no transparency, no exposure of the heart, no communion of the spirit, no deep crying out to deep (Ps. 42), leaving us in the end like a cicada shell clinging to that God-damned tree.
By moving through this somber season of self-examination we are better prepared to see how fitting is the cross, not for Christ but for us. Indeed, as the thief at Jesus’ side confessed, it is our “just reward” (Lk. 23:41). In our unreflective world, fast-paced and on-demand, there is hardly a more urgent need for the life of faith than this kind of reflection, which inevitably leads us into repentance, since herein we discover no small attempt in our heart to rise up as gods—to live by pleasure alone, power alone, pride alone. Only then can our Good Friday Gospel penetrate to the level of the salvation we actually need—salvation from ourselves. We must remember to die, lest we succeed needing no life other than our own. Only then can we be properly prepared to utter the truth of our Sunday Morning confession: “I am crucified with Christ—nevertheless I live!”
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
~ Son of God, Son of Man
- Of course, all creatures instinctively desire to survive, but only humans desire not to die. That is to say, only humans can conceptualize death as such and in so doing cannot avoid, if even only for a flinching moment, contemplating their own death. Human consciousness is plagued with eternal dimensions. We can travel in our minds beyond ourselves, modeling universes and genesises and apocalypses. But when when we try to travel into the dark void of non-being, of our own non-being, we indeed discover “a bourne from which no traveler returns” (Hamlet). We become aware of the judgment this world is under, for we know that end of my consciousness is for me the same as having never had a consciousness, and that is the same for me as there not being and never having been and there never going to be anything at all (cf. Jenson, On Thinking the Human). And since there is no life apart from consciousness, the inevitability of death leads to the absurd conclusion of a pure and utter negation of being as such.
This is one of the hundreds of letters to my grandfather spilling out of an old, cracked leather satchel, most of which are from listeners of his radio Gospel broadcast. This one is from “Jeffrey L. Woody…at Sandy a Ridge Prison Camp,” requesting a tape of his “Country Talk” (the name, I suppose, of a compilation of recitations, songs, sermons and the like). He indicates in his letter that he sent enclosed with his request “nearly every dime [he had].”
I found the letter paper-clipped to a copy of the response my grandfather sent (copied likely for bookkeeping, likely by my grandmother) that read as follows: “I am returning your $7.00 and will be glad to send a tape to your wife without charge, and if you send the address of your parents, your brother and son, I will send them a tape without charge. Prayerfully, Barney Pierce.” Below this personal note was a copy of a poem he had written, who knows when, perhaps just then, perhaps just for Jeffrey, called “Orphan’s Trial.” It is about a criminal who found an advocate with the Father in Jesus, and, as an orphan, found much more than even that. The last line reads:
“The lawyer was Jesus, the crucified one;
the judge was his Father, now I am his son.”
The last letter in the clip was Jeffrey’s response, in turn, full of praises to God and the addresses for his family.
And so the Gospel was heard, the captives were set free, and the kingdom of God advanced.
My grandfather has had a greater Gospel influence in this world than anyone I have ever known. I have read about the spiritual giants in Church history, and I am not necessarily skeptical of the Gospel influence they had, but I do know that if they had any such influence it was not because they were giants but in spite of it. It is because they were the kind of people who could broadcast the Gospel across the globe by day and write to a prisoner named Jeffrey by night. It is because of all those little things history doesn’t tell us about that grandchildren find evidence of in untold testimonies while cleaning out the attic. The Gospel always comes to us swaddled in smallness, because how else can such a giant God convince such little people of his love?
Despite his Yoda-like stature (or perhaps because of it), Granddaddy was always a spiritual giant in my eyes. I realize now it is precisely because, despite his far-reaching influence and unscalable faith, he always met me at eye level. It is because his God-sized faith never tried to outgrow his childlike heart. He made it easy for all the little people to understand gigantic Love. I learned from my grandfather that the reach of a man’s impact for Christ can only be measured by the size of his willingness to shrink.
Granddaddy died yesterday at the ripe old age of 98. His testimony is now complete. Death delineates every life, carving it out of time as a single word left to the world with greater power than any of the many uttered before it. It both reveals and expresses the testimony of a life in the fullest sense, as legacy, or more precisely, as momentum.
Every life passes through this world like a semi on the highway, pulling life and matter and memory in its wake. Some lives, when buried, pull on the lives around them like a black hole on light. But some lives, when finally broken, release an outpouring of spirit that fills the sails of generations for generations. Granddaddy has left a mighty rushing wind of momentum pushing against the backs of his family and countless others with guidance and confidence and encouragement, indeed a kind of power, to stay the course, resolutely, to follow him Christ-ward headlong into death. We will finally, next weekend, sow his life into the ground, side-by-side with his beloved, where he and my grandmother will together continue to yield an orchard of blessing for all the lives living in their wake.
Thank you, Granddaddy, for showing me how to live and, more importantly, for showing me how to die.
“He who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much” (Lk. 16:10).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24).
“And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child will be laid down for the fall and the resurrection of many, and for a sign that is opposed, (and a sword will pierce your own soul also), so that the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Lk. 2:34-35).
Originally Titled: Levi Ryser: Born in the Shadow of the Savior
The baby was born. They called him James.
There’s not much to say about James. He doesn’t say much about himself in the letter he left for us. The only other thing the Bible says about James is that he was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). All we get from Church history about James is in fragments, no cohesive narrative. A guy named Hegesippus called him James the Just. It stuck.
But it’s no surprise there’s not much to say about James, because all that is said of him is said under the shadow of his big Brother. James the Just, brother of Jesus the Judge, born in the shadow of the Savior. A hard act to follow.
I wonder if Mary felt guilty. She was found to be with child, again, but not by the Holy Spirit again. This time by plain ol’ unholy Joe. This child surely would not be so godly as her First. I wonder if she felt guilty before James was born, knowing that she could not love him as much as her Firstborn (of all Creation)?
But even more than that, I wonder if she felt guilty after he was born. I wonder if she felt guilty when she realized that she loved her second-born just as much.
I remember when we were expecting our firstborn. All Keldy thought about was the baby. She loved him in I suppose the way only a mother can love an unborn child. I on the other hand felt guilty. I could not relate. For those nine months my reaction to her pregnancy was a kind of surprised “Oh yeah…”, coupled with a nagging fear that I wasn’t going to love him like a father is supposed to love his son. I literally feared that I would love my dogs more than my son. Babies just hadn’t been all that impressive to me, because I am not a woman. The honest men out there know what I’m talking about. Women have no clue.
Except for maybe Mary. Mary knows. Mary had, after all, held at her bosom the one who came from the bosom of God the Father (Jn. 1:18). Mary had indeed “kissed the face of God.” But this second-born would be just another face in the shadow of the Almighty. Mary wasn’t yet used to having children who weren’t God. And middle children already have a syndrome named after them, but what of the one that comes second to the Savior of the world. Mary knows.
When Kezek was born, I started treating my dogs like dogs. I loved my firstborn so intensely that I was afraid I loved him more than God. I was afraid that if anything were to happen to him I would hate God. That fear lingers.
When Keldy told me we were expecting again, I was doubly guilty and doubly afraid. Not only did I love my firstborn more than or as much as God, now I feared that I would not love my second-born as much as my firstborn, perhaps only as much as the dogs.
The baby was born. We called him Levi Ryser. There was no sound. He was blue. The voices of the people in white raised an octave. They stopped looking us in the eye. They were looking at some protocol that was visible only to those who knew some unspoken “code.” Ryser needed decoded.
The doctor handed him to me to carry as I was paced at an uncomfortable pace en route to the NICU. It seemed far too much like a formality for my first embrace of my second-born son, like it was a consolation, a mere gesture, the beginning of some process necessary for some Contingency Plan Z. It felt like I was greeting my newborn son with a goodbye.
There are no words here that will do.
I held him as close to my heart heart as humanly possible. I tried to hold him as close to my heart as humanly impossible, or as inhumanly possible. I tried to pour my life into his. I tried to empty myself to fill him up. I tried to breath for him. I wanted to cut out my heart and put it into his body. I wanted to die so I could raise him from the dead. Anything. Just please…
I think that was the first day I ever actually interceded for someone. I beat on heaven’s door like one of those old grandmothers who’s earned the right to act that way. I was pleading, then I was demanding, then I was crying. I had felt the joy of a father’s love with my firstborn but with my second-born I was brushing up against the prospect of a father’s grief. I was feeling the very sharp other edge of love for the first time. I learned that day something about the sword Simeon told Mary about (Lk. 2:35).
Four days later, he was stable. Over those four days I started to understand what I suppose Mary had come to understand with her second-born: that the love of God and the love of a son are not two separate loves. The sword that pierced Mary’s heart and the spear that pierced her Son’s were felt first in the love that was laid at the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8).
God is love in a very nounish sense, like the nounish sense of the word creation or the Word Incarnation. Mary couldn’t compare her love for Jesus with her love for James, because her love for James came from the life of Jesus. There is no love apart from that Life. Indeed, there is no life apart from that Love. If it is in God that we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), then Love is the ether of all our relationships. To love is merely an act of alignment.
His name has become more fitting than I had intended. Levi Ryser means, by my assignment, death and resurrection, or offering and acceptance, or more simply “Gift of God” (with the intentionally ambiguous genitive). It is the second-born of Mary, after all, by whom we discover ourselves, since we all are second-born of the dead. We discover that unto us a Child is born, to us a Son is given, in order to restore love to its proper form, that we might love our own as we love God, because he loves us as though we were his own. That is the meaning of yesterday’s Birthday and therefore every birthday in the light of its shadow.
Levi was born on the altar, where all gifts are born. He was born without breath, blue. But while he was yet unknown and unknowing, en route to the NICU, he was already being born in the bosom of his father. I think in that moment, if for only that moment, I understood Mary. I think I understood something about motherhood that day. I understood what it was like to carry a life that could not carry itself apart from my own. I understood what it was like to carry life with a sense that if one dies, we all die, if one lives, we all live. I think I learned something about being the Mother of God that day. I’m certain I learned something about being a father that day, maybe even something about being a Son.
We had decided to call him Ryser before he was born. But Levi was Ryser before he was born. He was raised in his mother’s heart for nine months. And he was raised in his father’s for four days. He is now growing up in both. And all this is from God, because he has been raised from eternity in the heart of Love. And my only plea for his life is that through our feeble hands he will continue to be held in that Love. God, help us.
Ryser is our number two, but he is loved just as much as the Firstborn, even if he was born in His shadow, even if we did use leftover nativity scene wrapping paper for his birthday presents this year.
Happy Birthday, Ryser. You are loved with an everlasting love, my son.
“How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of man take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”
~ Psalm 36:7
“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'” (Mk. 1:1-15).
Mark get straight to the point. There are no mangers or magi, no sheep or stars, no angels in the sky or shepherds in the field. A Man appears with a message, with News: Times up! The King is come!
Good News, indeed.
And the response? Repent. To repent means to change your mind. If the King is come, change your mind about your unwarranted fears, about your uncertain future. If the King is come, change your mind about your hopelessness, your joylessness, your unrest. If the King is come, change your mind about yourself, your neighbors, this world, and your God—because you and they and this world are loved.
So beloved of God, repent, for Christmas is at hand!
“The war is at an end – even though here and there troops are still shooting, because they have not heard anything yet about the surrender. The game is won, even though the player can still play a few further moves. Actually he is already mated. The clock has run down, even though the pendulum still swings a few times this way and that. It is in this interim space that we are living: the old is past, behold it has all become new. The Gospel of God’s Kingdom tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death, are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them any more. If you have heard the Gospel message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humorless existence of a person who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor.”
~ Karl Barth
“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (Mt. 2:16).
We simply cannot wish it away. The Christmas story comes to us in a world of unbelievable evil, sin, and death, even infanticide. A Baby is born and laid in a manger, countless others murdered and laid in graves, and all under the dominion of “king Herod.” The true Christmas story is about the world’s true King coming to restore his dominion in a world under the dominion of death—human dominion. Below is a reflection about the day I became more convinced than ever about the futility, the destructiveness, of my own dominion, one of the days I began to truly long for Christ to come back and restore his dominion.
May God teach us how to long for his Tomorrow.
Originally Titled: Eulogy for A Beast: Life & Death at the Feet of the Master
Pulling out of my driveway I felt my tires roll over something. I noticed it lacked that dispersive crunching sound common to toys under the tire. Outdoor toys typically have exoskeletons. This felt soft and intact. When I turned to see what it was my heart sank. Ringo was lying on his side, his little legs stretched wide and vulnerable and unrelaxed.
I jumped out of my truck and ran to him. He was alive and focused, straining with all his will to fill his crushed lungs with air. Every ten or so seconds he would choke down a hiccup-full. He was too focused on trying to breath to acknowledge my presence. I bet that broke his heart.
For the last 14 years Ringo has lived to acknowledge my presence. Before he lost his hearing, he would hear my presence before I ever entered the door, where I would find him already waiving at me with his tail. Even after he lost his hearing I often found him there, waiting and waving, who knows for how long. If he didn’t greet me at the door, the moment I walked into his field of vision he would perk up his big square head, struggle up with his little old legs, and carry his big long body over to my feet.
There were two places Ringo lived: on his blanket by the wood stove and at my feet. While I was gone he would lay on his blanket by the stove. While at home he would sit at my feet when I sat, stand at my feet when I stood, and follow my feet when I walked. Sometimes I would acknowledge his presence, often I would not. But he never took it personally. He never repaid neglect for neglect, evil for evil. He was always more Christian of a dog than I am a man.
On average I probably stepped on or tripped over Ringo about once a week, sometimes responding apologetically, other times erupting volcanically, depending on my mood. But he was always forgiving of my mistakes and remorseful under my wrath, always showing deference to my judgment, whether just or unjust, whether I treated him like the family dog or my personal scapegoat. Regardless, nothing I ever did or didn’t do diverted his good will toward me. He was unwavering, a far more principled dog than I am a man. But I suppose to him I was more than a man. I was his master. And he lived to affirm me as such. He lived to sit at my feet.
When God created Ringo he used only one substance: one hundred percent pure, undiluted loyalty. His form, however, was not as pure as his substance. He was an admixture of odd proportions, the body of a wiener dog, the head of a pit bull, and the howl of a Canaanite. But shapes and sizes aside, his substance was sure. He had the pure and undivided heart of a saint—until I broke it in two with my truck.
Now he lay there, divided, no doubt wishing he could acknowledge my presence in this rare moment I was acknowledging his with such undivided attention. I was more present to him in that moment than I had ever been in his 98 dog-year-old life, with my face pressed gently on his neck, my hands stroking his head, as I told him over and over how sorry I was and how good of a dog he was. But it took all the energy he had just to live, to keep breathing straw-fulls of breath. So he just couldn’t acknowledge my presence—he was hardly able even to acknowledge his own.
I was torn. I didn’t know what to do or what he would want me to do. I wanted so badly to assure him that he had done nothing wrong, that I was not displeased with him, that I did not hurt him on purpose, that he was a good dog and I was a bad master. I wanted him to know that this was not the intent of my will toward him; but it was the fault of my will, my reckless and wayward will, and I was so sorry. Ringo deserved a better master than the one I proved to be in the end. I wanted him to know that I had failed in my responsibilities to take care of him, but that I have a Master who has not failed, and that the Master who gave me dominion over him would return in the end to take his dominion back, to fix this broken world and Ringo’s broken heart. I wanted him to know that on that day I will join Ringo’s side and we’ll sit together at our Master’s feet.
I wanted to assure him of all this but I think I was just making it worse. I think I was just consoling myself and prolonging his suffering, if not adding to it with my disquietedness, if not making him feel guilty, like he was failing me. He probably felt he was not giving me the honor and attention I deserved, which he spent his whole life giving me—despite the fact that I never deserved it.
Making the decision to kill Ringo was not the hardest decision I had to make—I wanted his suffering to end immediately. The hardest decision was leaving him to fetch my log-splitting axe from the woodshed, the same one I use to split the wood to burn the fire to keep the house and the dog warm. I knew I had to end his suffering but I hated to leave him for even a second. He proved his whole life that he valued my presence more than his comfort, especially in these latter years as he limped around in my shadow, doing his best to keep up with someone 62 years his younger (when you do the dog-math). I wanted to give him the gift of my presence as far as I could possibly extend it into that void which takes all presence away. I tried to yell for Keldy to grab my axe, but she was inside putting the kids down for a nap and couldn’t hear me. So I told him again how good of a dog he was, how sorry I was, and that I would be right back. I ran as fast as I could to the woodshed, cursing the day, damning the divisions in my heart and the one in Ringo’s too.
I returned in a matter of seconds and knelt again as before, cheek to cheek, doing my best to embrace him without adding more pain to his sadness and suffering. I told him again how sorry I was, how good of dog he was, and that I loved him so much. He gasped again, probably trying to tell me how sorry he was—though he had done nothing wrong—and how good of a master I was—though he deserved much better—and that he loved me too. He was probably trying to tell me he forgave me for running him over with my truck and for now having to kill him, for he knows I often know not what I do. He had never once held a grudge against or withheld his forgiveness from me. As far as I could tell, he had never kept a record of wrongs against anyone. He loved more like my Master than any man I’ve ever met.
I put my hands under his head and hips and pulled him off the edge of the driveway into a bed of pine needles as gently as I could, leaving a crimson smear against the black surface and all over my unclean hands. He winced subtly, his eyes widening in acknowledgment of a more acute moment of pain. I winced too. I wanted to scream, I wanted to breath fire, I wanted to pour out my wrath on sin and death and suffering, I wanted to punish the darkness with searing light and the silence with shattering thunder. But I kept quiet. I didn’t want to add any more panic to the moment already wrapping around Ringo’s thick copper neck, shortening his breath in the long dawn of night. So I told him one last time that I was so, so sorry, that he had done nothing wrong, that he was such a good dog, that none of this was his fault, that I’m the guilty one, that it was because of my divided heart that his was now broken, that his blood was forever on my hands. I felt it would take no less than hellfire to burn the stain off my hands, or perhaps burn my hands off the stain. [At least it felt like that in the moment. It’s wearing off. The heart is fickle. Pilate’s basin will do.]
Ringo, like all the beasts of the field, would have to die because I willed him to death, because I willed the death of all things. God entrusted his creaturely world to human care, and we turned on God and on each other and on all God’s critters and creatures. We were created to be God-reflecting masters of a good garden world (Gen. 1-2) but became blood-thirsty tyrants of a shadowy desert wasteland (Gen. 3-rest of the Bible). All of our creation companions now rightly live in the “fear and dread” of us (Gen. 9:2), most species simply keeping a safe distance from us, preferring flight over fight unless backed into a corner. But one species above the rest has not allowed their fear of our dominion to drive them to rebel against it. They insist on acknowledging our presence as the presence of royalty, humbly moving toward us, bowing before us, sitting at our feet. They can still perhaps see reflections, refractions rather, of Light splintering through us from the shadows that come out of us. Ringo seemed only to see my God-given light as though I were its source, as though I weren’t its eclipse. So he trusted me, his master, with his life. But I betrayed him, the most loyal of all God’s creatures. He entrusted his life to me and I ensnared him in my death.
If I’d had a means of killing him quickly without releasing him from my arms I would have used it, but I had nothing of the sort. I hated having to withdraw my presence from him, but I had no choice. I had to forsake him of my presence to end the presence of his suffering, the only presence he would ever know again until he knew none at all. So he had to die alone, at the hand of his master, who stood away from him, against him, at arm’s length. I kissed him on the mouth, like Judas, snapped back like a rattlesnake coiling up to strike, and in a storm of fury I sent all my rage at that godforsaken moment through the broad side of my log-splitting axe into the left side of my loyal dog’s head, condemning him to the death I deserve, the death I created.
His legs dropped, his body relaxed, and his life ended where it longed to live forever—at my feet.
I dropped to my knees and put one hand over his heart and the other over my face–the moment was naked and I was ashamed. Now that I was certain he was no longer aware of my presence, that I could add no more pain and unrest to his life, I opened my mouth and filled my neighborhood with a curse. Mark says that when Jesus died he “uttered a loud cry and breathed his last” (Mk. 15:37). There are things that should be said near the point of death if at all possible—things like “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” and “I love you.” But perhaps something must be said at the point of death itself, at death itself, and perhaps that can only come out as a loud cry or a groaning, or thundering, curse. That is what love sounds like at death. Love hates death with a Passion. Love screams at death. Love “casts Death and Hades into the lake of fire” with unrelenting wrath and inexorable fury (Rev. 20:14). Love condemns death as the unforgivable sin.
I used to imagine Jesus sitting silently at the right hand of God until he returns. I don’t anymore. I think he is screaming. I think all of heaven is raging against human sin and death in a loud, grinding battle cry, first heard from the cross, which will not cease until Jesus returns on the clouds of heaven to give form to his thunder in a bolt of Light that strikes death in a merciless command of life:
“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command…and the dead in Christ will be first to rise” (1 Thess. 4:16).
I think Ringo will hear that command. I don’t know if all dogs go to heaven—who am I to judge?—but I believe Ringo will. I was Ringo’s master. If I have any say in whom or what Jesus raises from the dead when he returns I suppose it would be limited to those creatures over whom he gave me dominion. As Ringo’s master, therefore, I want to hereby make an appeal for his life. I want to confess that I was never fit to be another creature’s master, much less such a good and faithful one as he, and plead with God to take back the dominion he gave me over Ringo in the first place and give it to Jesus, who is fit to be Ringo’s Master, my Master, Master of all. In my kingdom, everything ends up dying because of my reckless and wavering will. I get it. I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t want to be king anymore. I want a Master who can keep the world alive, the garden alive, Ringo alive, life alive.
If God’s grace brings resurrection to the sinners he loves, should we not expect it also brings resurrection to those creatures most loyal to the sinners he loves? He’s the one who created them, no doubt to teach us something about loyalty and unconditional love, about friendship and humility and forgiveness and joy and trust. Most every dog I’ve ever met knows more about all of the above than any human I’ve ever met. Besides, innocent dogs in heaven makes more sense than sinful sinners in heaven, so I’ll keep looking forward to a reunion with that great cloud of K9s who will no doubt lead the way in showing us how to properly live at our Master’s feet when he returns.
So we corralled the boys and Sissy together for a “family meeting.” My children have never known life without Ringo. He was part of the reality into which they each were received, an odd but delightful part of the family. Ringo, on the other hand, had known life without my children, a life where he got far more loving attention and far less physical abuse. But he was raised in the south and had the gift of hospitality. He never repaid horsey rides with doggy bites. I was actually a little concerned about how he would react to the kids at first, because he did once kill our neighbor’s (evil) goat, but he proved to be discerning. He knew the difference between the children and the goats, and the closest he ever came to biting my children was licking the sticky off their faces.
Our tone was lower and our herding efforts more firm and focused than usual. They kept asking what we were doing and why we were meeting, and we kept not answering. We eventually got them all seated on the couch in the living room, where Ringo could usually be found if he weren’t found at my feet. It was the place his presence could be felt most, and now, therefore, his absence, which already had begun to swell out of proportion to the limited spaces his presence formerly inhabited: in the heaviness on my face, the cracking of my voice, and, indeed, the loneliness at my feet. It’s as though a creature’s body veils an essence that is only fully disclosed after it is broken, after it is dead and gone. Only then the veil is torn, releasing the true nature of the life represented in the body, the life now dead in the body. I kill a mosquito and it is gone. I kill my dog and he begins to haunt me, his absence more revealing than his presence. A centurion kills a Man and God begins to haunt him. Out of His absence comes the terrifying confession in a shower of water and blood (Mt. 27:54; Mk. 15:39).
I told them I had some really sad news to share with them: “Ringo died today.” A breathless look of surprise contorted each of the boys’ faces and was followed by three distinct responses: Maccabee (3) trying to comfort me and touch my face, Ryser (4) asking troubled and heavy questions about Ringo’s death and the nature of death itself, and Kezek (6) entering the ebb and flow of those initial impact waves of grief, wavering between questioning incredulity and wailing sorrow. I stumbled over words trying to respond, Keldy helping, clarifying, filling in the blanks as I would get choked up. It’s hard to watch your children’s first real concrete encounter with death. I think Kezek and Ryser both encountered death yesterday. It brushed against Ryser’s mind and pierced Kezek’s heart. I think it was once removed from Maccabee. He encountered it by way of my grief, his compassion for me shielding him from too direct an encounter. But each of their responses only took me deeper into my own encounter, because I knew the death of their first dog would be their first step toward discovering the death of all dogs, all people, all the living, including each of them and the ones they’ve shared their life and presence with from birth.
I told them we would now have to say goodbye to Ringo and bury him in the backyard, between the garden and the briar patch. Keldy had wrapped Ringo in his blanket and I had laid him at the edge of the garden next to one adult- and three kid-sized shovels so the boys could help dig. I uncovered the intact side of Ringo’s face so the boys could pet him one last time. I tried to press Ringo’s eyes shut, but they insisted on staying open. I think he was still trying to acknowledge my presence.
We laid him in the hole with his only two toys, which he had paid little attention to in the last few years, and an old pair of my shoes, where all his attention had been paid, especially in these last few years. When the boys asked why I put my shoes in the hole with Ringo I told them because he lived his whole life to sit at my feet and I wanted him to stay there forever. And then they heard their father weep like they had never heard before and all three climbed in my lap to console me. Kezek wept with me.
As we began shoveling dirt into the hole Radley (1) began saying “Baaaaah” (Southern for “Bye”) over and over, matter-of-factly. Once the hole returned to ground level, the green ground now marked with a big brown scar, I told the boys I needed them to help me make a cross. We went to the woodshed and picked out a long red cedar branch I hadn’t yet cut for kindling. I cut it in two unequally sized pieces and notched each to be fitted into the other. Each boy helped me secure the crossbeam using one decking screw a piece—they pressed the trigger while I held the drill. We then returned to the gravesite to stake a claim on Ringo’s life. I dug a narrow hole and poured a half bag worth of leftover concrete down to the bottom. I used the broad side of my log-splitting axe to hammer down the cross as deep as it would go until it began splintering at the top, the same one I use to split the wood to burn the fire to keep the house warm.
I told the boys we were marking Ringo’s grave with a cross because the cross reveals to us what is on the other side of death, so we need not live in fear of death. I continued along those lines, weaving the moment into the Big Story of death and life using two kinds of thread, one made of dreams, the other of visions: dreams of a Garden in the world and visions of the world as a Garden. Probably a little less wordy but something like:
Death does not belong in God’s original or final intent for the world, for us. God created the earth to become a garden planet, wholly good and void of death, void of thistles and thorns. He gave it to us as a gift and blessed us to fill it and keep it and care for it, to expand the garden wherever we went. But we did not take good care of it. We have buried his blessing in a curse, filling the earth with thickets of pain. Under our dominion, the garden has gone to seed. We need a new Master to restore the garden–and God has sent One to us.
Jesus came to earth carrying the dominion of heaven in his Person (Mt. 3:2; Mk. 1:15), which he revealed to be a servant-shaped dominion (Phil. 2:6-11). The Master ruled by crawling under the table, down there with the dinner crumbs and the dog hair, and washing his servants’ feet (Jn. 13:1-17). He ruled by allowing the will of his Father in heaven for all creation rule over the self-preserving creaturely will he had inherited from the womb (Lk. 22:42; cf. Rom. 8:1-4; 2 Cor. 5:21). And so he was crowned with a braided halo of flightless thorns and buried in a garden tomb, in which the thorns remained buried but from which he was raised to life. Mary mistook him for a Gardener—it was no mistake. The Master Gardener just had to go underground to lay the axe at the root of creation’s curse, that ground-grown will to be like god apart from God (Gen. 3:5), so that God could raise him from the ground as the “firstfruits” of new creation (1 Cor. 15:20,) indeed the “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5). God has made a fertile womb of this barren world.
So we are living between the times, between God’s age-old creation and brand-new creation, between Friday’s night and Sunday’s morning, where the thorns touch the Garden, where death is the conclusion to life. But death is only the conclusion to life under our rule, creation under our rule, where men crucify their gods and run over their dogs. We too must learn to long for the death of our wayward, willful rule, for all creation to be born again under the will of God. But we can, we must, be born again even today, because God is present to us now, in the in-between, to all who call on the Name of Jesus, the One who has come, the One who is coming back–his Name is God’s number (Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13). To all who offer up their dominion to him, who cast their crown at his feet and confess that Jesus is Master, God has sent a downpour of his Spirit to begin washing away the deadroots of the curse entangling our hearts and restoring the blessing of heaven (cf. Acts 2). When he returns, he will finish what he started, burning off the dross of our ground-rule estates and welcoming us back from below up into the Garden–under his rule–the dirt as it is in Heaven.
Until then, we stake a cross at the sharp edge of life’s end, between death and Life, between the thorns and the Garden, because we believe that though death is the end of life, Jesus is the end of death. We must not, then, wish for Ringo to return. We must wait for Christ to return. Lazarus returned and had to die again. When Jesus returns death will have to die again–and we’ll all celebrate our birthday on Easter.
I also told the boys that Ringo wanted to die first because he loved us so much. I didn’t really explain what I meant. I don’t really know what I meant at the time. Looking back, though, I can’t help but wonder if it were true. Ringo never got in the way of a vehicle. He was street smart, a stray when I found him, wearing a chest harness attached to a broken chain. I can’t help but wonder if God gave Ringo the opportunity not only to love his master in life but now to love his master in death, to die in such a way as to give life through his death, to take up his cross and die for me. Perhaps he or God saw how careless I can be pulling out of the driveway and knew I needed to learn a lesson, a hard and convincing lesson. The fact is, it could have just as easily been one of my children in the wayward path of my truck. And Ringo knew the difference between the children and the dog. He knew what a child is worth to his master. Perhaps, then, in his last gesture of love for his master and his master’s family he threw himself under my truck to prevent me from killing one of my own children, which could have happened just as easily, just as quickly, just as permanently. There is a very real possibility that Ringo’s death has saved a child’s, my child’s, life. Ringo is a hero, perhaps even a martyr, and for that he deserves nothing less than the Lion’s share of my inheritance.
Yesterday morning, before all hell broke loose, I woke up way earlier than my alarm and could not fall back to sleep. So I made my coffee and walked over to the wood stove to sit beside Ringo, who was still asleep on his blanket, snoring. I startled him when I put my hand on his head, one of the few times in our relationship I can remember acknowledging his presence before he acknowledged mine, and only now because he was in a deep sleep, and because he was deaf. I touched him and he was jolted out of his slumber, awakening to his master scratching behind his ears, that place God installed dogs’ love receptors. He didn’t move his body but stretched his chin toward my thigh, waiting for me to meet him the rest of the 9/10s of the way. He knew I would. He knew how much I loved him when the kids weren’t around and I wasn’t in a bad mood. So I scooted over a few feet and he rested his chin on my leg. I was acknowledging his presence, and it was one of the best mornings of his life.
It is comforting to know that yesterday, on the day he died, I got to surprise him into life with my presence, to acknowledge his presence before he acknowledged mine, awakening him to his master’s unsolicited love—because I believe Tomorrow will happen for him in just the same way, as it will for us all who call Christ our Master, when the loud cry at death enters into the ground commanding the briars to die and the Garden to grow, when the grieving of God over death erupts from below as the command of Life everlasting, Light everlasting, Love everlasting—the world under the command of its Master, all creation at the feet of Jesus.