Christopher Hitchens was afraid to die. Not of being dead, or maybe he was and I don’t know it, but Doug Wilson at Christianity Today shared something interesting when he wrote about Hitchens last week. Wilson’s article is full of respect for Hitchens, and says some important things about the relationship between Christians and atheists. Near the end, there’s a paragraph or two about how Hitchens told people that if, as he was dying, he “gave in” to Christianity/religion in general, “If he confessed faith, then he, the Christopher Hitchens that we all knew, should be counted as already dead.”
Hitchens was concerned that medicine or pain or whatever would get into his brain and take away his reason, which happens. Those of us who live in our brains have that fear riding around in us. When you’ve navigated your whole life according to what you think, according to reason and logic and facts, madness is as bad as death. You’re not ‘you’ anymore, and only a shell remains.
Which, he’s not the first person to associate converting with dying.
There’s this old children’s audio story my brothers and I used to listen to, growing up. It was called Nathaniel the Grublet, made by the same people who did Music Machine (if anybody remembers that), and it used to scare the living daylights out of me. There was this part where Nathaniel gets lost in Direwood after dark, and there was this whole song about how anybody who’s in Direwood after dark will vanish by morning. Then the trees sing this song taunting Nathaniel about how he’s going to vanish, and “which part of him will vanish first?” (The singer was Thurl Ravenscroft, the guy who did “You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch”.) There was evil laughter and everything. And what was I as a kid expecting? That the trees were lying, that the vanishing thing was made-up, that it meant something else. And then, as the sun comes up, Nathaniel notices that his hand is looking kind of see-through…
The point, made in the story, is that Nathaniel had to be completely ‘lost’ before he could be saved. He had to vanish. He had to die.
Took me almost twenty years to figure that one out.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24
And you could say, “Oh, it’s just one verse in Scripture” “Maybe that’s out of context”, etc, except there’s that command repeated in Matthew, Mark, and Luke: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” There’s the rich guy Jesus told to sell all his possessions, or the guy who wanted to take care of his family first. It doesn’t matter what your priorities are. “Take a good look at what it’s gonna cost you,” to paraphrase Luke’s gospel, “and then decide if you want to come.” Because it’s going to cost you everything.
We’ve got to lose everything.
We’ve got to lose ourselves.
We’ve got to die.
The next question being, why would anybody do that?
Desperation, maybe. I think one reason why the poor and suffering find it easier to turn to God: they’ve got less to lose and more to gain. For myself, it’s been realizing how, in spite of my well-adjusted childhood, I still manage to make a complete mess of things. Being science-minded, I’ve got an idea of how small I am in the universe, how little I control, and how my own awareness of myself is so tiny, which is a fabulous way to kill your pride, by the way. It’s that feeling you get when your masterpiece turns out to be an incoherent failure because there’s too much in the world to keep track of, to learn and understand, to make it work. Plan B gives way to Plan M, and nothing’s working. And then we reach the point where all there’s left to do is, “Okay, I give up.”
Desperation alone could lead to suicide, though. Or apathy. There’s another side: trust. When we need help, we look to someone who knows what they’re doing. You take lessons from an expert. You hire a professional to do the wiring. When I’ve made a mess of things, I look out the window and see creation and think, “Anybody who can put that together…”
It’s only slightly less scary to hand your life over to someone else and say, “Have at it.” I mean, we spend a lot of time working on our lives. We put a lot of effort into it. We have all these schemes and beliefs and stuff we’ve built, all these precious structures, and we guard them jealously, like a little kid and his LEGO castle. “Don’t you DARE take that apart!” Only there’s a chance that the part we don’t want touched is the part that’s giving us so much trouble or pain or fear. Chalk another one up to human ingenuity: we’ve been known to hoard disease, defend injury, and resolutely fight off any attempt to throw out poison. Doing so because we’re “not worthy” is exactly as bad as refusing to admit it exists.
Lose it all: house, job, degree, family, hopes, dreams, fears, failures, memories, passions, every scrap of thought: but it’s not ‘lose access to’ or ‘lose use of’ or ‘lose contact with.’ It’s ‘lose control’, ‘lose possession’, ‘lose rights’. It’s still there, you’re just not in control of it anymore. And you know, in some ways it would be easier to watch it all burn in a fire. Lose your life, the whole thing: let someone else take over.
If they’re worthy of your trust, it’s the best thing you can do.
Years ago, I took my first car to my brother to get some deer damage fixed. The hood was creased, the front quarter-panel was dented, and the driver-side door wouldn’t open. I felt a little nervous when he approached my car with a 2×4 and a sledge hammer, grinning like a six-year-old with a new toy. But he knew what he was doing. Granted, it was still a little crumpled, but everything worked properly. Thinking about it now, him looking gleeful is better than hesitant: it meant the problem was something he knew, something he understood, and something he could fix.
With a sledgehammer.
Sometimes it takes a sledgehammer.
It probably took a sledgehammer to take down a wall in my parents’ house, which was replaced with a graceful arch all trimmed in custom-carved wood. With some kinds of mold, you need bleach so strong you have to wear a mask and gloves. A broken flute might take an acetylene torch to sound beautiful again. Stained glass means molten lead. Furniture means saws and nails and possibly some scary huge sewing needles. Skill means callouses and years of frustration. To fix the broken, sometimes you’ve got to break it down further and take it all apart. To build on and improve, sometimes you’ve got to destroy what you’ve got, and strip the house down to studs. To get it right, you’ve got to lose what you have.
Almost a year ago, I handed over a big chunk of ‘me’ to God. I saw a thing I’d been guarding for years and said, “You’re right, this needs to come down. The whole thing.” And he’s been pulling it down, layer by layer, brick by brick for months. The work is not yet done. It’s a long thing. I feel like I’ve been stripped to the studs, and it’s very hard to live in a house like that. On the other hand, I can see a little bit of the foundation of what’s going back up, and I know it’s worth it. I gave in, I gave up, I lost it, and I’m still losing it – I have to keep losing it, because I keep trying to take it back. But if you trust the builder, it’s all right. If you trust the builder, it’s worth it.
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Luke 9:24
Imagine a life put together like a renovated house. Imagine thoughts and dreams refinished like furniture, gleaming and bright. Imagine attitudes and perspectives and beliefs tuned like a piano, sweet and strong. Imagine relationships flourishing like a garden dug up and fed and replanted. Imagine fears banished like trash cleared from locked closets and shames tossed out like moldy carpet. All the windows are washed and all the walls have new paint, there are new curtains and a new roof, and the cracked sidewalk is replaced with brick. Imagine a sad little pre-fab transformed into a home that’s a pleasure to live in. The work and pain and sawdust and fumes and noise and nails are worth it.
Let God strip it down, take it to pieces, and then wonder at the beauty of what he puts back together.