Death as Fertilizer

Seeing where we stop and God's kingdom begins.

Rick James

Nearly 25 years ago I left Manhattan; I handed in my resignation at the advertising agency where I worked, and my wife and I went into ministry.

It's quite possible I was a little hasty in leaving my job, for in our attempts to raise financial support, we found ourselves unable to pay our bills.

I frantically looked to grab a job: anything, as long as it was immediately available.

Unfortunately, only the local cemetery met the criteria.

The Gate of Heaven cemetery was hiring, paid well and boasted of being the eternal resting place of Babe Ruth.

How could I not take the job?

Among other macabre tasks, my responsibilities included planting geraniums in front of tombstones. Smaller tombstones receive 5 geraniums; larger stones receive 7 -- just in case you ever find yourself out of work.

The train on which I commuted to Manhattan traveled right through the Gate of Heaven Cemetery. So each day I had the privilege of standing in the cemetery with my filthy overalls with my geraniums in my hands watching my old life clack by.

It was the metaphor of all metaphors for the life of a disciple; I might as well have found a job that paid me to carry a cross.

But instead of embarrassment, I experienced a profound sense of joy, an unexpected jolt of life.

And it was in this discovery that I began to see death as the New Testament described it: a vehicle for life, a bizarre form of blessing, something to be embraced and experienced daily.

I saw those beautiful geraniums. I didn't see the tombstones but saw the flowers in front of them.

A garden within a cemetery. Life emerging form death.

We often inflate the concept of death and martyrdom, making them as big, bold and graphic as possible in hopes of shocking people awake.

But see, it does the opposite.

The more horrible the stories, the more gruesome the deaths, the more courageous the martyrs, the more sacrificial the evangelists the more distance that's created between us and them, between us and death.

I can recall a sermon I gave, laced with quotes from the journal of David Brainerd.

Brainerd was a missionary to the Delaware Indians in the 18th century, living in the wilderness, sleeping on the ground, all the while of dying of tuberculosis.

Brainerd would preach, cough up his lung, pass out, and then get up and preach another sermon.

I was trying to cast vision for a cross-bearing commitment to Christ. This didn't happen.

Those listening to my message shared as much in common with the lifestyle of David Brainerd as they did with the lifestyle of Madonna.

The Scriptures do not approach it this way. They make no attempt to inflate the concept of death, but rather seek to shrink it: to show its revelance to our daily lives and spiritual growth.

The Scriptures challenge our very cramped and claustrophobic view of the grave to see death as a process, inviting us to embrace it in its many varieties and miniaturized forms: death to self, death to the world, death to our pride and so on.

The Scriptures democratize death, requiring everyone to carry a cross, everyone to be a martyr.

The Bible focuses on the concept, the practice, and the process -- the small "d" of death -- far more than on the capital D of death -- death as termination.

The small "d" of death relates to every Christian.

As everyone has an ego, the death of pride is a martyrdom to be shared by all, just as everyone can experience the death of a dream, a job, a relationship.

No need to push or shove or wait in line. We all get a chance to die.

This expanded meaning is clearly what's in view through the Scriptures' rather elastic use of the concept, where we are admonished to "take up our cross," "die to sin," die to the world," and so many, many other deaths beyond the funeral variety.

To see the smaller, daily opportunities to die is as important as seeing the daily tokens of God's love and faithfulness that He bestows on us.

In John 12:24 Jesus states that, "...unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But, if it dies, it produces many seeds" (New International Version).

Beginning with His own death, Jesus is describing the secret ingredient of kingdom growth: Death.

Death is the fertilizer, the turf builder.

The kingdom sprouts out of our daily choices to "die to ourselves."

Our willingness to die and carry our cross is the mechanism of personal transformation and evangelistic growth.

It certainly makes sense to me why an unbeliever would run from death.

But for believers, to run from death is -- in reality -- to run from life. This is why we embrace it and consider it pure joy in whatever form we encounter.

Death is no longer like a dead end or detour to life; it's a fuel stop.

Death, like gasoline, is combusted and converted into mileage enabling us to get to our destination -- the light and life of the great city glowing over the horizon.

When you see death as an opportunity for more and greater life, here and now, as well as in the age to come, it changes everything. It reorients us entirely.

What more could be said of us than that our willingness to die allowed Christ to live out His life in and through us?

In John 11:16 we read, "Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with Him'" (NIV).

And so, dear friends, I leave you with this final word of encouragement, "Die."

© 2010 Rick James. Adapted with permission from A Million Ways to Die, published by Cook Communications Ministries/David C. Cook. Published permission required to reproduce. All rights reserved.

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