The First Time I Died

By Rev. Donavon Riley

When I was 18, I had planned out my life completely. First, I’d enroll at the local college. Then when my girlfriend finished high school we’d move to the Twin Cities. We’d get married, finish college, land good jobs, and have a baby. We decided his name would be “Christian.” And if I could just find the right lead singer I’d gig with my band on weekends. The next year, a phone call woke me up from my daydreams.

My girlfriend said, “I just want to be free to see other people right now…” After she hung up, I collapsed into bed. I didn’t get up for three weeks. My mother, friends, classmates, professors—no one could coax me out of the emptiness into which I’d fallen. I thought, when I could think, “I will lie here and wait to become nothing. I don’t want to eat. I don’t want to drink. I don’t want to talk, to cry, to live. I feel nothing. I am nothing. I will lie here and eventually die.” That was the plan.

Twenty-four years later I try to remember the emotional pain that emptied me of all care for my life, but I can’t. I try to recall what I was thinking to pin all my hopes, all my happiness, on a teenaged girl. But I can’t. I try to picture what it was like to believe I wouldn’t die until I’d seen all my plans completed. I wish I could, but time makes a person’s memory soft and squishy. Some stuff you think you’ll never forget, will just disappear one day. Other stuff you think is unimportant will stick with you for 20 years, like the look on my ex-girlfriend’s face when she learned her grandma died.

I try to imagine the look on her face as I sit here fingering this memorial card. I try, but the card has my attention now. The back of the card reads: “In memory of… the son of… she preceded him in death…was a lifelong farmer…survived by…and other relatives and friends.”

Inside is a poem—one of those poems people who don’t attend church choose because it sounds religious. Services. Clergy officiating. There’s my name. Music. Casket Bearers. Interrment. Arrangement by…Eighty-six years of life summarized on a 4 by 5-inch bi-fold card.

So learn to count, run as fast as you can, scream at the ceiling, get tattooed, sing “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Keep My Body Down,” but if it doesn’t fit on the card, if somebody in your family doesn’t think it’s worthy of inclusion, then it’s cut out to free up space for a poem by “Author Unknown.” As if it never happened.

It’s not really about how you lived and died, anyway. It’s about when you died and began to live.

Despite my previous attempts at suicide, I was 28 years old the first time I finally died. The pastor and my wife were there. My mother and little brother were, too. It was quiet—not reverent silence, but muted tones. The faded yellow walls and red shag carpet dulled everything, even our voices. I remember the quiet, mostly, and the mildewy aroma that pervaded the church. Five people gathered round a baptismal font. It’s an odd thing when the pious and the godless stand round a baptismal font. My past and present relations were summoned to stand witness to a public drowning. June 3, 2008. 3:30pm. My death date.

I was drowned and put to death. Buried with Christ by baptism into death. It was very ordinary. Words were said. Water was poured. Then a smile, a confused glare, resignation, a handshake. Then we walked home, me and my wife. The two of us, justified by grace. Heirs in hope of eternal life.

That night I died again, and the night after, and the night after that, and… Every night since my Baptism I have died. But every morning I awake to a new life. Every day I suffer, I sorrow, I am poured out for my wife, my children, the couple across the street, this little church: I am repented. I am put to death by the crosses God has laid on me. Yet, hidden under that death is a new man, cleansed and made righteous by God’s Spirit. Life overwhelming death in a flood of grace.

Daily I am drowned. Daily I am repented. Daily I am righteoused. A new life, overflowing with the most extraordinary ordinariness. For “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

When I die the little death, if you should happen to attend the funeral, receive the little memorial card offered to you at the door. Turn it over. On the back you will read: “Donavon Riley was baptized into Christ. All the rest was chaff.”

Rev. Donavon Riley was born and raised in Minnesota and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Concordia University, St. Paul, Minnesota. Rev. Riley and his wife recently celebrated the birth of their fourth child. He can be reached at