Under the Cross: The First Time I Died
By 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 anyway.
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. Interment. Arrangement by. . .86 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.
The Day Death Came
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.
Death Visits Daily Yet We Live
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 made righteous. 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.”
This article was originally published in the summer 2014 issue of Higher Things Magazine.
Rev. Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, and contributing writer for 1517, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. He is also a co-host of Banned Books and Warrior Priest podcasts. He is the author of the book, Crucifying Religion. He is also a contributing author to The Sinner/Saint Devotional: 60 Days in the Psalms and Theology of the Cross.
Reflections: January 1, 2021This Just In: The Ultimate ResolutionReflections: January 2, 2021Reflections: January 3, 2021Reflections: January 4, 2021Video Short: January 5, 2021Video Short: January 4, 2021Reflections: January 5, 2021Reflections: January 6, 2021Video Short: January 6, 2021Under the Cross: Don't Look at the ListReflections: January 7, 2021Video Short: January 7, 2021Video Short: January 8, 2021Reflections: January 8, 2021Dean's List: The Catechism Really Is for YouReflections: January 9, 2021Reflections: January 10, 2021Reflections: January 11, 2021Video Short: January 11, 2021Helpful Things: Fundraising Essentials FOR YOUReflections: January 13, 2021Video Short: January 12, 2021Reflections: January 12, 2021Video Short: January 13, 2021Reflections: January 14, 2021Video Short: January 14, 2021Under the Cross: You Don't Belong to This WorldReflections: January 15, 2021Video Short: January 15, 2021Reflections: January 16, 2021Reflections: January 17, 2021Reflections: January 18, 2021Video Short: January 18, 2021This Just In: Martin Luther King, Jr.--The Man Who Had a DreamReflections: January 19, 2021Video Short: January 19, 2021Dead Christians You Should Know About: Saint SebastianReflections: January 20, 2021Video Short: January 20, 2021Video Short: January 21, 2021Reflections: January 21, 2021Reflections: January 22, 2021Reflections: January 23, 2021Video Short: January 22, 2021Dean's List: Jesus Hits the Spot!Reflections: January 24, 2021Reflections: January 25, 2021Reflections: January 26, 2021Video Short: The Conversion of St. PaulHelpful Things: Effective Fundraising Through Midweek MealsVideo Short: Suffering Doesn't Mean God Doesn't Love YouReflections: January 27, 2021Video Short: Woke Wednesday: Karma, Karma, KarmaVideo Short: Abortion and the Church's WorkReflections: January 28, 2021Reflections: January 29, 2021Video Short: What Goes On In Your Pastor's Mind About Closed CommunionFoundations: You Need Your Pastor More Than EverReflections: January 30, 2021Reflections: January 31, 2021
Reflections: February 1, 2021Video Short: Stretching Out To RepentVideo Short: Parable of Those Gifted in the VineyardReflections: February 2, 2021Dead Christians You Should Know About: Saint Blaise of SebasteSpeaking of Faith: The Liturgy Is Tried and True EvangelismReflections: February 3, 2021Video Short: Woke Wednesday De-platformingReflections: February 4, 2021Video Short: Hearing Law and GospelVideo Short: The Anti-Catholic ParadoxDean's List: Called to ServeReflections: February 5, 2021Reflections: February 6, 2021Reflections: February 7, 2021Reflections: February 8, 2021Video Short: Ears on the Sower... And the SeedReflections: February 9, 2021Helpful Things: Sex, Sexuality, and BaptismVideo Short: The Simple Definition of Faith That Will Rescue You From Your DoubtsReflections: February 10, 2021Video Short: Woke Wednesday: Wokeism and ChristianityVideo Short: What Your Pastor Thinks When Preaching the LawReflections: February 11, 2021Reflections: February 12, 2021Video Short: Valentines and LoveUnder the Cross: Valentine's Day StinksReflections: February 13, 2021Reflections: February 14, 2021Reflections: February 15, 2021Video Short: Lent is Almost HereVideo Short: Lent For Evangelical ChristiansReflections: February 16, 2021Welcome to Lent - Supplement to the ReflectionsVideo Short: How to Fast in LentReflections: February 17, 2021Reflections: February 18, 2021Video Short: Lutherans Aren't the Cult of LutherReflections: February 19, 2021