We had this taxidermist friend, well, more of an acquaintance, really. Years ago Bill pastored a church that met in a crumbling old Gothic Revival building on Main Street in a small Pennsylvania town. The white Victorian next door to the church was too big to be someone’s private home—especially in our town—but too homey not to have someone living in it. A tasteful sign on the corner identified it as a funeral home, but the toys that littered the back yard identified it as a young family’s dwelling.
We were intrigued and even a little spooked by this arrangement. A nice guy, his lovely wife, and two pre-school children lived two stories above a basement room that regularly housed dead bodies. We were both from big cities where people didn’t live in the same building as their businesses, especially if that business was a mortuary.
It was creepy, and yet they seemed so normal. Until the day we read a front page story about the man in our local newspaper, a feature article about his taxidermy hobby. As if dead human bodies weren’t enough to fiddle around with. I guess it makes sense. You would use a lot of the same skills and (I’d rather not think about this) the same equipment, too.
I know people have to do these kinds of jobs, but I assumed most people in the death business would want a hobby as far removed from death as possible. You’d think.
Those Fascinating Living Cells
Meanwhile, back at the Murray house, our oldest son, Matt, had developed a fascination with life. We’d given him a microscope for his eighth birthday. The wrapping paper was still crunching underfoot when Matt began his quest for all sorts of household minutiae to examine with his new toy. With each find he would whip out a glass slide, carefully place the tiny treasure on the plate with his plastic tweezers, slap a cover slip on it, clip the slide under the scope, focus the lens, and gaze through it with all the wonder of a budding Einstein.
First he snatched a hair or two from his younger brother’s head. Next, he didn’t have far to look for a dust ball. He hoped to see actual dust mites like the ones in the vacuum cleaner commercials, but the microscope wasn’t all that powerful. Then he took a plastic spatula and scraped a layer of dead skin from his arm. These magnified bits of matter kept Matt interested for a while, but he soon wanted something more. He thumbed through the illustrated manual that came in the box and decided what his next acquisition would be: blood. He took to carrying a straight pin, a matchbook (to disinfect the pin), and a clean slide around with him at all times, wielding them with the determination of a door-to-door salesman. He asked family, neighbors, and church members for something no one was willing to give: a drop or two of their own blood.
After a day or so with no voluntary bloodletting, we assumed Matt had given up on his quest. But he hadn’t. One afternoon we heard a shout of exultation from our backyard. Seconds later he came flying through our crooked screen door with the slide he’d been carrying in his back pocket every day since his birthday held up to his fortuitously bleeding nose. Matt spent more time looking at his own blood cells through the microscope than anything else, and I think I know why.
The hair, dust ball, the skin cells; all of those were dead. The blood cells jostled against one another in a random dance of red.
They vibrated with life.
Matt intuitively understood something that is essential to a good marriage. If we had asked him about it, he might have put it this way: “Live cells are more interesting to look at under my microscope than dead cells.” Dead things: ho hum. Living things: enthralling. His fascination meter was calibrated to life. In the same way, marriages thrive when we rivet our attention to life instead of death. It’s all about what’s under the microscope.
Do I See What Jesus Sees?
Jesus was, in this same way, preoccupied with life. In Mark 5, he showed up at a dead girl’s house and said above the din of all the weeping and wailing, “She is not dead, she is only asleep.” Then when he arrived at Lazarus’ funeral, three whole days after his death, he made the world’s most stunning wake-up call ever. And what happened when Jesus and his disciples stumbled upon a funeral procession? He told the mother, who had already grieved a husband and was now grieving her son, not to cry. He told the son to sit up. Yes, I think Jesus considered life infinitely more interesting than what is most visible in these scenarios: death.
A marriage of two Christ-followers is lived on the other side of death, because that’s simply put the Christian life. We have been crucified with Christ and now we live. But we still get to choose to make this gospel truth our focus. Or not. We each get to decide what’s under our microscopes. In Romans 8:5-6 Paul said we have a decision to make, to set our minds on life or on death:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
Other translations use the words “obsessed with” (the Message) or “think about” (NLT) or “give their minds to” (BBE). This seems like a no-brainer. I remember my mom’s words the day we visited the funeral home to make preparations for my Daddy’s funeral. She said, “May have a root canal instead of this, please?” Unless you’re naturally moribund, why wouldn’t you choose to set your mind on life every chance you got?
Jesus made a strong case for life-obsession when he said, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” Mark 12:27 (NIV)
But there are days when, although life is all around me and even in me, I choose to look the other way. Sometimes all I see in Bill is the rubbish of death: his mistakes, his past, his quirky sins that are oh so different from my quirky sins. I assign the worst possible motives to the best possible actions. All I see is his old, crucified nature. And on those days I can become obsessed with it, kind of like a funeral home owner who turns to taxidermy so he can pack even more death into his life. Or a hoarder whose home is piled to the ceiling with stuff no one wants. But, if I believe Paul’s words, why would I do that when the alternative is life and peace?
You Named Your Kid What?
A long time ago a couple visited our church, the one next door to the funeral home in Pennsylvania. They had a bunch of children with names like Jael (for the woman who drove a stake through Sisera’s head in Judges) and Oliver Cromwell. They swooped in and, in a few visits, wreaked havoc among us not unlike Cromwell’s Roundheads in the British countryside. What I remember most about them is that they were against everything. Sunday School was unbiblical. (I’ve thought about this a lot since then. Sunday School is abiblical. Big difference.) Public schools, birth control, and TV were of the devil. Oh, and don’t even mention two-piece bathing suits or trousers on women. They were quite articulate and, mostly, pretty nice. But they messed with people’s minds. The general reaction to them was a mixture of deflection and guilt. We swatted away their ideas, deeming them ridiculous, but we also wondered if they weren’t right. And if they were right, we were all wrong.
One day when I was talking to Bill about them on the way home from church, he paraphrased Romans 8:2 for me: “The law of the Spirit brings life, and the law of sin brings death.” This idea, one I knew but couldn’t always remember at appropriate times, gave me a new measuring stick to replace the one our church visitors held up so forcefully and visibly every time they showed up in our midst. Their words brought death, not life. I’m sure that’s not what they intended. I imagine they thought if they could convince us to join them and turn from the things they were so vehemently against, we’d all be so much better off.
But it backfired, like the law of sin always does. It drove a stake through our heads instead of setting our hearts free. They didn’t mean to, but every time they spoke, they dropped a big bomb of ungrace on our heads.
All because they were preoccupied with death. Unlike Jesus, who when he saw death said things that made no sense, like “she’s only asleep” about a dead girl or “come out!” to a man who had quit breathing four days hence or “sit up” to a boy reclining in a coffin.
This reminds me of the way Bill can be sometimes. Back when Matt was past playing with microscopes and into things like, well, things he shouldn’t be into, Bill had a page in his prayer journal devoted to prodigal kids. Every name on that list represented a lost cause, a kid so heavily into drugs or so far from home, they seemed dead to hope. But Bill loved those guys, and he loved their parents. Our own son was on the list. One day I saw the list and was shocked by the heading Bill had written at the top of the page: “Future Kingdom Leaders.” You know what? To a one, that’s exactly what they are now. I get chills thinking about it.
Don’t you think Jairus thought Jesus was crazy to see life in his daughter when there was no evidence of it? And the crowd at Lazarus’ funeral or the widow whose son had died? I’m sure they all thought Jesus’ command to the mouth of a crypt or at the side of a coffin was a cruel joke. Seeing life smack in the middle of death is risky and, by all appearances, stupid.
I’m glad Bill takes that risk on me. I don’t think he has a heading on the journal page where he’s listed his prayer requests for me. But if he did, it would be a ridiculously hopeful one. It would proclaim that I am alive, even when there is so much about me that seems dead.
I am beginning to think this life thing happens on a microscopic level before it happens large enough for anyone else to see it. If I can look within and find the life God deposited in me through his Son and put my focus there instead of on my failing, frail flesh, I grow into a healthier person, more alive than I have a right to be. If I can lock in on the life in Bill even in his most inane or inadequate moments, my love for him becomes healthier, livelier. And if we can find life everywhere in our days, our life together thrives and grows. It’s not very quantifiable, but it sure is real.
This sounds very esoteric, so let me see if I can list-ify it just a bit.
What is dead?
- The past
- My ability to control someone else
- My flesh
- Sin . . . I know, I’m repeating myself, but I think we need to be reminded of this as often as possible.
What is alive?
- This moment. (Check out the book of Hebrews for a dissertation on the value of “today”)
- The Spirit and the things of the Spirit.
- My new, reborn self.
- My husband’s new, reborn self.
- The Word of God (it’s “living and active”)
- Love. Because love will endure when faith and hope are no longer necessary, I think we can safely call love a living entity.
- God, acting as both Almighty Coroner and Eternal Life-Giver, has decreed the terms of life and death. In Christ, we are alive. Outside of him, we are dead.
If that’s true, then our mistakes and missteps are the part of us that is effectively dead. The stuff of our past: dead. The old habits and patterns: dead. The deteriorating body that becomes weak, weary, worn-out: dying. Conversely, the part of us that longs and leans toward God and his ways is the part of us that is alive. The imago dei stamped on us: alive. The streaks of goodness, the little victories of discipline, the tiny spurts of growth: all alive.
So the telling question is this: Where is my focus? When I look at Bill, do I whip out my slide and place every blunder under the microscope? Do I slow down like a curious motorist, peering at the grisly road kill? What do I see? The sin, the struggles, the slip-ups? Or do I see the life?
Maybe you began the habit of putting death under your microscope long before you married. You did it to yourself and now you do it to the person you love the most. Maybe you did it before you became a new, living person in Christ and you forgot to change the slide. Or maybe you grew up believing no one looked at anything but your worst. You were literally trained to put death on the slide, to use the microscope of your mind to focus on what is wrong and never on what is right. On what is broken, not on what is healing. On what is limping, not on what can fly. You have forgotten how to see life.
I have found that when I turn my focus to life, that old way of looking at me, at Bill, and at my world fades. If I train my mind to notice small improvements, gradual healing and subtle tendencies in the right direction, a new life begins to pulse in me. If I begin to look at what’s right instead of what’s wrong, a lot more starts to look right.
This isn’t a mind game. It’s not a fake-it-till-you-make-it exercise in positive thinking. It is something far more real than that. That’s because this life I’m learning to see is real. It springs up—unexpected and miraculous—out of death.
It is a resurrection.