I was looking forward to reading N.D. Wilson’s latest, Death by Living: Life is Meant to be Spent. A lot. I’d previously read his Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, and neither before or since had I read a book quite like it–a book that amused me and surprised me and I think slightly shocked me in places, and that used words in glittering ways and that showed beauty and that required the services of my underlining pencil. (That was a lot of “ands”.) So when some dear friends bought me Death by Living as a birthday gift, I was happy. Very.
Life is meant to be spent. Spent, not hoarded. Sacrificed, poured out, like Mary’s alabaster jar. Lived, with fierce enthusiasm and deep gratitude, towards God and towards others.
Christian Living 101, right?
You may not have read it quite like this before. And not just because Wilson is a pro when it comes to using words–his writing is captivating and a far cry from “anaesthetic writing” (Orwell’s term)–but because he can paint a picture of the beauty of living life this way, and because he can hit hard. And he’s funny and sometimes random and he likes parenthetical comments (as do I).
It’s a book of memories–of thanksgivings for long-past deliverances, of cities and grandparents and little children who love stories. Wilson weaves thoughts and stories, in and out, in and out.
I loved Death by Living, although I wasn’t as dazzled by it as I was by Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl. I think that was partly because this time I knew what to expect of the authorial hands that I was in. I had buckled my seatbelt before the ride this time. Nor did I underline as many parts. There was more narrative and there was less that jumped out at me, but what did jump out at me, was relevant–in a way, too relevant.
If I had read it when my little boat of life was gently floating along a quiet stream with me reclining inside threading a daisy chain, perhaps I would have been enthused when I put it down. Instead, I ached.
Because life hasn’t been just so easy recently. I finished Death by Living knowing something of how strenuous it would be to put into practice. I so often want to hoard my life, to look after my own self-interests, to preserve my right to whine when life is hard, to “get through” grimly rather than with joy. So when I finished, I felt I was yearning for the beauty, but drawing back from the fight. Hence, I think, the ache.
But it’s not possible to have the one without the other. One can’t have the joy and beauty of a life poured out, a life of thanksgiving and laughter, without dying to self again and again.
What Wilson says about life is true, I know.
Or do I?
Wilson would disagree:
If you think it, live it. If you don’t live it, you don’t really think it. You are not what you think (or what you think you think). You are not what you say you are. You are what you do. You are Adam, charged to name yourself. But you cannot do it with words made noise–only with words made flesh.
And when he says something like this:
When faced with unpleasantness (trouble) there are only two ultimate responses (with many variations). On the one hand, “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” On the other, “Curse God and die.” Variations on the latter can include whining, moping, self-pity, apathy, or rage. Variations of the former can include laughter, song, retellings, and an energetic attack of obstacles.
If God gives you (or makes you) a joke, what are you meant to do in response? (Receive it. Laugh.)
If God gives you an obstacle, what are you meant to do in response? (Receive it, Climb it. Then laugh.)
If God gives you more profound hardship, what are you meant to do in response? (Receive it. Climb it. Then Laugh. Exhibit A: His Son.)
then I know I need grace. Much of it.
(And don’t we all?)
Wilson doesn’t pretend that death by living isn’t hard. But he knows that it’s worth it.