Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Tales of beauty from the rubbish heap: The juxtaposition of death and life (Church on a bike)

This week marks the end of my guest post series, Tales of beauty from the rubbish heap - at least for the month of May. I will be looking for more ways to create a space here where the voices of other storytellers can be heard, a collection of redemption tales. It has truly been a joy for me, and I hope it has been for you, too.

And now, I want you to meet a friend of mine, Melissa Otterbein, who writes at Like Birds on Trees (can you see one of the reasons I love her?). This adventurous soul writes with an insatiable curiosity toward the world. She's bold enough to look at things long enough to allow discomfort to settle in, to question and doubt, to write the things that others may not say; she's humble and gracious enough to hear and see from others' perspectives, open enough to be changed by those she brushes up against.  She writes raw and real, intelligent and compassionate, and always hopeful. Would you welcome her with me this week?

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“What? What happened?” My co-worker asked, sensing the solemn look on my face.

“Another patient died,” I reported. Grief and thick silence hung in the air as I thought back to the last time I saw this person, hospitalized, unable to speak, recalling the brief moment our hands met in an embrace, and although he couldn’t speak, his demeanor and soft touch of the hand said it all.

I was in my third year of working in an HIV/AIDS clinic. I primarily worked with patients who were considered AIDS-defined, meaning their CD4 cell (white blood cells of the immune system) count was under 200 cells per milliliter of blood. Our program focused on assisting patients in getting into HIV medical treatment. Unfortunately, some individuals found out about their diagnosis so late into the infection, or were not ready to face the reality of their diagnosis, that there were deaths, such as the one I experienced that day. HIV is completely treatable and people living with HIV can live a long healthy life, so long as antiretroviral medication is taken consistently and medical care attended regularly. But there is a lot of misinformation many people in the population I work with have encountered, and it is not uncommon for some patients to delay or avoid medical care because of the friends or family they’ve seen pass away in decades past, when medical care was not as developed as it is now.

As I fought to bring myself back to the present moment, I got ready to leave my office after a long work day. I strapped on my helmet to bike home, my bike commute being one of the most rejuvenating parts of my day. I see the face of the patient who passed away as I pedal past the housing projects and turn the corner around the city jail, when something caught my eye. Outside of the jail were activists holding bright colored placards protesting peacefully against the death penalty. I smiled at them. “Keep up the good work!” I enthused, giving them a thumbs up from my yellow bike gloves and pedaled on my way.

A second later, it hit me. Tears rushed to my eyes but refused to come out. The taut muscles in my throat contracted; that familiar lump in which no words can come out, just expressions of the heart. Yes, it hit me. The juxtaposition and irony of it all. Life and death. One man died today from four letters that no one should ever have to die from, but globally, some 1.8 million do every year. Another man protested for the life of another to not be cut short before the redemption and healing and forgiveness began.

It was a holy moment.

It was Church, on a bike.

I skipped church yesterday, but all of this just reminds me that God still speaks through every medium around us.

Life. Death.

A life that cannot yet speak is growing inside the womb of a woman I pass by.


Three dozen birds lined up shoulder to shoulder chirp on the overhead telephone wires like white colored lights hugging the perimeters of homes in December.


My heart pumps blood and oxygen to mobilize my legs as they go up-down, up-down.

More life.

All around us, death and life, life and death. Pitch black darkness, confusion, pain, redemption, hope, joy, life, and healing hover around us and within us each day and it’s rarely a smooth, seamless process. Situations feel impossible to traverse through. We enter into dark places of human trafficking, urban poverty, and violence. And yet, still, a thin glimmer of hope is somehow able to sneak through the cracks of our breaking hearts. The hearts of Lazarus’ sisters when he becomes sick, the sorrow they experience in his death, and the joy that unfolds as he miraculously rises from the dead. Jesus gets mocked, criticized, and experiences sharp pangs of a sword entering his side. They call it Good Friday, but in this moment, it feels anything but good. Doom. Defeat. Grief. The nadir. The zenith. Valley of the shadow of death. Whatever you want to call it. And what was he doing on this cross, anyway; is this all some sick joke, God? Ah, but, alas, Sunday comes and he rises from the dead, refusing to let hopelessness and death have the final say, as both coteries of Jesus’s followers and his biggest cynics realize that all of the things he stands for cannot be taken away.

And so the story of death, life, and rebirth continue to emerge out of thin pages composing scripture into our everyday experiences today.

So may we find the hand of God in the mysterious places between life and death.

May our eyes be opened while we pedal and walk around our cities and our towns, ready to find God in the faces we meet.

May we discover hope in hands held tightly in embrace.

May we choose to believe in redemption and healing and that joy can truly return again in the morning.

May we discover our Fridays, and let our Sundays, much like Jesus, have the final say.

And may we discover the peace that longs to be given to us this side of heaven.

* * * * * 

For more in this series, please read here.


  1. Life and death, two doorways, both. Yes, may our eyes be opened.

  2. This is beautiful and redemptive. What spoke to me most was in the very beginning when you spoke of how the HIV can be treated if caught early enough. How the fear of the infection can stop people from treating it, allowing irreparable damage to occur. And isn't that true of life in a broader sense? We allow fear of rejection, reality, reaction, mis-information, etc to stop of from receiving the treatment that we need to help us live long healthy lives. Thoughts to ponder. I am very glad that Amber hosted you here.

  3. Melissa, thank you for sharing your words here. They are poignant and powerful. Your voice matters...you are a light bringer. Much love to you.