Death is a funny thing. It’s one of the two common experiences we share with every other human being and probably one of the last things that we want to talk about.
The Terracotta Army from China is at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond right now. It’s an amazing exhibit. While it’s meant to honor someone in death, the story behind these pieces of art is intriguing and has me thinking about living.
In 1974, Chinese farmers accidentally stumbled upon what some call the eighth wonder of the world while trying to dig a well. They dug up one of an estimated 8000 life-size terracotta soldiers, officers, horses, chariots and anyone or anything else that Emperor Qin Shi Huang thought he might want in his life after this one here on earth. It took some 700,000 people over three decades to make all of this funerary art. As a potter, I marveled at these warriors in clay, knowing that just one would take me the better part of a year to make.
The farmers who originally found the first soldier saw no financial gain from their discovery. Actually, their whole village was displaced so excavation of the 20 square-mile funeral compound could be carried out. They were even on the receiving end of much scorn from their neighbors and were rumored to have been cursed for disturbing the grave.
Emperor Qin is remembered for bringing stability to China and unifying all of its provinces under one central government. He is also remembered for his cruelty as he ordered the deaths of many people who disagreed with him and had little regard for those who died while carrying out his grand projects. Personally, I will remember him for his audacity. I cannot imagine ordering 700,000 people to construct a city- complete with people, weapons, and animals- all for me. I feel a little guilty asking my husband to bring me a cup of water from the next room.
The 1974 farmers and the Emperor from thousands of years before could not have been more different. In life their worlds were polar opposite. However, death is the great equalizer. Despite the Emperor's wealth and grandiose projects, he and the poor farmers left this world exactly the same way they entered it- with nothing.
My relationship with my own death is one that has dramatically changed over the last 5 years. Death has gone from an abstract concept to a reality with which I have become intimately familiar. Most statistics say that we have a 1 in 5000 chance of dying in a car or traffic accident and a 1 in 11 million chance of dying in a plane crash. However, I sat across from a neurosurgeon four and a half years ago and was told that my very necessary surgery to remove a brain tumor had a 1 in 10 chance of failure. Death got real to me in that one sentence.
But honestly, next to the day I decided to believe that I couldn’t get to heaven on my own merits and that Jesus died so I wouldn’t have to, that confrontation with possible death was the best gift ever given to me. I was 20 years into marriage and 17 years into parenting. I was working a job that I had no passion for and I had made the circle of people around me really small. I was just going through the motions of life. No one was getting the best of me. Not my family, not my friends, not my employer, not my God, and not myself.
That sentence from my neurosurgeon and the reality that my death might have a date that could be put on a calendar was a jolt to everything that was familiar and comfortable to me. Thankfully I was not the 1 in 10 and, over the course of the next few years after my surgery, I decided to live audaciously, take some risks, and become unstuck in my life.
The Terracotta Army is a triumph for the art world. Along with the Pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal, and all the other majestic buildings and pieces of art that people have had constructed for their afterlife, this literal treasure trove of art is a gift to this generation from the past. However, these warriors, suspended in animation with such amazing detail, ultimately make me kind of sad. Emperor Qin spent his country’s wealth trying to assuage his uncertainty of the unknown. His audacity brought us some great art, but it did not gain him any standing in eternity.
There are two definitions for audacity: the willingness to take bold risks, and rude or disrespectful behavior. In my estimation Emperor Qin is the full embodiment of this word.
I fully embrace the first definition of audacity. I think that a life well-lived is one that embraces bold risks. We are expensive to God. I believe that He bought our place in eternity with the life of his son, Jesus. Your life is worth too much to stay stuck. It is worth too much to refuse to live with audacity.
Apply for the job. Try out for the team. Ask the girl out on a date. Live with less so you can give more. Believe that the Jewish carpenter was who he said he was.