A good friend of ours recently died of cancer. My wife and I are spending some time with his widow and son before the memorial service on Saturday morning, so dying is a topic on which I have been thinking and speaking a lot lately.
My vocation is that of pastor. As such, dying and death are a regular part of the things I engage. Death is so multi-faceted and open. There is no system or logic to it, and its effects are everywhere. Many things die, and there are many ways to die. Pastoral ministry brings you face to face with many of these aspects. Dreams die, marriages die, hopes and expectations die, theology dies, homes die, finances die…all of these things are poignant points of death.
The first dying person I ever encountered in pastoral ministry was a man with AIDS in St Louis, where I held my first pastorate. I was a green youth pastor, and my senior pastor knew I needed to begin to experience the ins and outs of pastoral ministry, so he took me with him to visit Jim. Jim was barely there, in fact, he died the next day. Emaciated and in pain, he had that look around the eyes that a dying person receives. But his eyes, though, they were strong. He knew he was dying; knew it wasn’t going to be long, and he wasn’t ready to go. Observing my pastor engage this man with the hope and peace of Christ (Jim had become a Jesus-follower just a few months before), and watching his spirit settle into a place of rest through the words and songs of Scripture and the prayers of the saints, was a miraculous experience that I had never before witnessed.
I also quickly learned the horror of approaching death without Christ. When our daughter was admitted to St Louis Children’s Hospital at eighteen months old for a pulmonary exacerbation, we were placed in a room where our roommate was a one month old with a blood infection. His name was James. James’ parents were sweet people, young and newlywed, much like Sheri and me, but they did not have a relationship with Christ, had never really considered religion to be anything they wanted to get into. We really enjoyed each other though, and enjoyed being in the same room together. Two weeks into the hospital stay, I returned to Christy’s room after grabbing some fresh air, and James had been rushed from the room to neonatal intensive care. The next day, he died. I’ve never seen such pain on the faces of humans; and no hope, no spirit peace at all, no comfort deep within. It was a devastating experience to observe. Sheri was pregnant with our third child at the time. We named him Benjamin James, in James’ honor.
A few years later, I became Senior Pastor of a church — Cornerstone Christian Fellowship — in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. A recovering drug addict began coming to our church soon after we arrived at Cornerstone. He met Jesus there, became a Jesus-follower, and Jesus set him wildly free from his addiction. After seven months of being clean, he was informed that he had a very serious case of Hepatitis C. In a matter of hours he fell into a deep depression, bought a bunch of drugs and purposefully overdosed. For three days, he went undiscovered. The police and I got to his apartment about the same time, and I’ve never seen anything so grotesque, miserable and sad. As I left his house, I swear I could hear the Enemy laughing.
There are many points in pastoral ministry where the presence of God is strong, where the manifestation of His Spirit is strongly at hand. In my experience, though, the most holy, God-filled moments of which I have ever been a part are standing with a family whose loved one is actively dying, someone who is going to home to be with the One who made and loves them. The holiness, depth and immediacy of that encounter are unparalleled.
More than once, I have joined with a family around the bed or in the waiting room of a family member who is a Jesus-follower. Together, we prayed, sang, talked, cried and experienced holy silence. Watching a person take their last breath and not seeing another breath follow is a really unique thing, and then your mind is filled with the reality that they are with God, breathing life directly from its Source. And there is release, sadness, peace, mourning, loss, hope and pain.
It is humanity at is most human.
Like I said, death is so multi-faceted, so open and uncontrollable. None of us is as far from death as we think or live. None of our relationships are as permanent as we treat them. Death is the great equalizer, the one thing (along with taxes, I guess) that is for certain.
In the mind and government of God, death is a two-fold stark reality.
One the one hand, death is that which is the result of sin. It is God’s most hated Enemy, the thing that came upon His children as a result of the Fall. God is Life, in Him is no death at all. Life is God’s core value, death is His antithesis. The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy, but Jesus came that we might have abundant life. Because of His deep love for His children and His creation, God sent His Son to take our death upon Himself, that by His death, death itself would die and His children would live. This is the Gospel.
On the other hand, death is that which God calls His children to actively embrace:
“Take up your cross and follow me…”
“Can you drink from the same cup of which I drink?”
“Unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies…”
“The one who would gain his life must lose it.”
“I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I…”
“For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”
Death is discipleship. There is no following Jesus without regular dying. And God is clear: by choosing this death, you will live. This too, is the Gospel.
Next week is Holy Week. The passion of Jesus, the resurrection of the Son of God. Holy Week is that space when these two aspects of death come crashing together into one congruent experience. Too often, we try to bifurcate the time, feeling this over here and feeling that over there. We are always sure to feel the death of Christ to a point, but then jump in with, “Remember that Sunday’s comin’!”, as though fully feeling the death of Jesus and His loss somehow might invalidate His resurrection. Death is the theme of Holy Week; so is Life. In all of the experiences I shared earlier, and in the experiences you and I are walking now, and in the experiences of next week, I implore you: keep it messy. Remember that death is horrible and awful and God rages against it with all His being. And remember that death is that to which you are called, because resurrection is your destiny.