Death: The Road That Must Be Traveled
For this boy, coming to terms with death ain’t no easy thing.
by Michael Spencer
Perhaps passing through the gates of death is like passing through the gate in a pasture fence. On the other side, you keep walking, without the need to look back. No shock, no drama, just the lifting of a plank or two in a simple wooden gate in a clearing. Neither pain, nor floods of light, nor great voices, but just the silent crossing of a meadow.
• Mark Helprin, “A Solider In The Great War”
I’ll make it simple: I don’t want to die. I, a Christian, a minister and a person of faith, do not want to die. The thought fills me with fear, and I am ashamed at how little faith I have in the face of what is a universal and uncontrollable human experience.
I’ll die, no matter how I feel about dying, but I’m not at peace with the reality of death right now, and my fear of death is becoming a more frequent visitor to the dark side of my soul. I’ve never been a brave person, but bravery isn’t the issue anymore. It’s acceptance and faith that rests in God, rather than denial, avoidance and the terror of my fears.
Near number one on my list of things I don’t like about Christians is the suggestion I should have a happy and excited attitude about dying. “Uncle Joe got cancer and died in a month. Glory hallelujah. He’s in a better place and if you love the Lord that’s where you want to be right now. When the doctor says your time has come, you ought to shout praises to the Lord.” Or this one. “I’d rather be in heaven. Wouldn’t you? This earth is not my home. I’d rather be with Jesus and Mama and Peter and Abraham than spend one more day in this world of woe.”
Not me. Not by a long shot. I like this world of woe, and I really don’t want to leave it.
My bad attitude hasn’t held me back as a minister. I can do a good funeral. Probably some of my best moments in the pulpit have been talking about heaven and what the Bible says about death. But there always was this one thing: it was the other guy who was dead. Not me. So I automatically had a more positive attitude.
With the arrival of middle age, my fear of death has perched itself on my shoulder like a talking parrot. It waits until every other thought and concern has quieted down, and then it squawks as loudly as possible: “You’re going to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” It particularly likes to show up when I am going to sleep at night. I’ll say my prayers, begin to doze off, and SQUAWK- “Just a reminder big guy, you’re going to die.” For a few moments, I live in panic, fear and despair.
Call me whatever unspiritual names you like, but I don’t want to die. Everything about me wants to be alive in this world. I don’t want to say good-bye to my wife, children and friends. I don’t want there to be a last sermon, a last day at home, or a last drive in the country. When someone says we were made for heaven, I say “OK, but that’s not the way it seems to me. I appear to be made for living in this body, in this world and enjoying it.” I haven’t heard a prospect for heaven yet that sounds better than eating at my favorite barbecue place, making love, or going to the ball park. (But then I always have a bad attitude at Christian events held in stadiums. The food lines are too long. “Well, in heaven, we won’t eat.” See, here we go again.)
Death is so unwelcome, so final, so alien and so frightening to me that I am afraid to think about it for any extended period of time, and possibly find some remedy for the situation. I’ve never talked to anyone about this fear, more than just mentioning it to my wife. Such a conversation paralyzes me even as I type the possibility. I’ve avoided excellent books by helpful people, because the whole thing just creeps me out and sends me to the pits. I will admit the reason I am writing this essay is so I will have to think about it. I truly want to come to terms with the fact that I am going to die, and I want to find the peace of Christ about dying. But I’m honest–it’s going to be hard. No matter how many other Christians die, and no matter what I say or others say about death when it happens, I am clinging to life on planet earth with both hands and all my strength. I’m a tough case. And I don’t think that I’m alone.
I’ve imagined what a Christian counselor might have to say to me about this problem. He or she might ask when I was first introduced to death. I think my first awareness that people really died was the loss of my grandma’s husband, whom we called Humphrey. We never called him grandpa, because she married him late in life and my mom’s father had died many years before. As long as I knew him, he was a very angry man who had suffered a stroke and couldn’t talk. I was eight when he finally died, and I didn’t want to go to the funeral home. I was taken to the funeral home over many objections and tears, and I vividly remember not wanting to look at the dead body. Finally, my Uncle Bill took me by the hand and walked me up to the casket. It was a frightening moment, and no one said anything to help me understand what had happened.
I was scared for weeks, but I never told anyone. For most of my childhood years, fears of hauntings kept the covers over my head at night. No one knew, and no one noticed. So no one talked with me about it. I remember watching Don Knotts in “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” and I understood perfectly well why he was so terrified of staying in that old mansion. I was often scared in my own room. Death and dead people were scary.
From that time, death was a rare and unscheduled intruder in my otherwise somewhat normal childhood. I came to understand that it occasionally happened to other people, but if I thought about it happening to me, I don’t remember. Aunts, uncles, a man across the street, old people at church, accident victims, celebrities, all those folks in the newspaper every week: that was who died. But it had nothing to do with me. Death wasn’t part of my world.
Many parents will take the death of a pet as the opportunity to talk about death with a child. I had plenty of pets to die, including a favorite dog who was killed right in front of my house, but my parents never talked with me about death, and I must have never asked about such things. I kept my fears to myself, lest I be seen as a sissy or weak and afraid.
Three events brought death much closer to me, but still failed to penetrate my pretended sense of invulnerability. The first was almost drowning in my half-brother’s swimming pool at age 12. I was not a good swimmer, and I found myself in a pool with a sudden drop off instead of a slope. I stepped onto what I thought was solid footing, and instead dropped under the water without a breath. I managed to get my hand above water, and my brother saw the hand and pulled me out of the water before I drowned. I am sure I thought much about death in the aftermath, and this probably contributed to my own profession of faith at age fifteen. It is an event that has haunted me ever since. My brother was busy, and I had no idea he was in the area of the pool. God was certainly watching out for me.
The second event was my dad’s first heart attack, which occurred when I was thirteen. The days in ICU and weeks of recovery brought a constant reminder that my dad might pass away at any time. Dad certainly never let us forget it. I cannot remember what I thought about death during those days, but I am sure I had to consider that it might be about to touch my own family, and even though my dad had been disabled most of my life, it would still be a frightening thought to lose your father.
The third event was the tragic deaths of two close friends from church. One occurred my senior year in high school in a tractor accident, and the other happened during my first year of college when the young man dropped dead during gym class from an aneurysm. Ironically, these were the two boys who taught me to play guitar. Their deaths shook our church and community. I think of them often, and wonder where they are now. I heard a lot of sermons about those boys, but no one ever talked with me about my own feelings about death. I was a Christian by now, and everything was supposed to be all right.
Of course, since those days, I have buried my father (in 1992) and many relatives, friends, church members and strangers. As a minister, I have been with families in the last moments of life. I’ve watched a seventeen-year-old die of cancer. I’ve been with friends as they buried their nine-year-old son. I’ve had two beautiful, wonderful Christian friends take their own lives, and I did the funeral for one of them. I’ve talked with hundreds of students about deaths in their families. If you asked me to preach a series of sermons or teach a Bible study on the topic, I would do well.
None of this has helped. The thought of my own death still paralyzes me.
In 1991, I was in the hospital for some tests on my heart. I’d had an episode of continual skipping heartbeats in the pulpit, and I had to sit down, and eventually take an ambulance ride to Louisville. During the six days I was being tested, a technician viewing the results of a heart scan said I had evidence of scarring on my heart, and surgery seemed inevitable. (It actually turned out to be nothing, and I have been fine ever since, minus caffeine and the pastorate.) When I heard the news of possible surgery, the fear of death quickly reduced me to a mass of sobbing fear and begging prayers. My inability to face death overwhelmed me. With all I believed about God–even at that moment–my own weakness took over my mind and my feelings. I have never been so frightened.
I was 34 at the time, and hardly in the place to become obsessed with my mortality. Now at 46, I am more afraid of death than ever. I’m not sobbing and begging because I don’t let myself think about it, but it’s getting harder to not notice some things.
My body is slipping away from me. It is becoming increasing clear that no matter what I eat or do, my body is falling apart. This won’t just go to a level of dysfunction and stop. It’s going to continue to decline until major parts stop working, and it becomes obvious that death is going to pick one of those faltering parts and finish me off. (Assuming an accident or crime doesn’t get me.)
An intelligent guess, based on family and personal history, is that I stand a better than average chance of dying quickly with a heart attack, or becoming seriously debilitated as a result of a heart attack or stroke. I’ve seen plenty of both, and I’ll take the debilitation as long as I can still get to the ball park and the remote.
I don’t like the feeling that my genetic code, too many pizzas and general attitude have conspired to place a time bomb in me that will kill me whenever it wants to. God’s attitude towards death is way too hands-off, in my opinion. He should get involved to slow things down. My uncle was once told by a doctor that his body was full of aneurysms that could burst at any moment and kill him. He said he’d probably been walking around like that for years. There are some people who get body scans so they can see every possible spot or beginning tumor, and then they will know where the cancer will start. Uhh…No thanks. It seems that all of us should at least be fixable until we just get tired of hanging around. I’ve probably watched too many “Highlander” episodes.
Sometimes it seems that everything conspires to make me face my mortality. Not long ago, I was bombarded with men telling me about their prostate cancer scares. Other times, news about young men dying of colon cancer or leukemia are all I get in my mailbox. The information age is tough on an expert on denial who doesn’t want to think about death at all. I’m too much of a coward to visit Web MD or even get a blood test. I don’t want to walk through the valley of the shadow of death or anywhere near it. I want someone to show me a road around it.
When I read about other people’s lives, my mind and heart tell me that there will almost certainly be the same chapters in my life that are always there in every life: Illness. Suffering. Decline. Hospitalization. Nursing Homes. Death. As I sense that everyone before me, and some around and even behind me, are disappearing off the horizon of life, I have to accept that I am on the same conveyer, taking everyone to a common destination. As undeniable, as simply obvious as this is, I somehow entertain the childish notion that everyone is moving and I am standing still.
To be perfectly frank, I don’t think I am going to resolve this quickly, but I have some thoughts about how I got here and how I might make some progress out of the pit.
I’m very typically human in my fear of death. Of that I am sure. I may not be as good as most people in covering it up, and I may be well behind the curve in accepting reality, but I don’t think there is much unusual in wanting to live, enjoy this world and not die. I don’t feel the least bit bad that I don’t see myself as a “spiritual” creature made to frolic around heaven. I am a creature of my body and senses, and everything in me is naturally calibrated to this world.
Jesus struggled with these same fears of dying in the Garden of Gethsemane, and I am sure he was in a better position than I am to know what death and the life beyond are all about. So I’m not ashamed to be a struggler on the road to death and life.
It’s interesting to me that many atheists and members of other religions have a better attitude toward death than I do. I can’t totally speak for what they are going through inside their own heads, though I suspect many are like me but taking refuge in their own hiding places. What impresses me is how many can laugh, or go peacefully into that good night, apparently without the struggles I see in myself. What is it about me that wants to hold on so much to what no one, ever, anywhere, has been able to hold on to?
I’m a product of a culture that has effectively eliminated death from the menu of reality most of us are confronted with on a daily basis. Death has been moved to the periphery of society or to special facilities where specialists can take care of it for us. Where previous generations and cultures were constantly confronted with deaths in the family and community, and the sudden deaths of the young and the healthy were common, our culture has pushed death out to where we can maintain an illusion of control or invulnerability. Perhaps if I had been brought up in Ireland in the nineteenth century or in Haiti today, I would have come to terms with my own mortality more easily.
One of my memories of my father comes from one of the last times I visited him before he died. It illustrates how removing death to the periphery left me empty and afraid when I needed to be caring and involved. Dad was declining as a result of congestive heart failure. He asked me as I was walking to the car, if I really believed in heaven. He’d always been a deeply committed Christian, and I’d never seen in him any doubts about such things, even when he was most depressed. But with an intuition that death wasn’t far away, he wanted to hear his preacher son say something comforting and reassuring. Somehow my answer felt hollow, because it wasn’t a conversation we’d had before. Always, “everything would be okay.” Death would never really show up. Now, when I should have turned around and talked with dad, I gave a quick answer and got into the car. I’ve relived that moment so many times. Why couldn’t I have spent more time with dad? Why didn’t I want to spend that time? I was doing what our culture tells us to do–put dying people out of sight, and not think about what it all means. That felt right at the time, but not any more.
I’m part of an evangelical church that hasn’t been very helpful. I’ve never heard a sermon on how to die well. Oh I’ve heard about martyrs who desired death and those who accepted death with relish, but these people are so different from me that it annoys me to hear about them. A saint like Jim Elliott, waxing eloquent about his own death, never has worked for me. Such an embracing of death is a grace from God. It’s not something you are going to talk me into easily. Aside from idealizing death, I heard very little that was helpful, and a lot that was harmful.
Years ago, I was forced into attending a prayer meeting led by a religious fanatic who repeatedly said that the key to winning the lost was telling the Lord that he could kill you if that was what it took for a person to come to Christ. The speaker used an illustration of a vision of his own grave opening up (and later the grave of his son) and God asking if he were willing to die (or for his son to die) for others to come to Christ? I clearly recall wishing I could do anything to leave the room, because nothing in me was anywhere near the same page as this guy. I have a similar problem with some of my favorite preachers, including Dr. John Piper. Their constant insistence that I love the idea of dying has not found a good place to take root in my mind or emotions.
On the other hand, I also have to say that I’ve never been part of a church where the elders would stand up and say it was OK to die, and OK to pray that someone would die. We were always praying that people would be healed or that a miracle would occur, even when such a healing was unlikely and evidently not on God’s agenda. We still assumed that the will of the Lord was a special healing for everyone, and that death should be avoided at all costs. It sounded good to me, and as a result, I can say I have never, in the preaching or praying of the churches that formed me, heard anything that realistically helped me come to terms with the fact that I will one day die. That’s affected how I deal with dying people. It’s made me pray a lot of unhelpful prayers and say a lot of useless things.
Is this an “idolatry of life?” Is it part of the reason my natural tendency to fight any acceptance of death with everything in me has, at least to this point, won out over my acceptance of the truth of my own death and the promises of eternal life that should comfort me?
Some of my problem comes from the way heaven has been presented to me. I have no gripe with heaven, and I certainly prefer it to any of the other options, but heaven is often presented as one of the cheesiest doctrines in evangelical Christianity. My atheist brother once asked me why anyone would want to live forever. He was, no doubt, not thinking about exploring the majesty of God like an explorer explores an endless sea, but was thinking about the endless church services and church picnics that seem to populate evangelicalism’s version of the great beyond.
I can’t imagine anything about the next world that isn’t an echo of this world. Hear that? I can’t imagine anything about “heaven” that doesn’t somehow depend on a comparison to this wonderful world of ours. The Bible is no help at this point, because almost everything it has to say about heaven is an amplification or a comparison of earth. Otherwise, you get this: 1 Corinthians 2:9 “But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen and no ear has heard nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” I believe it, and it sounds great. I just don’t know what it means.
I live in an area of America–Appalachia–where people sing and talk about heaven as if it has an Internet site with virtual cams everywhere. We constantly hear about mansions, and there are letters in the local newspaper from people in heaven. That’s right. Dead people write letters from heaven on the anniversary of their passing and they are published in our local paper. So far, we haven’t gotten in letters from the other place, which I guess is a good thing. But maybe the mail just isn’t running from there. All in all, I haven’t read anything that’s helping me.
I have to admit that this kind of talk about heaven makes me not want to go. I mean, a short visit to golden streets would be nice, but like having to live in Disney World, it would eventually get boring. The light of the city, as I understand it, is the Lamb. They will see His face, and that is the treasure of heaven. Everything else is just window dressing.
I’ve never heard clear and helpful teaching on the resurrection and the resurrected life. With all the emphasis on what’s happening after the Left Behind series is over, it seems odd that the vast majority of Christians know nothing about the resurrection and the resurrected life. Heaven is a cloudy wonderland of people in white singing lots of worship choruses over and over. I have a feeling that if I would have heard more of the very “earthy” visions of the Old Covenant prophets rather than so much of the book of Revelation, I might have a better hope and an easier time facing my death….and resurrection.
The Old Testament is full of incredible pictures of a restored earth and the life of those who live upon it. I would like to hear less about the rapture and more about the resurrection to a new heaven and a new earth. There is no doubt that God made me to dwell upon the earth. The more I hear about a “spiritual” heaven, the less able I am to face death as I should. I want to come to my death knowing that the best is yet to come. A big Promise Keeper’s meeting won’t work. (Even if Jesus is the speaker.)
How am I going to fight the fight to accept my own death? I haven’t finished the plan, but I’ve made a start.
I want to get closer to people who are dying well. My mom is 82, a brave soul and at peace. I want to learn from her. I want to learn from fellow saints and those who recorded their thoughts and conversations as they took the final journey or watched those they love die well. (Book recommendations are welcome.) Ecclesiastes 7:4 “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
I want to read helpful, faith-building books about heaven. I gained more from C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle than every Gospel song about heaven I’ve ever heard. I know that Peter Kreeft has written helpfully on this subject, and I need to begin reading these and other books that will drive out some of my fears and create an anticipation of a world of love beyond death.
I need a hero who has walked this path and shown no fear. My friend Jim is an example. He has buried a wife. He has survived open heart surgery. He is a faithful, joyful and ever learning Christian. I can cut up with him like he was in his twenties rather than in his seventies. He has faced death and retained not only humor, but a treasury of compassion for others. It is Jim and his wife who will be found visiting the hurting and the grieving in our community. Their “retirement” is not travel and shopping, but visiting and praying, ministering in the name of Jesus. All things being normal, Jim will get home before I do, and I plan to watch him closely all the way. What I don’t yet have in my life, he has in abundance, and I home some of that joy in the face of death is contagious.
I need to let death be my teacher. Many years ago, I preached a funeral sermon by that title, and I knew then and now that I was not much of a student. I don’t even want to go to class. I will preach a last sermon. Have a last year with my wife. I will have a last embrace from my children. I will not hang around long enough to get it all right. I’ll not make up for my sins, or likely learn how to succeed, become successful and rich. I have used up a lot of what I’ve been given. God will give me as many days as he has for me, but there are a determined number of them and then it’s over. Once I can accept this, my life will be better. Every sermon, kiss, ball game and pizza will be better, and I will be happier.
Part of the lesson is to treasure the opportunities that I have as gifts God is graciously giving to me . I could be the one dead in an accident or from cancer. But I’m not. I am alive and given today to live, enjoy my life and delight in the God who loves me. I must learn that the day of death will also be a gift…a way into the house of the Lord for even more delights. That this is hard to believe is not really my fault, and I believe God will give me the grace I need for the exit ramp when the exit ramp arrives, and not before.
I need to talk about death with others. I’ve been afraid to plan my funeral or even mention my death to my children. I must change. A few months ago, I met a fellow on the Internet named Chris. He was a pastor who just took a new church and he was excited about his ministry. Six months later he was dead of leukemia. I’ve seen this before. I have seen it enough to know I should be talking about what death means in my life. What do I want my wife and children to remember? What do I want my legacy to be? What am I unwilling to leave uncompleted? Can I say, with confidence, that I haven’t wasted my life? Am I still dreaming enough to know what I want to be doing when the time comes and God says, “Okay. That’s enough for you?” Silence won’t help me achieve these things. Part of my cowardly, begging tears in the hospital was the knowledge that I hadn’t lived well, but poorly in so many ways.
There are two passages of scripture that I am holding on to these days. The first is John 11:24-27. Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
I am thoroughly banking on what Jesus meant when he spoke these words to people who had buried their brother four days previous. The Gospel makes it clear that Jesus’ raising of this man was a miracle of incomprehensible, undeniable and world-shaking implications. But it wasn’t this miracle that was so stunning; it wasn’t only these audacious words of Jesus; it was Jesus himself. These are words that confidently speak of his victory over death and his sovereignty over all its many details. I am going to fight to believe that Jesus is speaking to me as surely as he spoke to Lazarus, and I have nothing to fear from death as long as he is the master of it.
The other scripture is a simple citation from Genesis 5 that will need some explanation. Genesis 5:24 “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.”
Every year when I teach Genesis, I stress that the Bible is giving us important messages in these first few chapters, and we should stay aware of the themes that progress through the book. One of those themes is the entrance and universality of death. God creates a world without death, then warns Adam that the day he eats, he will die. They eat, and death enters the picture. Its progress is relentless and unstoppable. Even the long lifelines of the patriarchs cannot outrun the judgment of God. Over and over, we hear the names, and those hundreds and hundreds of years, followed by the same end….”and he died.”
The point is that death is the enemy no one can outlast or outrun. Death is eating away at the fabric of the world God has made, both inside and outside these human beings made in God’s image. There are no exceptions, right? Well, there was Enoch.
We know two important things about Enoch. One is that he “walked with God.” Given what we know in the first few chapters of Genesis (and certainly what we know from the rest of the Bible) this is a way of saying Enoch was a man of faith. I don’t know who else in these early chapters of Genesis had faith that God recognized and honored, but Abel and Enoch certainly are singled out as persons of faith, the quality God is looking for in each one of us.
The other fact is that Enoch is not in the list of those who died. Instead, the scripture cryptically says “and he was not, for God took him.” What does this mean? I do not know. What I believe is that it is the writer’s way of saying Enoch’s faith caused him to experience death, not like other men, but as “God took him.”
Just reading that sentence–among the plainest in all the Bible–is enough for me. It is enough for me to believe that God takes those who have faith. Someone once said that the Christian does not see death as the triumph of death, but as the giving way of death to life. In the final moments, this world must release its deadly hold, and eternal life takes control entirely. For the faithful, death is not an ending, but a birth.
It is as if we were observers in the womb, and as the child vanishes from our sight, we say, “he was not, for someone took him.” In the same way, scripture seems to be saying the Enoch’s passing was different. The details don’t matter at all. What matters is that death didn’t take him. Death only brought him to a point, and from there, God took him.
In my own struggle to accept where my life is going, this is the best promise so far. If I can hold on to the promise that God will take me, then I believe I will want to be nowhere else.