iMonk Classic: Death: The Road that Must Be Traveled

Dennis Michael Spencer. Sept. 16, 1956 – April 5, 2010.


Note from CM: This week, as we commemorate Michael Spencer’s passing five years ago, we thank God for the hope of eternal life and hear this reminder from Michael:

“…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.”

• • •

For this boy, coming to terms with death ain’t no easy thing.
by Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk

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 Soldier In The Great War”

6245084840_468180638d_zI’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.

13386141594_97e1dc4082_zI’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.

13386202344_1a5ac27748_zI’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.

13386096395_309bfa7335_zI’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.

6244998480_c117266875_zThe 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.

50 thoughts on “iMonk Classic: Death: The Road that Must Be Traveled

  1. This Lent was pretty much a downer for me, even though we are encouraged at the outset to not regard it that way, but simply sail on the sea of the time of fasting (in many ways, not just from food) into the harbor of Pascha. When I got to Holy Week and to the church services, I felt somewhat uplifted hearing the depth of the liturgical poetry again and entering into the timelessness of those days in Jerusalem, but it was not the same as in years past. Perhaps the newness of being Orthodox is finally wearing off… But on Holy Friday evening, near the end of the service of Matins for Holy Saturday, the prophecy of the Dry Bones from Ezekiel is chanted, then comes the epistle readings, then the Alleluias before the Gospel. The verses interspersed between the alleluias are chanted by one solo voice, and are the first 3 verses of Psalm 68, which comprise the beginning of the one of the 2 great liturgical poems of the eastern Church, the Paschal Stichera. It’s a tiny hint of what is to be celebrated in its fullness in about 24 hours: That’s when everything turned for me this year.

    Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered;
    let them that hate him flee from before his face.
    As smoke vanishes so let them vanish,
    as wax melts before the fire.
    This is the day that the Lord has made,
    but let the righteous be glad in it.

    Now, in the east these verses are not interpreted to mean God’s enemies as any particular people, but rather Death. Death is God’s enemy as well as ours. In the east, Pascha is the fairly riotous celebration of the death of Death.

    Long before I was Orthodox, I had the sense that Jesus going through death was an important identification of God with humans, and really meant something. I didn’t know the half of it, because I was still in churches that taught the transactional, legalistic approach to redemption via penal substitution and double imputation, and everything was about sin, with Jesus’ resurrection simply being God’s stamp of approval on his sacrifice. Oh yes, there was some talk about saved people being resurrected in order to go to “Heaven” some day, but I don’t ever remember OUR death being mentioned in the context of Jesus’ Resurrection.

    In the east, “atonement theology” is not its own thing; it is part of the whole sweep of God’s redemption, which emphasizes his UNION with us. Nothing legal, no transactions. God became man while remaining God, in total identification with us, even going all the way to the depths of death just as we do. One can’t get any “lower” than in the grave. This is the humility of God.

    I’m no fonder than anyone else of the notion of my own death and dying. I have had a more realistic view of it than most, I think, having been the child of funeral directors and living on the premises of the funeral home. Dead bodies never creeped me out; in that I am not like Michael was. But the surrounding culture, including all the church cultures I have been in since my late teens, have been characterized by either the avoidance of death, or the minimizing of it as simply “something natural”. Nowhere was there any kind of a true coming to grips with it in terms of Jesus’ own dying.

    But coming to grips with it in terms of Jesus’ own dying is ultimately what the Orthodox Holy Week is all about.

    I’m not going to say anything that disparages anyone else’s feelings; they are valid and need to be expressed. I will say, though, that in the doctrines of the Evangelicalism I was taught, and probably that most folks who hang around here were taught, there was nothing to help us navigate through our feelings toward the hope of the resurrection – not as “going to Heaven after you die™” but as was hoped for by the Jews of the first century, as what N.T. Wright in his book “The Resurrection of the Son of God” – and how Jesus’ resurrection not only fulfilled that hope, but surpassed it and gave surpassing meaning to all that went with that hope.

    -“Heaven” is someplace else; this earth has been too spoiled by sin for God too redeem it and has no place in the scheme of things after the Judgment; it is only fit to be destroyed.
    (In the east, God is about redeeming all of his creation. It will be transformed, but in Wright’s words, there will be continuity from one to the other. “Our eternal home” will be this very earth, renewed beyond our wildest expectations. Creation is good, Life is good, and Beauty is often another way of expressing what Divinity is.)

    -There is no understanding of how God works in and through suffering. No, suffering is not good, but it is the other undeniable tragedy of our existence, and I was never given any help dealing with it other than to pray that God would remove it. Well, most of the time he doesn’t. What do I do with that?
    (In the east, we expect God to be working all the time, even in suffering and even when I can’t see it, because that’s the kind of God he is – he is present with me through it all, and my sufferings somehow complete his own – baffling, but “scriptural”! In addition, our standard prayer for everything is, “Lord, have mercy” – not that we are constantly asking forgiveness for our shortcomings, but that in the sense of the original Greek we are asking God to pour out his love, care, and ultimate healing on the situation, whatever it is, the ins and outs of which we cannot fully see or understand, but that God does. “Mercy” in Greek is semantically related to the word for “olive” – which for the Greeks meant olive oil, which they used for just about everything. El Burro quoted above a prayer we say several times during the Liturgy; we’re not looking for a suffering end, but for a peaceful end – and we trust that the peace will come from Jesus himself, who is with us always, even in our suffering. Jesus himself fills up our lack of faith.)

    -There is near-silence on what the Resurrection means (and on the total meaning of the Incarnation and Crucifixion) other than the connection to the legal transaction of PSA. “The Afterlife” is reduced to an unending church service.
    (In the east, every Eucharist is about the Resurrection. Every Sunday we hear one-eighth of a set of rotating hymns about what the Resurrection means – and the Resurrection is for all mankind, not only for those who are “saved.” Nothingness is not “peace” – it is nothingness, and something we rightfully abhor. The true “Afterlife” will be the fullness of life as it was meant to be lived as an embodied spiritual being – iow, truly human, in true communion with God and with one another, keeping things on earth set right. I encourage any with “afterlife hangover” or disbelief in it to read Wright’s “Resurrection”. What we have been taught is a pale shadow of what the Jews expected, and that a pale shadow of the reality fully to come but that first burst forth from the tomb of Christ.)

    -God is so far away and only cares about our behavior.
    (In the east, God loves us so much that he pitched his tent among us and went to the lowest of our depths. There is no other God than the One revealed to us in Jesus Christ. He has always been in the process of uniting humans to himself, so that we can become Truly Human, the Persons he created us to be. The creation of Humanity isn’t finished until Jesus – the First Human – “Behold, the Man!” – is laid in the tomb and rests on the true Sabbath foreshadowed by that in Genesis.)

    -There is no notion of a “good death.” Like all suffering, it should be avoided.
    (In the east, we have many stories about people who have died well, not just the martyrs. We have a sacramental life, which means an understanding of our union with God that flows from Baptism, where something actually happens – we are united with Christ in HIS death, and so die right then and there in the water – rendering our physical death no more than a transit point, but which we are encouraged to consider daily, so that we are constantly confronting it and can get help through all the Sacraments and otherwise for dealing with the tension around it in which we live.)

    -Conversely, in some churches, death is seen as the “natural” ending to life, and something that should be talked about but is really no big deal. It is one’s life that should be celebrated via a memorial service, not a funeral, which dwells too much on the sadness.
    (In the east, we actually mourn a person’s death, because it is a true severing – of a person from the rest of humanity, including those who loved that person, and of the two aspects of body and soul, without which we are not the fullness of a human being. It is not the end, but it is most definitely a sorrowful thing, the result of humans turning away from God, the Source of Life. NB – we don’t get into arguments about whether or not there was death in the natural world before “Adam”.)

    There is much more, but I’ve already run on way too long, and am way late to this party. But you know me here to some extent, and so you probably know why I had to comment from what is in my heart on this Bright Monday, the day after the Eighth Day of the New Creation. I too am grateful again for Michael’s honesty, and also for Denise’s assurance that he did know the peace of Jesus walking with him through his final days in this body.

    Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen!

    further reading:
    The Paschal Canon (from the 8th century):
    The Stichera (special poetic verses that are interspersed between scripture verses) of Pascha:

    Click to access Paschal_stichera.pdf

    (This is the version we sing at my church; it is the arrangement done by our Rector, and is very good and singable – those of you who read music can try it!)


  2. “Hell hath no torment greater than Constant Forced Cheerfulness.”
    — G.K.Chesterton, “Three Tools of Death” (Father Brown Mystery)


  3. Ah, yes, the “Homegoing Celebration(TM)” that’s replaced the funeral where everybody has to be Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy! Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy!. Especially the next of kin who should be grieving — they have to have the widest happiest Smilllllles under pain of Sin, enforced by Pastor and Church Ladies.


  4. Death is a consequence of our sin, so I never understood how many fellow Christians I know say it’s no time to mourn when someone dies or no reason to be upset…


  5. It is an imprecation. Ithought i had replied directly to you, but didn’t – scroll down a bit to see.


  6. Vega, many people don’t get a diagnosis ofdementia until the problem has progressed fairly far already. In other words, if it does happen to you, you won’t necessarily be clearly aware of it.


  7. Robert, look up Ichabod in a concordance and you’ll see. Not ever something i would say to somebody, because i have had pastor” pull some of “curses” texts from Deuteronomy and “prophesy them over” me. Why i didn’t leave that church right then and there, I’m not quite sure.


  8. I like that Oscar. I just got home here it is 8 pm. Long day. Those last two sentences will finish my day today.


  9. I welcome your brotherhood, both of you, and all the others, too. Maybe, just maybe, knowing we have brothers (and sisters) in this will give us a little more courage to face what we must when it comes. And where there’s courage, there is often faith…


  10. Perhaps not the end of the world as we know it but rather a change in your world as you know it. Some sort of end and some new beginning, not just related to spiritual authorities but temporal authorities as well and your relationship to them. No idea if that’s the case but it’s always fun to take a stab. That’s what I saw as a possibility amongst the many. Sounds like a fairly “big” dream that could signify a fundamental change.


  11. I too love life and do not want to die any time soon, however, I am very afraid of the physical/mental deterioration that comes with living a long time. I know for certain that if I was ever diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s, or some other sort of mental illness that would take away my faculties, I would get a second opinion just to make sure, then I’d promptly kill myself. I want to live, but only on my own terms. If something were to come along that would take my quality of life from me to a great extent, I’d bail out. Some may call that selfish or cowardly, but I refuse to experience immense suffering just for the sake of continuing to live and continuing to suffer. I hope that never happens, or if it does, that it isn’t for many decades, but that is my strategy.


  12. Re BI: Your comment is unwanted and irrelevant to today’s serious and emotional post.

    But when all you have is a Biblical Agenda Hammer…


  13. Re BI: Your comment is unwanted and irrelevant to today’s serious and emotional post. I prophesy Icabod over your ministry for your insensitivity


  14. and I am so glad, for your sake and for your kids’ (as well as Michael’s) that this is how things went.


  15. Denise, thanks so very much for your comment. It helps, in all kinds of ways, to know that if Michael was able to face this with such peace, I (and others) might be able to as well.


  16. I still hope death is nothingness. Sleep. Peace. No heaven, nor hell. That sounds blissful.

    But resurrection of the dead will most likely occur, and that doesn’t sound so bad either.


  17. I wonder when Michael wrote this.

    For the last few nights, what little I can remember, I’ve been dreaming about death and the end of the world. I don’t know why. Not much has changed, in fact this week is far better than last week’s was, but those are my dreams. One night it was how the world was going to end, being involved with it…last night, it was a gathering while the world was ending. I saw and talked to people I haven’t seen in decades. My dad was sitting next to and laughing with a beautiful young black girl I had in a Spanish class 7 years ago. Outside the room, through the closed door with it’s glass window, I saw my former pastor at the charismatic church, and even in my dream it filled me with the peculiar fear and dread that only former adoration turnt horror can bring about. The room itself was almost modeled after that old church, but also having elements of my old IFB church from my childhood.

    I don’t know what it means. I don’t believe in dreams having any sort of spiritual meaning or message, not anymore, not after spending too many years around those who had dictionaries of dream interpretations. Far as I’m concerned, Daniel and Joseph and the rest, those are some great stories that serve some great theological, political, and historical points.

    But I do believe in God as creator, who created the human brain and psych, and my mind must be doing something while I’m sleeping. I go dreamless for weeks followed by my brain deindexing and rebooting itself or something.

    One feeling left from both these dreams is the sense that they are incomplete, like part 1, waiting for a resolution. I’m putting it out of mind, but I wonder what tonight will hold.


  18. Thanks to the IM folks for sharing Michael’s thoughts on death. I’m glad I’m not alone regarding my fears about death.

    Death has been on my mind quite a bit over the last year or so. My father died early last summer following several years of declining health. Almost six months later I paid my first visit to a cardiologist after an abnormality turned up on an EKG during a routine doctor’s visit. In between these events I turned 55.

    I’ve also struggled with how I will answer the Lord when I see Him face to face and account for my life. My path has been a strange one, one I certainly didn’t anticipate when I was a young man. Part of that resulted from choices I made, some good and some pretty bad. Part of that resulted from circumstances outside my control. I don’t fear losing my salvation so much as I fear that I will have missed the mission for which the Lord put me on this earth.

    Again, thanks for sharing Michael’s essay.


  19. ChrisS, I had always worried about Michael, since I, too, hated the thought of his being so afraid of death. But day after day those last months, I was truly amazed at his acceptance of it. He didn’t react at all the way I had always thought he would. I saw it as wonderful evidence of a peace given to him by the Spirit, and I will always be so grateful for that.


  20. Growing up in a hell-fire and brimstone cult, where the slightest misstep was good enough to ensure eternal damnation unless you made the appropriate confession to your counselor, I lived in constant terror.

    Especially when their alternative — Never-ending Compulsory Church Service/Bible Study in Fluffy Cloud Heaven — wasn’t much of an improvement.


  21. I’m also with IMonk on this one.

    And as with so many other important things, the church has not only dropped the ball on this one, but dropped it on both feet.


  22. Ah, Death. Till my mid twenties, I used to fear death tremendously, more even than Michael portrayed here: Growing up in a hell-fire and brimstone cult, where the slightest misstep was good enough to ensure eternal damnation unless you made the appropriate confession to your counselor, I lived in constant terror. Then I found my way out of there.

    And then I started meeting death. Or Death. The first was getting tremendously ill, far from medical help in very rural West Africa (2000). Then getting shot in the groin by carjackers in the Johannesburg area (2002) – that one was particularly close, as the bullet severed an artery, damaged 2 veins and a nerve, and the ambulance took 20 mins to arrive. Then I experienced an indirect lightening strike close to Pretoria (2006). And finally, a car accident on black ice where the car managed to miss all the guard rails and lampposts while sliding at 80km/h and land safely in the ditch – in Saskatoon, 2011.

    So by then the fear had subsided a bit – but as I drifted away from fundamentalism, conservative Christianity and eventually to the point where I no longer belief in an afterlife, the uncertainty about death remained- not the fear of the event, but the apprehension of non-existence. This has gradually subsided as well, with a recent advance coming from fiction – yes, literature is often the greatest help in facing ourselves. I’m talking here about DEATH, as created by Terry Pratchett. Humorous yes, but also insightful – not to be feared, but the natural end of things. That is why the author’s death recently brought me to tears, but also enforced a newly made peace with Death, my old acquaintance.


  23. A beautifully written and painfully honest account. I agree with its sentiments completely – the lingering fear of death and its absolute finality and universality is terrifying to me. And I’ve been a Christian for most of my life.


  24. A very touching scene between Kathryn Hepburn and Henry Fonda at the end of On Golden Pond.
    KH “This is the first time that I really felt we were really going to die.”
    HF “I’ve known it all along.”
    “When I looked at you, here on the floor, I could actually see you dead. I could see you. I could see you in your white starched shirt and blue suit in Thomas’ Funeral Parlor on Bradshaw street.”
    “How’d I look?”
    ” Not good Norman. You’ve been talking about death ever since we met but this is the first time I really felt it.”
    “How’s it feel?”
    “Oh….it feels odd. Cold…I guess. Not, not that bad..really. Not so frightening…almost comforting. Not such a bad place to go…I don’t know (breaks up crying).
    That scene has stayed with me since I saw the movie many years ago. Much better seen (YouTube the whole movie go to the end) than read. It touches upon how mixed our feelings can be about something that seems very black and white from a distance. I wonder how Michael’s fears were faced, or changed, when death’s certainty arrived, no longer a potential and no longer at a distance. I hate the thought of him, or anyone, being overwhelmed by that fear. It’s the biggest one. All fear, I think, is some form of that ultimate loss; or what appears to be loss.


  25. “And then I will know what it really means to have nothing and no one to appeal to for mercy and help.”

    Maybe when we know what it really means to have nothing in ourselves, that’s when we are free to accept the mercy and help of the One who is everything.


  26. I have a friend who admits he is not sure there is an afterlife. Therefore, he lives each day to it’s fullest and works to make the world a better place to live. Then if there is life after death, it is a gift. Either way, we are not in control and have to go along for the ride.


  27. The only hope I have is in Jesus Christ. And for that reason, I wish my faith were stronger. Truth be told, my faith is a flimsy and thin thing; I fear that what I experience in myself as faith will burn up like dry leaves in the first seconds of the burning ordeal that is death. And then I will know what it really means to have nothing and no one to appeal to for mercy and help.

    Lord Jesus, be with me and love me in this life and through my death, even if my trust in you turns out to be a nothing.

    We are brothers in this Robert.


  28. By far, this is the most painfully candid thing Michael ever wrote. It is an astringent to the soul, peeling away the pious platitudes and cozy comforts we try to wrap it in when talking about difficult subjects. This is why we loved Michael and, just like him, really hate that Death took him so young, so early, so painfully from us.

    Thanks, CM, for posting these.

    Now where is that dang tissue box….?


  29. W-

    May the memory of your sister illumine our darkness, and may we warm ourselves at the memory of her love for Jesus.

    For a Christian end to our lives, peaceful, unashamed, and of a good defense before the fearful judgement seat of Christ let us pray;

    Lord have mercy


  30. 2 versus from yesterday’s poem

    These same nails from a world seem to pierce me
    So many times in my life still stuck to a tree
    If the cage is open how do I know I am set free
    Somewhere within the turn there is hope to still see

    I heard a song sing my generation
    Yet larger is one who says my creation
    The train is still leaving and we’re all at the station
    Pardon me while I muse on in this observation


  31. Unlike Michael Spencer, I don’t love this world. From as early as I can remember, the road that leads through this life has been fraught with fear and frustration, self-doubt and suffering. And where others have rallied themselves against travails similar to mine, I haven’t been up to the challenge. As a result, I often long for oblivion and self-erasure, for never having been at all.

    But the idea of death fills me with the deepest dread. Death is total, there is no controlling or managing it, it exhausts everything, it consumes everything, it drags everything down; no thought, no action, no feeling, no wish, no appeal, nothing I can do will be of any avail against death when it arrives for me. Any touch of softness and kindness I have ever latched onto against the vicissitudes of my life will be ruthlessly stripped from me, they will burn off life fog under an exploding sun, and all that I thought frightening in my life will no doubt appear as the mildest intimation of a reality that I will no choice but to undergo, totally unprepared and unwilling.

    The only hope I have is in Jesus Christ. And for that reason, I wish my faith were stronger. Truth be told, my faith is a flimsy and thin thing; I fear that what I experience in myself as faith will burn up like dry leaves in the first seconds of the burning ordeal that is death. And then I will know what it really means to have nothing and no one to appeal to for mercy and help.

    Lord Jesus, be with me and love me in this life and through my death, even if my trust in you turns out to be a nothing.


  32. I have thought about death much lately. It has been coming on more and more. To tell the truth it frightens me. It causes anxiety in me. I will be 55 soon. I still routinely push 120 lb dumbbells over my head and I say that not as bragging but it use to be a lot more and easier. My heart does strange things now and I get light headed. Sometimes it scares me and sometimes I smile. I have never liked it as much as Michael here. Spent time trying to figure away out of here. I can’t remember a time where sorrow wasn’t apart of my life here.

    The thing is I don’t know where I am going. Oh I believe in Jesus and He told me He loved me along time ago when I almost died. I believe in this love and what this love means and what He has done with actions as well as words. Yet I don’t know it. I haven’t lived it. I don’t know what it will be like. Sorry but that causes anxiousness in me.

    I can’t stay here. To stay here would be a death sentence. Everything dies here. It would be a curse to live forever here. I pray for mercy. I pray that it is quick. I pray that He doesn’t let me know just take me like this guy Enoch.

    My sister who died on her birthday said to her husband Andy just days before her passing, why am I not getting any better. Even through the weeks before she would not let go of Jesus. She praised His name and loved. Maybe this is the victory to wrestle with God and not let go. I don’t know. She showed me how to die well and my greatest hope is to do that and my greatest fear is to not.

    Anyway I look at it I didn’t ask to be here in the first place at least not to my knowledge and I have no say in leaving. There is a knock on free will if I ever saw one. Still all in all love still grows in me sometimes fast and sometimes slow but for sure someday I will go.


  33. The interesting(?) thing about death is that you have to accept it, whether you accept it or not.

    And as you’ve seen others die or learned about others’ deaths, you realize there comes a time when your “no” vote doesn’t count any more; and that in fact you can no longer vote at all.


  34. I think I am with Michael. The thought of death, if not the actual FEAR, is always present with me. My wife won’t talk with me about it, and friends avoid the subject. I listen to older (than ME) Christians saying that they do not fear death, just the process of passing. What the heck is the DIFFERENCE?

    Along with the fear, or knowledge, of death is the sense of alone-ness that accompanies it. Death is something that is inevitable, and something that you can only face alone. No one is going to lead you by the hand into that deep end of the pool, and no one is going to grasp you by the hand and pull you out at the last minute. You WILL sink, and consciousness of this world will cease. It is NOT just like falling asleep.

    Leaving this world is the ultimate test of faith. Let God be true and everything else a lie…


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