03 July 2007

Dying: a different perspective

by Dan Phillips

The first jarring, radical blow to my young Christian faith came in the person of Todd.

Todd was a delightful little single-digiter when I met him in the early '70's. Todd, just as cute as could be, freely told me about God and his faith in God, what he knew about God. It contrasted with several older and supposedly wiser folks to whom I was trying to bear witness.

Fast-forward months later, and there was a party at Todd's house. A Christian band was performing, the neighborhood was invited, it was very nice. A neighbor whom I barely knew said something like, "Sad about Todd, isn't it?"

I blinked. "Sad?" Huh?

"About his cancer."

Stunned, I learned that Todd had lung cancer. I couldn't believe it. Todd? Little Todd? Todd had just sat down and visited with me. He had seemed fine — but lung cancer? I thought that was something only old cigarette smokers got. (Turns out that he was around smokers, if I recall correctly — though that's not a necessary corollary.)

Fast-forward again. Quite some time later, I visited Todd at his folks' home. It was one of the most devastating scenes I've ever witnessed. I really don't want to write the details, except to say this: Todd was not fading away gently, looking wistfully Heavenward, softly making deep and wistful observations—like in the movies I'd always seen. No movie prepared me for this. It was horrifying, and I was badly shaken.

Not too long after, he died.

As I recall, Todd was just seven years old. My youngest is seven, now, I reflect, and pray for him again.

I was already planning to be a pastor at the time. But what to make of this, as a Christian, let alone as someone who some day would be trying (!) to be of some use to people in that position? Or, as the child of smokers, one day myself being in that position?

This is not going to be a theodicy; I just want to share one thing I read at the time, as I tried to make doctrinal and practical sense of it.

I read a book on ministering pastorally to cancer patients. It historically traced the attitude folks used to have towards dying. I learned that our forefathers' attitude was not the same as ours today.

Most of us, I presume, would say that we do not so much fear death as we fear dying. We fear a dehumanizing, drawn-out, agonizing, financially-devastating process. Our "dream death" — odd phrase, that — is a quick death. You know: Sky Lab falls on us, or a whale. Something in our brain blows out, and bam! we drop like a lead sinker in a pond on a summer day. We throw ourselves in front of someone taking a shot at a loved one, and are instantly killed. That's our dream-death.

Not so, our forebears. Their "dream death" was a slow death.

Why? We recoil from the suggestion.

I think it was because they had a sense of judgment and responsibility that we don't have. A slow death announced its coming. It's like getting a "five-minute-warning." A slow death gives the opportunity to prepare for the judgment of God. It gives occasion for trying to sort out any unsorted relationships, saying last words, arranging our affairs fully. It gives opportunity to prepare in the sight of the pulling of the last curtain on this life.

Knowledge of impending death was their Isaiah the prophet, announcing to Hezekiah, "Thus saith the LORD, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live" (Isaiah 38:1).

Our forebears wouldn't envy our longed-for quick death, our abrupt exit that leaves no time to prepare. That would be a sad death, to them.

Reading that broadened my perspective... but I'd be lying if I said it has made me feel different about the prospect!

But I think something else, too. Should we really need that kind of warning?

Isn't our first heartbeat a "warning pistol"? Maybe we don't have five minutes left, but on the scale of eternity, is there really that much of a difference between five minutes and a hundred years? Isn't it true that "you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes" (James 4:14)?

The statistics are pretty doggoned overwhelming: unless the Lord comes for us, our first heartbeat is #1 of a finite series, a series that has a fixed, definite and unalterable number known to God. While you've read this article, your total number of heartbeats has likely gone down by several hundred.

What... you didn't know that?

I must say, most seem to live as if they don't. Most live as if life will go on as-is, forever—though they know as a detached fact that it surely won't. When people ask me whether it was dangerous being a private investigator, I tell them the most dangerous part was driving the freeways of Los Angeles. People drive as if life is a video game, where if your "blip" explodes, you can just casually put in some more money and go again.

Yet such is not life. The beer commercial is only half-right: you only go around once in life. Then comes the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Usually there is no warning-sign, no "Five minutes, Mr. Phillips."

Surely this is the wisdom at the heart of Solomon's craggy observation that "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart" (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

Whatever our cosmic eschatology is, our personal eschatology had better keep that truth in the forefront. However imminent the Lord's coming is to the world, or whatever it may involve, our going to stand before Him surely is imminent.

Best be prepared.

Dan Phillips's signature


Marcian said...

'Tis true, before we got here no one knew we were coming, and after we leave no one will know we were even here... so what is the sum of the matter?

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, "I have no delight in them" Ecc 12:1

donsands said...

"Thus saith the LORD, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live"

I was in chapter 38 this morn. Isaiah is one incredible book. So much to understand.
Anyway, Hezikiah wept bitterly before the Lord, and he got a 15 year reprieve. And he even got a sign, the Sun moving backwards, for a blessing.
Hope it's alright if I went a little off subject.

Very good post BTW.

have a happy 4th of July.

Chad D. said...

Death, separation from a relationship with God which we were created to enjoy.
It is wonderful to know that because of Christ death, bureal, and ressurction I do not have to fear separation from God.
But death created by sin will leave us incomplete until Christ restores the entire creation. When I die I will no longer be a physical creature, which God created me to be, until my body is restored and joined to my spirit.
I use to live in the trap that death was a good thing. Death is not good under any circumstance. Death is the result of sin. It is a terrible consequence of the fall and for us to celebrate it or look forward to it shows our misunderstanding of what it is.
Thank you for your insight and thoughts this morning.
Let's live and hold onto life as long as we can; fully devoted to Christ who is our all, and hoping that He will return before we have to experience death.
"Nevertheless I am continually with Thee, Thou hast held me by my right hand, Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel and afterward receive me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but Thee and there is nothing on earth I desire beside Thee. My flesh and my heart faileth but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." Ps.73:23-26

Linuxuser said...

To live is Christ, to die is gain

GeneMBridges said...

Having a slow illness can be one of the greatest blessings God can give.

A. It makes you see what's important and what isn't.

B. If you're a "fence sitter" that will often change as a result.

C. Sometimes it comes out in the things you say and the way you say it. For example, you'll learn to be blunt with people, because you'll see more clearly than others that somebody needs a swift kick in the backside to wake them up.

D. It will certainly show in the way your prioritize. Scriptures like "Do not weary yourself to gain wealth, cease your consideration of it; when you set your eyes on it, it is gone, for wealth surely makes wings for itself like an eagle that flies toward the heavens" take on a deeper meaning. After all, when you're gone, the earth and its people will take what you have here and divide it among themselves.

E. It teaches you endurance. You learn not to cry unless it REALLY hurts. You learn to deal with adversity, so you become more stable than most people who seem to fall apart at the drop of a hat. It's an opportunity for God to cultivate wisdom.

Kay said...

I love the labels on this post -

Dan Phillips, Death.

I've looked death straight in the eye a few times, and I can definitely put myself in the longing for 'slow death' camp. Because in one sense, of course I am ready, but in another, no I'm most certainly not.
And I've seen the witness that the dying Christian can be - and the witness a Christian is able to be to one is dying slowly.

David A. Carlson said...

Other posts may generate more comments (and heat), but few are better.

Thanks Dan.

Wyeth Duncan said...

This certainly was a good post, and thought-provoking, too. It is curious how we, as human beings, can know full well that one day we will die, but still find it difficult to keep that thought uppermost in our minds. Maybe our reluctance to face up to the fact of our mortality is a reflection of the eternality of the human soul. I found it somewhat easier to recognize my own mortality when I reached the age of 40 a few years ago. With 40 years of life behind me, all of a sudden a lifetime didn't seem very long at all.

Wyeth Duncan

Stefan Ewing said...

Dan, you expressed a lot of important stuff here very well. I have nothing useful to add.

Kristine said...

Thank you. On one hand, I could say that I've had too much experience with death; yet, on the other, I would have to admit that all that I've experienced with death, has been used of God in my own life, to keep my soul ever-aware of (and awake to) the reality of the Christian gospel.

May your humble and honest thoughts-in what could be seen as just another blog post by some-be used by God to awaken the sleeping souls we meet and pass by every day.

I seem to always be thanking you...thanks again.

Laura said...
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