What have you learned as a Christian about death and dying? As an 84-year-old, how are you handling the fact that statistically your own death is not far off for you?
In the first place, death is real for everyone—Christians and all others. But death is also the most important deterrent to serious crime and abuse of others who are weaker than we. In fact, without death most of the morality we have could be lost. The fear of death keeps us from going too far since people could kill us. And with regard to the reign of God in human experience, death is like a beeper light at the end of every life reminding us all that we apparently have a limited time to consider God’s offer of a creative, loving and intimate relationship that starts in this life but extends beyond death. And because of this offer from God we can risk all or part of our lives loving and experiencing love that can transform all of life into fulfilling experiences of freedom from the irrational fears of rejection, injury and death.
I learned a number of things about death and dying between my eighteenth and twenty-ninth birthdays. During that time all of my family of origin either died or were killed. And I found myself planning funerals, picking out coffins and doing the paper work to clear up estates from age eighteen to twenty-eight. I had no idea how unusual that was. I just had to step up and do things because of the way things unfolded.
But I didn’t face the stark fact that I am going to die until the last member of our family—my mother, Mabel Olivia Davis Miller, died.
When she was sixty-three, she discovered she had terminal cancer and had only a few months to live. Since she was the youngest child of her family by fourteen years, her sisters and brothers had predeceased her, she was pretty much alone. When she had to be hospitalized, I asked the major company I worked for to transfer me to their Oklahoma City office (from Texas) so I could be with my mother who had been a sorority housemother in Norman twenty miles away.
I worked in the daytime and took the night nurse’s place for financial reasons. Because of that I got to sit with her while she was dying. And I was amazed. She was calm about her own death. She had me get a notebook so she could tell me what I would need to do as the last member of our family. She told me who to get for a funeral director—a friend of my father’s of whom I had never heard. Then she told me what to give to some cousins in Missouri whom I hadn’t known since I was a child. And she told me some people to notify when she died who would be hurt if they weren’t contacted—and she even helped me to pick out the clothes she’d be buried in—since I would have had no idea.
The bottom line was, here was a brilliant woman dying and in a good bit of pain who was thinking totally about other people. When everything was planned, a few days before her death, she said to me very calmly. “I wonder what death will be like. I wonder if there will be anything like consciousness and if Jesus was right when he said there will be a “place” for each of us—and if so, will we recognize those who have gone before.”
And I realized something I’ve never forgotten: that we learn how to face death by watching people do it with courage and trust.
But even with all that experience I never let my weight down into the stark fear and awareness that I am going to die—until after my mother’s death. After her funeral, I went into our family home in Tulsa and arranged for most of the things to be given to the Salvation Army. The last place I went to was the basement. There was a large room in the center and several smaller rooms with doors opening into the big room. When someone had died, what remained of their personal effects had been put in one of the separate rooms. No one wanted to go through them. But now there was no one else to go down those stairs to go through it all.
I remember sitting on the floor of that big room with boxes of family pictures and mementos of my dead family’s lives all around me. I felt helpless. I began to cry when I realized that there was no one left to tell me who the people and occasions in those pictures were. When I realized that I’d never know, I also realized that I’d just have to burn those last remaining evidences that these people had lived—people who had been so dear to my family and who had loved me. I felt lost and very sad.
That night I had a vivid dream. I was lying in a wooden box with my eyes closed. I sensed that someone was about to nail down the lid but I couldn’t get my eyes open or move my mouth as I realized I was being nailed in a coffin alive! I panicked!
Finally, with all my strength, I exploded my muscles and kicked at the top and woke up trying to scream “I’M ALIVE!”
The next morning as I sat on the basement floor in the midst of the boxes, I realized in a different way that I am going to die. And I thought about that. Then something occurred to me I’d never thought before and I said to God, “Whatever your plan about death is, if it’s good enough for them (and I indicated the boxes of pictures) it’s good enough for me.” And in that moment in the gray concrete basement I felt in some strange way that I had joined the human race. That was when I realized that death is like a red beacon at the end of the tunnel reminding us that if we want to live a good and loving life here on earth, we should get at it, since our time is limited.
Several months before my mother died I had committed as much of my life as I knew to as much of God as I knew in Jesus. However at that time I had not thought about my own death and how people who might see a picture of me might not know my name. And for me, those few minutes alone with the family’s past in that gray basement constituted one of the milestone steps in realizing that I had to begin to trust every part of my life to God in order to live in Reality.
Over the years I have been very healthy physically and I’m grateful about that. As a counselor I have also learned that everyone is afraid at some level—afraid of a few things or a lot of things. But I’ve also learned that Jesus left us an incredible Life Plan that is designed to free us from fear by teaching us to receive God’s love and acceptance and continual presence right now—without having to earn it. And realizing that I was loved by God somehow freed me to want to give other people who were lonely and afraid the same self-limiting love I felt from God and from other people I met the next few years who were attempting to surrender their whole lives to Him.
Since that time when I hear that someone I know has died, I realize that the best thing I can bring to their family is to be present during the time of the funeral. At first I didn’t want to see people who had lost a loved one because I didn’t know what to say. But then I remembered that Jesus didn’t promise to bring us brilliant or fancy gifts. He just promised to be with us—he promised us his presence. So now I can go and sit with a friend or family member without the burden of having something brilliant to say but just to listen to them tell what happened, how the sickness or death went, or whatever they want to say, if anything.
And over the years, I’ve learned that for me the acts of loving people, helping out if possible or just walking alongside them in simple ways by being present—all of these are parts of what Jesus promised each of us—as an aspect of loving us specifically. The bottom line is: we will never have to be alone again. He will be with us. And it is that love (not courage) that sometimes can cast out fear—even of death. (see John 4)
Regarding my own upcoming death, sometimes I wake up at night afraid. And when I do, I stop and surrender my whole life once more and thank Him for the remarkable years I’ve already had and for the people he’s put in my life to love. But mostly I’m filled with gratitude, and I’m more in love with my wife, Andrea, my grown kids and grandkids, great grandkids, old friends, and the crazy people I still meet with several times a week who continue to teach me how to live and love. So I’d like to hang around a while longer. I am very happy and love the work God has given me to do, as Andrea and I work together to finish a book about a new perspective that we have heard God offering in His story as we try to walk in it.
Lord, thank you that as we learn to love you and other people as you love us, you help us to trust our relationship with you and its continuance beyond pain and death—and the miracle is that we can begin to trust other people as you act toward us in trustworthy ways. Help us to surrender our lives right now—and then help us to look around and see who we might love and help for you today. Amen.
“You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live.” (Jn. 14:1-4, The Message)
“This image of planting a dead seed and raising a live plant is a mere sketch at best, but perhaps it will help in approaching the mystery of the resurrection body—but only if you keep in mind that when we’re raised, we’re raised for good, alive forever! The corpse that’s planted is no beauty, but when it’s raised, it’s glorious. Put in the ground weak, it comes up powerful. The seed sown is natural; the seed grown is supernatural—same seed, same body, but what a difference from when it goes down in physical mortality to when it is raised up in spiritual immortality!” (1 Cor. 15: 42-44, The Message)
“God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.” (1 John 4:17-18, The Message)
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. (Matt. 5:8, The Message)
“You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all.” (John 11:25, The Message)