There are usually some good reasons that we don’t talk about the awkward subjects: some subjects are straight-up embarrassing… I think there are some personal health issues that will always be awkward to talk about with anyone beyond my doctor and my wife. I’m just saying. Some awkward subjects are considered private… for most people in our culture personal finances are a private matter… we don’t talk about that. Then there are some subjects that are awkward because we simply don’t want to admit they are real or they scare us and today’s subject is one of those subjects: death and dying… dealing with the end of life… preparing to die well. And this awkward subject is one that we must talk about… even though our culture tends to avoid it like the plague. Everything in popular culture focuses on vitality… on feigned immortality. Life in our culture is about accomplishment, moving into tomorrow, being a bourgeoning leader and having a vision for the future. No one wants to talk about death or the dying process, or dealing with the changes that come with aging or dying well. There is nothing particularly visionary in any of this and so we act like death isn’t out there as long as we can. That is until death enters either our own life or the life of someone we know and love. And it can enter our lives in so many ways… it may come slowly over a long period of time like we saw in today’s drama or it may tragically roar into our lives unexpectedly. But, regardless of how death enters our lives, it is always out there and we cannot escape it. We may bury our heads in the sand and pretend like it’s too awkward to talk about, but death, the end of life, touches everyone. Now, it is true that the Bible speaks of 2, well, maybe three, extremely righteous men who did not taste death… God took Enoch, Elijah and maybe Moses straight into his presence without them ever dying. But odds are that none of us will be that lucky next person taken directly into God’s presence without physically dying. Interestingly, every poll that I’ve ever read says that almost no one is afraid of being dead… sad, yes, that they won’t be present for certain coming events in the lives of their loved ones… but not afraid of being dead. But, almost everyone has some fears about the process of dying… and yet we don’t talk about it because it’s so awkward… and yet we must!
I hate starting with a caveat but I must say right here at the beginning we are only starting a conversation. This is a huge, multifaceted, complicated and very emotional subject. And as I said earlier, death and dying issues touch all of us in two ways: there is our own death and then there is the death of those around us and both of these realities have their own set of issues. The inevitability of my own death is one thing; the way my family and friends will deal with my death is something else; they are intertwined but still very different. But once again, we can’t avoid any of this and so we must prepare in some ways for these inevitabilities. Now, I know that there is already a ton of information purposed to help with this important preparation: books galore, websites, blogs, support groups… on and on… and this kind of information has great merit… I’m thankful there is this wealth of guidance to help prepare us for both the practical and emotional aspects of dealing with dying. And we will get to this in a minute. But before we do, I must put this entire discussion into what I believe is its most important context: if we are followers of Jesus then his life, death and resurrection should give us great confidence in the face of the end of our earthly lives. And while death and its process is an aspect of our broken world that will touch all of us, we need not be afraid. Faith in Jesus, surrendering to him and following him means we have been promised by God that he will walk with us not only in this life but through death and into eternal life. This is the great hope of our faith: that death has been defeated and that we will never be separated from God either in this life or in the life to come. These facts should color everything Christ- followers say and do related to dying.
There is a Psalm that speaks directly to all of this. It is Psalm 116 and as I read some of the verses of this Psalm I’d like to you to pay attention to what the Psalmist, who we believe is David, has to say. Pay attention to his fears about his own death and watch his fear fade away as he realizes how much God loves him and has been with him. He starts out saying, I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.In other words, he says, ‘I can trust God; I can trust God in the future because he has proven himself in the past.’ And David then tells us something of what he’s been through that has given him such confidence in God. The cords of death entangled me,the anguish of the grave came over me; I was overcome by distress and sorrow… Something happened, what, we don’t know for certain…but it got David thinking about his own death and he was overcome just thinking about it. And this is a common response that I’m sure we all understand. But then, after thinking about God’s care in the past, he pulls himself together and says to himself in verse 7, ‘Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.’ And then in verse 15 he comes to a conclusion… an oddly wonderful conclusion that changes everything for him. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants. That isn’t something we tend to assume and yet this psalm tells us it is absolutely true. And with this truth in hand David goes on to say in verse 17, ‘I will sacrifice a thank offering to you and call on the name of the Lord. I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, Jerusalem. Praise the Lord.’ God is telling us through David’s song that death isn’t something to fear. It is something to be lived into and through with God. Plus, I feel there is something in this verse that speaks of dying well… resting in God’s care and living out our lives knowing we are not heading into something dark and confusing, but rather into something that God says is precious to him. What this psalm has said to me as I’ve thought about it over the last week is this: surrendering one’s life to Jesus and following him is as important in the final days of life as it is in life’s prime years. And I really believe that it is God’s desire is that we work together to make dying well with dignity, grace and purpose possible for everyone. And can I give us a definition of dying well before we go on? Dying well is living out our last days in this world with an eternal perspective. It is understanding that our calling in the last days of our lives is just as important to God as it is in our prime years. It is maintaining other-centered attitudes and actions that reflect the love of Christ regardless of the circumstances. As a pastor, I’ve had many opportunities to see what it looks like for people to die well… to die with dignity, grace and purpose… and it is beautiful. I have walked with any number of men and women of all ages over long periods of time as they gradually lose a battle with cancer; I have also stood alongside families as they watched their loved one slowly disappear into the fog of Alzheimer’s. I have helped a number of families with the decision to turn off the machines that seemed to be sustaining the life of their loved one. And I have been with families just after they’ve received the terrible news of a child’s tragic, unexpected death. I could go on and on and just when I think I’ve seen it all something new comes along. I’ve seen people die well in these situations and I’ve seen the opposite. And while each situation is unique and has its own special circumstances there are also some similarities… things that everyone feels and wonders about… Now, as I said earlier there are a lot of very practical resources out there to help in dealing with the difficulties surrounding death and dying. But I have found, through my own experience, that the following things, things that are central to our being followers of Jesus, are always important to keep in mind both for those of us who are facing our own death and for those who are dealing with the death of someone they love. First and foremost, no matter what the situation, continually Draw near to God. I know this sounds obvious but what I often find that people ‘lose’ their faith when they are confronted with death. This almost always happens when a loved one is dying or has died. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say something like, “I lost my faith when my Grandma died. She was the godliest person I know. How could God let her, of all people, die?’ And then they pull away from God and his people. But here is what I have found to be true: when we draw near to him he will cover us with his grace in the difficult moments. I have found that drawing near to God whether through prayer or through reading the scripture or spending time with others who can support you, even when it seems God is being silent, will help you eventually hear God’s voice and feel his love for you in the midst of the situation. We must always remember to move toward God not away from him. He may not give you the answers you want but he will give you the comfort you need. That I can promise. But coupled with this we also need to Admit that on this side of eternity death is tragic: death causes broken hearts, sadness, shock, fear, sense of being lost, deep loneliness, remorse, we could go on and on and it does no one any good to avoid that these are the realities that surround death. Being honest about what is actually going on in your heart will go a long way toward helping you through the difficulty of facing either your own death or the death of someone else. We have to talk about these emotions; we can’t simply act like everything is going on as normal. We also need to be people who will listen to one another and not find these emotions connected to Death troubling. Death, on this side of eternity always touches the heart no matter the circumstances. We have to accept this fact in order to be honest in the moment. Thirdly, and this may seem odd to some of you but I find it to be one of the most important aspects of dealing with death: Recognize we were not created to deal with death. I believe with all of my heart that we are not born with the emotional tools to deal with all that death brings to life because we weren’t created to deal with this kind of loss in the first place. Death entered the world through sin; it is an intrusion into God’s initial intensions. I know that some will disagree with me, but I believe we are not made with the internal, emotional tools that give us the ability to face a lot of the difficulties of life and in particular our own mortality and the mortality of others. We can’t keep a stiff upper lip or just get over it. We weren’t supposed to have to deal with it so we weren’t given the needed tools. Just admitting this makes things better. What we all need is the help of God’s Spirit and his people; together we can pass through the dark days of dealing with death. And finally, Maintain a posture focused on the eternal. I cannot tell you how many people I have seen move on into eternity who had been already living in the realm of the eternal for a good while. And their focus on the eternal made it easier for everyone around them to see their passing as a home coming. There is a lot of scripture that tells us to focus on the eternal… to keep our eyes on our ultimate destiny which is: being present with our Lord. An eternal focus keeps us from despairing in the present; it fills our hearts with hope and it allows us to find joy in the midst of the darkness. It’s not pie in the sky to focus on the eternal; it is finding rest in God’s promises to us. What I’ve found is that these four things, drawing near to God, admitting that on this side of eternity death is tragic, that we are not created with the inner tools to deal with death on our own and that we need to maintain a posture focused on the eternal, will go a long way toward making dealing with death, both our own death and someone else’s more of what God longs to see.
But I also know that these all sound like something a pastor would say… so it’s time to get ridiculously practical. First, let’s talk about me dying. What should you and I be doing to make sure in every way possible that we can to die well? First, there are some practical things to take care of when no one is thinking you are anywhere near death: have a will; have a living will so there won’t be any question about what kind of care you want when; appoint one person to be your power of attorney in case you aren’t able to make decisions for yourself; talk to your family about all of these decisions and tell them directly 2 things right up front: what kind of end of life care you want and the facts about your finances. And again, you need to have these discussions a long time before it seems necessary. If you wait until events force these decision, you may not be able to have a voice in your own circumstances. In other words, you must be clear with the people you believe will be present when the end of your life comes as to what you would call dignity. Also, you need to be sure that someone besides yourself knows how to pay your bills… especially if you have always been the only one to take care of the financial stuff. You need to talk about how long you want to try and stay in your home and what should trigger a change. You need to talk about who you want telling you when you shouldn’t be driving. Awkward… but necessary. And put things in writing. What you want to do is clear the deck as much as is possible so you can finish out your days with an open horizon… you don’t want to have any really important, fundamental decisions left until a time of crisis. And something else, I firmly believe that having a purpose larger than one’s self is a huge part of ending life well and we should all strive to live out that purpose in any way we can imagine living it out. But this also means that you will need to tell your family what you believe is God’s call on your life… they need to understand what is motivating you… they need to hear that you believe that you still have a lot to give in your last days and you are going to work at staying as active in important aspects of God’s kingdom as long as you can… whether that be within your neighborhood or from a hospice bed. And can I add that I believe it is also important to be as graceful as you possibly can in your last years. If you have not been a graceful person it is never too late to learn. Part of dying well is being an encourager to those who will be left once you are gone. I’ve seen both sides. Believe me, the last thing you want is your family celebrating that the source of constant criticism has left the building. To sum this up, I believe it is important to do all that you can to have the details decided. That way you can concentrate on living for Jesus right up to your last breath.
Now, to talk about caring for others at the end of their lives. I preached a sermon about dealing with older parents about 2 years ago and it is available on the website. Please go online and listen to that sermon if you are one of the multitudes who are caring for an elderly parent. There is a lot of information in that sermon. And while it will always be an awkward conversation, we must have the conversation with those older folks that we are caring for about what they feel constitutes dignity. Even if dad is a crotchety, old guy that doesn’t want to talk to you about anything related to this subject; it’s wise for you keep bringing it up until you have the conversation because in the end, it almost always come down to the people responsible for a dying person’s care to ensure that their dignity is maintained. You have to know what the people you are caring for are expecting. Again, every situation is unique and circumstances will play a role in how things develop, but the best way to help a dying person maintain their dignity is for them to have a sense that what is happening to them was, as best as it can be, decided by them. Often all they will really want is for someone to simply know their desires and be their advocate. I know that at the end of my wife’s mom’s life as she was struggling with the terrible effects of late stage breast cancer all it took to lift her sense of dignity on the days when she had any appetite at all was to get her a Burger King Whopper. That was the last thing she was supposed to have and yet knowing this is what she really wanted made it easy to make her day and give her the sense that she was important. Dignity means being taken seriously. Once Jennifer’s mom knew we were taking her seriously, she trusted us and it opened the door to all kinds of new, healing conversations and it added much joy to her last days.
I believe with all of my heart that God longs to see his people die well; to be a blessing to others and advocates for his kingdom as much as is possible right up to our last breath. We would all agree that this is what God wants from us during our earlier years… the years that are filled with future potential… why wouldn’t he want the same for us in our final days before we go to be with our Lord forever? Our task is to both do all that we can to die well and to be a blessing to others to enable them to die well, too. As I said earlier, I’ve seen it happen and it can be beautiful. It has never been something that I enjoyed watching but what it has been for me is an exclamation point on lives that I know were greeted by these words, “Well done my good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your lord.”