“If it is frightful to die, perhaps it is more dangerous still to live a long life. Blessed is that person who always has the hour of death before his eyes and who is daily prepared to die! …Always be ready, therefore, and live so that death my never find you unprepared… How happy and wise is that person who strives now to be in life what he wishes to be found in death…” – Thomas A’Kempis, The Imitation of Christ.
I spent almost every Thursday night of 2019 having dinner with a group of friends — a group that grew and changed over the year, that shifted houses weekly, and with people who over the months became deep friends. A few weeks ago, we met to wrap up a book we had been reading together, and one of the topics that came up was death and dying.
As the conversation took its normal twists and turns, the question “are you ready to die?” came up. Some in the group shared about their fear of death as an unknown, others shared about FOMO (the fear of missing out) What about having kids? Grandkids? Other life achievements, experiences, and milestones that would be missed? There were varying reasons, but fear of death was a common experience. I think it may be a unifying human experience.
This made it all the more abrasive when I stated in a matter-of-fact tone that I felt completely ready to die. The reaction from these close friends of mine was one of… concern. But I assured them that there was nothing morbid about this. There was no longing for death, no wishing for it to come anytime soon — simply an absence of fear about the whole ordeal.
I’ve been thinking about death and dying a lot lately. A good friend of mine, Erica Estes, just got a new job with Hospice Visions, a wonderful local nonprofit. Our conversations have left me wondering if we think about death often enough. Do we bother pondering it? Or is avoidance our societal go-to?
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I imagine all of us will journey this stage of life. Death will be a part of our narrative, an experience we will all encounter, so why refuse to think about it? Why pretend this is something we will never encounter? Maybe being ready to die, feeling prepared for this part of our journey, is a good thing.
To be clear, I am not unafraid of pain, injury or illness. And I do not believe I know exactly or vividly what postmortem existence might look like. I’m not sure any of us do. I love Jesus and I love the stories we get about His life and teachings in the Gospels, in fact I love the whole cannon of biblical literature, but a detailed description of postmortem existence it is not. For all of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven present on earth, not much is said about the ever present “so, what exactly happens when I die?” question.
But I do think this act of pondering death can be useful. I think when we truly reflect on what we observe in the story of Jesus (and the rest of the Bible), when we reflect on our personal experiences, when we examine what we can know and what is currently outside our grasp of understanding, and when we observe the lives of beautiful souls throughout human history we will come away convinced that, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I might add the word love.
I think when we look at lives well lived, we find that attributes like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control unlock an absence of that ever-present fear of death within us, and this absence of that oh-so-human fear of death allows attributes like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to blossom in our day to day lives.
With Ash Wednesday coming, I invite you to contemplate just how temporary you are. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” If you don’t already have a space that allows you to contemplate ideas like these, feel free to drop by Twin Falls United Methodist Church any time on Wednesday, Feb. 26, and we’ll have an open room with stations and activities that are self-lead for you to walk through as you contemplate ideas like death and dying. Or connect with Hospice Visions to fill out an Advance Health Care Directive, so you can plan out the details of this part of your life journey more concretely.
In the end, if we take the time to contemplate it, maybe death and dying aren’t as scary as we had originally thought. And maybe being less afraid of this later stage of our lives will free us up to live the rest of our life more fully and vibrantly. We may never know, until we chose to engage these ideas directly. The invitation is here to stop avoiding thoughts of death and dying and live more freely.
Buddy Gharring is the pastor of the United Methodist Church, 360 Shoshone St. E., Twin Falls. Sunday worship is at 9:30 a.m., and the Be Open meditation group meets at 7:30 p.m. Sundays. For more information, email email@example.com or go to twin.church.
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