Posts Tagged ‘dying’

dying-rose-bwc-big.jpgSince my Mom’s death in January, Sherrylee and I have spent five weeks in Europe, doing what we call site visits for the Let’s Start Talking Ministry

I think you will understand if I share with you that much of my thinking since January has been about death and dying.  I consciously decided not to write about it then because we Americans just don’t want to be reminded about our mortality too often.  We like happy endings.

The Germans even have the word Happy-end to describe American culture.  We like that—but they don’t really mean it as a compliment. They use that word more to describe Pollyannaism or a naïve positive bias toward life.

However, . . . .

Here we are just a few days from Easter, moving rapidly towards the Cross and the Tomb on Friday, so I suppose we must talk about death and dying.

The TV version of Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Jesus was shown last Sunday. I didn’t watch it. I still haven’t recovered from Jim Bishop’s The Day Christ Died (1957) that preachers used over and over again to describe in lurid detail the horrors of the crucifixion.  You certainly haven’t forgotten the images of the savagely beaten and crucified Christ from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2005).

But here is what I’ve been thinking:  the horrible physical suffering of Jesus was not the death that Jesus pled with His Father about in Gethsemane.  Other people have died more violently than Jesus did. Others have been tortured longer than the six hours that Jesus hung on the Cross.

Our fascination with the details of his physical death represent our own fears of death—especially a violent, painful death.

Three weeks ago, Sherrylee and I flew one stretch of our European trip on Germanwings, the same airline whose plane crashed in France last week.  That same co-pilot who on that day killed himself and all the passengers might have been sitting in the co-pilot’s seat of our flight the week before.

Should we be afraid to fly Germanwings?   Should we be afraid to fly?   Should we be afraid?

Jesus was not afraid of death.  He turned his face toward Jerusalem, saying “It’s time!”  He rode the donkey through the gates of Jerusalem amid the Hallelujah’s and the waving palm branches, fully aware that the next crowd he saw would be calling for his crucifixion.  He praised the anointing of his feet because he knew the poor would always be with them, but he would not be.  He broke the bread and drank the cup of Passover with his closest followers, knowing that his next drink would be vinegar.

Jesus was not afraid of death. He went to his death, not because of the scheming of the Jews, not because of the callousness of Pilate, not because of the cold-bloodedness of the Roman soldiers, but because He was obedient:  by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:8)

Jesus was not afraid of death.  He knew that Friday must come before Sunday, so every day of his ministry, really every day of his life, he walked deliberately toward Friday, not rushing, but at the appointed pace, and when the Friday had come, Jesus was there.

We should not be afraid of death. We have the same promise of Life that Jesus had, but as with Him, so with us, Friday must come before Sunday.  To walk in His steps means to walk deliberately toward Friday, not rushing, but at the appointed pace.

There is no promise of eighty years, no promise of a peaceful passing, no promise that we won’t die before or after someone we love, no promise of anything but that our Father will receive our spirits and keep us until Sunday morning when the dead in Christ will rise!

Life is more certain than death!  Don’t be afraid of death.

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Her name was Joyce Blackman Johnson, but everyone except her one still-living brother called her Joy—and rightfully so.  Sherrylee and I named our third child Emily Joy after her!  Emily and Tim named their oldest daughter Anna Joy.  Our family benefits from a lot of Joy, and most of the story began with Joyce Blackman Johnson—Granny Joy.

Joy Johnson and her family (1996)

Blessed are the dead . . . . (Revelation 14:13).   We non-Catholics usually want to finish the preceding verse in order to encourage living well until the very end of our lives.  The catholic and orthodox churches have a much more highly developed awareness of the dead saints, soliciting from them whatever form of intercession is still available to them on our behalf. If we ask living saints to pray for us, and if we believe in life after death, then it really doesn’t seem so far-fetched as I may have believed to ask for the prayers of saints on the other side as well.

Fifteen years ago yesterday, we buried Joy Johnson.  After a long and lingering time of dying, she passed peacefully in her sleep on the night that our Emily Joy graduated from high school.  The family gathered quickly in Columbus, Mississippi, where she and Max had served the church for many years. We buried her under an old tree in a new part of the old cemetery in Columbus, the one known for its Civil War graves.  We buried her on her 70th birthday.  The dogwoods were in full bloom; the day was beautiful.

And Joy was perfected—by the grace and mercy of her Father.

Joy had known she would die soon for quite some time. Her cancer had made it impossible for her to eat and properly digest food. The doctors operated once hopefully, but when the cancer recurred, they said that further intervention would not be effective. So Joy said she wanted to go home.

She lived the last two months of her life with unforgettable faith and confidence that nothing bad was getting ready to happen, rather that for which she had lived her life.  None of us will ever forget the day we all went to the funeral home to make final arrangements.  Yes, of course, Joy was with us. She would never have let us go without her!

We first picked out the casket, not the most expensive, but the one with the right color lining that would not clash with the blouse that she had already chosen to wear!  Chuck, a lay Baptist pastor who also worked at the funeral home, unfortunately tried to change her mind on the blouse color—bless his heart—but immediately bumped into the determined strength that characterizes all the Joys that I know! He will be forever know in our family lore as Chuck, the Baptist, bless his heart!

After settling everything at the funeral home, Joy and her daughters went to a little boutique in Columbus to shop for a scarf for her to be buried in.  “Good morning, Miss Joy” the nice lady at the store said. “How can we help you today?”

“Well, I’m looking for a scarf that will go with an accrue blouse as well as the coffin lining that I’m going to be buried in. Can you help me?”  The poor lady did her best not to gasp, but she was obviously a lot less at ease than Joy was with her imminent death.

As she grew smaller and weaker, so many people came to visit her. The hospice nurses would sometimes stay much longer than required, just to visit with Joy.  The Pentecostal neighbors came to try to heal her—and Joy, completely confident that God had another kind of healing in mind, nevertheless allowed their expressions of love and faith—although she did kind of roll her eyes when they weren’t looking.

Max and her children surrounded her in her last days as delirium began to take over—but even then she gave us some terribly funny moments.  Once Max and Phil were trying to change her sheets and accidentally rolled her out of the bed! After they got her back in, she said, “Max, am I in hell?”

Her most common delirious thought was that she had already died and was at her own funeral. Sherrylee played some beautiful Taize music on the CD player, thinking this would soothe Joy’s spirit, but after a while, Joy, only half-conscious, calls out, “Max, Max, I didn’t really want Catholic music in my funeral!”

She also thought that every time the doorbell rang, that someone was bringing a casserole to the funeral!  She was quite concerned that we had way too many casseroles.

On her final day, she woke up at some point feeling great! She sat up in bed and said, “Max, let’s call the doctor and tell him that I’m well!”  Then she said she wanted to sing, so she launched into all the verses and chorus of “I’m Pressing On the Upward Way” – which some of you will remember. She sang it all, ending with “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground!” and then she lay down, closed her eyes, and did not wake up again until she was with God.

Fifteen years ago, her Father planted her feet on higher ground. We miss Joy, but she is still very much with us.  The dogwoods are blooming in Mississippi again, but she is not there! She’s laughing and singing, saved by His grace, but bringing Him glory.

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord  . . . .


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