Prepare to Die—Part I

January 21, 2014

An interesting article appeared in Sunday’s Contra Costa Times in the “Your Life” section of the paper, entitled “Coffee, cake & grave conversation.” It described a Death Café, a hosted conversation about death and grief in Santa Cruz, California (one among many in California). The group’s purpose is to formalize discussions “to help ease the anxiety around death and dying.” As I read the article, it appears that the intended benefit is spiritual and practical, as people share and learn about various burial options, celebratory rituals, and advanced directives. It reminds me of a series of adult classes we used to have at church “On Death and Dying,” in which participants would plan their own funerals, write their obituaries, consider a Five-Wishes Document, and sign Advanced Directives, all from a faith-perspective. The public Death Café discussions render spiritual “answers” as completely personal and therefore not really answers. It strikes me that what those groups do not offer is anything more than an “information is power” message, but they do help people prepare in practical ways for what is to come.

This current blog series has similar objectives, albeit with a non-ambiguous spiritual component. There is a lot to be de-mystified about cancer itself, and information, to some degree, is power on that topic. But death itself remains an elusive subject because we can only really talk and interact about the process of dying prior to the event itself. Once we’re dead, we can no longer share our experiences with one another. As a reader so eloquently insisted in a comment a couple days ago, death itself is not the scary thing, it is what happens between now and then, the dying process, that is outrageous and rude and yes, frightening. Nobody wants to anticipate pain and suffering, if those experiences are part of one’s dying process. And yet, the only realm in which we have at least a bit of say is in this pre-death phase, because the matter is taken out of our hands at death’s door.

And so, keeping the end in mind, we work backwards one more increment in our discussion of what is to come. We cannot deny now that we all will die. I am going to die, and so are you. We do not know the way or the means for this, but we know it is going to happen. What must develop within us to come to a point of acceptance of this fact? And how would that change the way we live in the meantime? These are the topics for the next few days.

Since the final stage of grief is acceptance, that place of emotional and spiritual repose, we would do well to consider—given the luxury of some time of preparation not afforded those who die suddenly and without warning—what sort of person we must become in order to accept our impending death. This is the way to frame the question, many thanks to Dallas Willard. What sort of person will be able to face death with serenity and joy, and what qualities will need to be a part of our most essential being for this to happen? To unpack this question, let’s consider at least three things will be required of us at the moment of our death:  resigning, residing, and retiring. Will we be ready to meet this challenge?

Resigning. Turning in our papers, withdrawing from the job of living. Pulling out and ceasing work. Drawing on our pension, declaring we have worked enough and stopping the fight.

Residing. Resting in the fruit of our labor (or the depth of God’s grace, from a Reformed perspective). Abiding in an estate that has been prepared just for us. Declaring ourselves content, satisfied. Basking in the benefits of personal knowledge of our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

Retiring. Turning in one lifestyle for another, completely different endeavor. Yielding to a new reality, leaving one life behind and embracing new, eternal life in Christ. Allowing our temporal world to become so small as to face death individually, and yet opening our world to become so big as to embrace eternity in the company of God’s saints.

It may seem like a tall order to meet these requirements, and yet, a person prepared for new life is able to make a joyful transition from this life to the next. What sort of preparation lies in store for us, if we are to be ready for this inevitable moment?

It really is, once again, a call to discipleship. Life might be easy or bump-free for now, but every single one of us has at least one more spiritual challenge ahead for which readiness is imperative. Our faith will be tested as we enter the last phase of our life. Will there be enough faith to hold us together through the valley of the shadow of death? Will Jesus be enough for us as we face the perplexing questions that dying raises? Will our faith be shaken or will it be strengthened by the inevitable process leading to our physical death? Will talking about it help? Is information enough power to get us through the ordeal? Or is our power found in another source? Since I am going to die, what can I do to be ready for it? Christian disciples have answers to these questions:  Readiness requires discipline and practice, and this will be our topic next time.

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2 Responses to “Prepare to Die—Part I”

  1. emd5542 Says:

    Mary, I like how you invite us into readiness, perhaps the ultimate in discipleship, as we prepare to live into God’s love by welcoming the promise of God’s eternal love. Anticipating while not exactly reposing….

  2. Steve N. Says:

    Mary, like emd, I like how you invite us into readiness. I have also recommended to people to have a list of things they want in their memorial service (Bible passages to be read, hymns to be sung etc.).
    Your recent blogs have also had me going back into the deep corners of my mind to recall two books by Raymond Moody (Life After Life, and the sequel Reflections on Life After Life.) I read them in High School and found the accounts fascinating. Probably should revisit those two books and see how they now jive with my theology. (Of course that will happen when there are 30 hours in a day lol.)

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