Prepare to Die—Part II

January 22, 2014

Can’t help but start today’s post with the most famous quotation from Princess Bride (with heavy Spanish accent): “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” He gives that warning several times in the classic movie, enough for the viewer to know that nobody is actually going to die any time soon. But the line cracks my funny bone.

I am serious today, however, when I say, “Prepare to die.” I am going to die. You are going to die. It may not be anytime soon . . . [Just for the record, my progress toward lung-cancer-free life continues with encouraging signs along the way. Today I am rejoicing that I have no more chemo for at least a couple months—do I hear a “Woo-hoo!”—in preparation for lung surgery.]

If the thought that you are going to die makes you angry, part of the preparation involves dealing with that anger in advance. When the time comes, there will be plenty of short-term and local realities to get exercised over, but the more eternal and global realities are worth tackling now. You can make the second stage of grief a little easier then, if you do some worthy homework now.

If the thought that you are going to die prods you to strike deals with God (along the lines of “just let me see my kids graduate from high school” or “anything but cancer” or “please take me first, not my wife” . . .), now would be a good time to have a few Job-like sit-downs and assess whether the God of the universe strikes deals with mere mortals of so little standing (I’m thinking of the thunderous Job 38). When the time comes, there might be prayer requests and special favors to ask of God to ease the way, but the cosmic issues will have been settled.

If the thought that you are going to die spirals you into depression, part of the preparation involves working through the previous stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining) from whence this deep, deep sadness emerges. When the time comes, you might still get very sad and low about the thought of your demise, but at least the depression will be in its more pure form and in a place where God can meet you tenderly. The Big Questions will have been faced squarely in the meantime, and a Christian life anchored in acceptance of reality will be more liberated and life-giving than you could ever imagine.

The time of our death is the moment of complete and utter surrender to God. We resign our position as a mortal inhabiting this earth. We reside in the sufficiency of God to carry us through to eternal life. We retire one life and embrace a new one. This is the final earthly act of our soul, to relinquish all claims to ourselves and stop asserting control, power, striving, and rebelling. Yes, we give up. There is no shame in that. Remember, “how precious in God’s sight is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15).

I can’t imagine myself being able to do that then, if I am unable or unwilling to surrender to God now. This is why I keep saying preparing to die is a critical element in our Christian discipleship. Learning how to surrender to God now in much smaller things is going to enable us to make the passage from this life to the next much easier when the stakes are cosmic.

So where are the opportunities to practice surrendering our lives to God? Everywhere and everyday! When I am oblivious to the work God is trying to do in me at a critical teaching moment, how can I become open to the Word of Life and face the music under God’s direction? At those moments when anger flares, what part of “my way” is God asking me to release? When I am trying to make deals with God, who puts an “out of order” sign on the divine vending machine I have installed, what sort of posture do I assume instead? Am I going to kick the machine and curse God, or will I accept God’s way in place of my own? When I sink into sadness over circumstances I cannot control, where is hope to be found? The answers to these questions become part of a deep, abiding life in Christian discipleship. We fall short. Jesus listens, teaches, forgives, and directs our steps in a new direction, and we get used to the idea that Jesus is Lord of all, head of the church, and shepherd of our souls. This is a critical fact we will be resting in, on that day when we must finally give up and move into the next life. But we will be ready for that then, because we will already have had a lot of practice in the previous, small things.

My covenant buddy, pastor Rick Carter sent a nice note a few days ago, and I have been saving it for this point in my series. He had just read an article by Jonathan Carroll called “The Continuing Conversion of the Pastor: A Call to Renewal.” Rick writes,

After acknowledging some of the reasons why giving ourselves rest from our [pastoral] work is so hard to do, Carroll turns to an obvious reality. At some point in each day, we give up and go to sleep. ‘Regardless of that resistance to rest, at some point we are forced to quit; we must naturally lie down, give up. We daily practice our death— the final letting go of all.’
I found his turn of phrase arresting and thought-provoking. I would guess that very few people view their going to sleep as practicing their death, but what if they did? Our daily relinquishing of ourselves to God as we close our eyes could become a valuable spiritual practice.
Every generation before ours thought about mortality all the time. They taught it to their children. “Now I lay me down to sleep. . . If I should die before I wake. . .” Our generation is moving further away from the contemplation of death, to our detriment. Jonathan Carroll reminds us that our daily rhythm of sleeping and waking can be, if we let it, one way to stay rooted in reality, and to daily practice entrusting ourselves to God.”

Amen! Thank you for sharing this with me, and now all my readers, Rick. This surely can help us prepare to die.


3 Responses to “Prepare to Die—Part II”

  1. emd5542 Says:

    The retired UMC pastor who leads weekly worship at Sunrise on Hunter Mill reminds us on the occasion of a resident’s death that “death surrenders us to God.” That sure beats “passed”! Why do we fear the word “death”? It shows up in Genesis as you remind us from time to time and continues throughout The Holy Bible. Reminds me again of your blog referencing Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction [your walk indeed and not tedious!] and his conclusion on p. 202: “It is this fusion of God speaking to us (scripture) and our speaking to him (prayer) that the Holy Spirit uses to form the life of Christ in us.” Recalls the old hymn “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, But wholly lean on Jesus’ Name. On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand. All other ground is sinking sand….” Rock on, revmary. Still anticipating but not reposing.

  2. L. Lee Says:

    In preparing a study of James 1:1-8 about trials
    and reading your blog on death, it occurs to me that facing
    the possibility of untimely death, our own or others, is the greatest of trials. One idea here is to not be double minded,
    Lacking faith, but see that our trials in life experiences can build confidence and faith. Facing trials
    causes us to rely on God and the more we do this the more
    we know God is reliable. However we only face Death once, so we do not have the experience to build up our faith nor do we have tangible evidence of reward. Therefore,
    we must rely on the faith we have in Jesus over coming death.
    Faith in Christ’s Ressurection helps us leave behind what is known for the unknown. In Christ, we see the reality
    of death leading to heavenly existence with God and perfected bodies for eternity.

  3. Mary, Reading your recent comments has reminded me of some words written by Charles Simeon, some twenty years before his death in 1836. “What may be my views of eternity when it comes very near, I know not,” he wrote, “but my trust is in the tender mercy of my God in Jesus Christ, and I can joyfully leave myself in His hands.” And so he did. And so must we all.

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