Monday, October 15, 2007

Thinking about Death

How does a person feel waking every morning, knowing that the end of life may come that day? In a sense, every person wakes in this condition, at least subconsciously. Any of us may die on any given day, and one day we will. But my particular health condition leaves me more open to this event happening sooner rather than later. So it is on my mind quite often.

October 5 marked six months for me in hospice care. When I was enrolled, my doctors did not expect me to live past six months. But October 5 has come and gone, and I’m still here. I wish to write and give praise to God for life, and reveal some of my thoughts and feelings about living past the hospice date.

First, I want to thank God for continuing to give me the physical stamina, psychological health and spiritual vitality to keep going. I had my heart transplant in November, 2003, and am approaching my fourth anniversary. But my body has been trying to reject the new heart all this time, and seems to be making significant progress recently. That’s why I received such a dismal prognosis in April.

The average length of stay under hospice care is ten days. Most people sign up so close to their time of death (not that they know their death will come that soon) either because they didn’t become aware of hospice until their condition was severe, or because they knew of it but considered it as equivalent to “giving up.” At any rate, ten days compared to over six months is significant, and I am grateful for God’s care.

When I speak of God’s continuing care I am not suggesting that those who live only a short time after learning they have a terminal condition are not cared for by God, but simply that I am thankful to have life. God obviously has a purpose for my earthly existence since his word says that he works all things together for good to those who love him. God’s ways are mysterious, yet I am happy to soak up the sense of his presence daily. Intimacy with God has become more real to me than anything in the “real” world.

This leads to my second reason for writing—to express some thoughts about my thoughts during these recent weeks. This is an area of life that is somewhat difficult to write about and speak about—not because I desire to keep the subject matter private (I’m fine with talking about it), but simply because I struggle to find the right words to express these somewhat mystical concepts. My wife, Judy, knows more about my thoughts in these matters than anyone except God himself. I walk around the house speaking freely to Judy, and communicating continually with the Lord (although not orally, because it depletes what physical strength I have). So, Judy and God are my constant conversation partners.

I ask myself, most of all, “When will I die?” I don’t think I really want to know, but this still seems to be my most frequent question. On some days, with my weakness and light-headedness, I feel that I may very well die that day. On other days I have a base-level of stability that suggests to me that I may live for some time yet—perhaps several months or even a year. Judy and several friends are praying for wholeness for me, and believe that God is not intending to call me home soon.

The second most frequent question that comes to me is, “How will I die?” A few months ago I started a file folder titled “Dying Process.” In it I have several items: a booklet on “Death and Living,” which “describes what takes place around us and inside us at the death of a loved one.” It seems to be aimed at the survivors, not the one dying. I have an e-mail from a relative describing some details of a friend’s dying. I have a confidential article by a man who directed a hospice facility for nine years, focusing on the mental anguish of the residents due to their war-time experiences. I have a scrap of paper on which I made a note concerning a friend’s wife who died a year ago, on which I list the three main drugs the woman was taking at the end of her life (I am now taking two of these drugs daily).

I have an article, “Picture Christ,” by Dennis Ngien, giving “Martin Luther’s advice on preparing to die” (Christianity Today, April 2007, pp. 67-69). Luther speaks of how the devil fills us with the dread of death and cultivates in us a love and concern for life. Luther’s advice for this situation is to contemplate death all the more, but to do so at the right time, which is not the time of death. Instead, says Luther, we should “invite death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move”—that is, in our daily lives long before death threatens us. Conversely, says Ngien, “Luther counsels Christians to banish thoughts of death at the final hour and to use that time to meditate on life” (p. 68). As far as I know, I’m neither at the final hour nor “long before death” threatens me. I’m not sure I’d know how to “banish thoughts of death” anyway, even if I tried.

Concerning this second question, “How will I die?”, I saw the doctor’s report on this one: It will most likely be a major heart attack, either preceded by or followed by a series of lesser attacks. I read just the other day of a man visiting one of his children in India. He was walking two of his grandchildren to school when he suddenly dropped dead of a (likely) massive heart attack. I think of this kind of thing happening to me. Will I be walking, lying down, talking to someone? I don’t fear such an attack, if it would be sudden and final, but I, like others, dislike the thought of difficult times of suffering after the event.

Concerning the moment of death itself, I do not dread it, but welcome it. I long for the day of meeting with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and have no fear, even though God Almighty—Father, Son and Spirit—is infinitely holy and righteous. My inner peace and comfort is based on the forgiveness I received at the foot of the cross when I was nineteen years old. I lived in fear of death before that time, and was almost certain I would go to hell when I died. That’s how I understood God and sin, but I now rejoice very often at God’s gift of salvation through the Son.

I have many other questions to add to these two, but I need to wait for another time to consider them.

I want to send you a glorious benediction from the apostle Paul that may apply to someone in your youth, or in the prime of life, in your later years, or during your dying days. I have been studying the benedictions of scripture much these days, and I receive each one as both a pronouncement of God’s blessing on me, and a prayer or heartfelt wish for me, from God. I offer these verses to you from 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17, with this twofold intention in mind.

“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bob,

Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful post. Today is the two year anniversary of my mother's death, so your thoughts are especially poignant to me today. I rejoice that you are feeling the presence of the Lord, and I pray that he will continue to give you a sense of his presence and peace.

God bless you, my brother, mentor, and friend!

Peter

Kim said...

Your thoughts and faith are so helpful for me, too, Bob. Far too few of us hear reflections like yours, looking at death directly. I appreciate your sharing these moments with us -- we will all get there. Luther's advice seems very wise; you are helping us do that.
Blessings to you and your wonderful conversation partner...

Kim

Anonymous said...

The veil is truly thin between this world and the next, for those of us who have a loved one "over there". As I have told you before, Bob, my selfish wish is that I might be there with you when you go (just like in the painting of John Adams), to cheer you on and to send a message with you to Don. And yet I am one of those praying with Judy that you might experience healing in this life. Either way, your willingness to share your journey and thoughts with us are bringing glory to God!
Laurie

glamdringguy said...

Bob;

Thanks again for being honest in the midst of your suffering. It is such a privilege to be welcomed into your journey.

Thanks, also, for being faithful to God's call on your life - you are still a professor and pastor; precious to God and all of us, your friends, family, and co-laborers in Christ.

Shalom to you and to Judy;
Jane

Linda Grounds said...

Hi Bob,

What an honor to be invited into your inner thoughts and prayers these precious days of your life. You are asking questions we all ask, or avoid asking. Your honesty helps me to be more honest with myself and with God about these things. Your faith is an inspiration, as always!

Blessings to you and Judy,
Linda

Anonymous said...

Wishing you a blessed birthday, Bob.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences at this time of your life. We are comforted in knowing that you are enjoying an intimate walk with the Lord despite the ravages of your physical condition.
Love, Pauline