This week is the 15th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history. I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on that sunny Tuesday morning back in September 2001. I bet you can too. Thousands began the day thinking everything was fine but died before noon. It scared us all as we silently thought, “That could have been me.”
Most of us don’t want to think about death or dying, not even Christian ministers like myself. We do funeral after funeral pushing back the thought that one day someone else will be reading Psalm 23 over our grave. Rev. Michael Spencer speaks for a lot of clergy when he says:
I’ll make it simple: I don’t want to die. I, a Christian minister and a person of faith, do not want to die. The thought fills me with fear, and I am ashamed at how little faith I have in the face of what is a universal and uncontrollable human experience.
I’ll die, no matter how I feel about dying, but I’m not at peace with the reality of death right now, and my fear of death is becoming a more frequent visitor to the dark side of my soul. I’ve never been a brave person, but bravery isn’t the issue anymore. It’s acceptance and faith that rests in God, rather than denial, avoidance and the terror of my fears.
Number one on my list of things I don’t like about Christians is the suggestion I should have a happy and excited attitude about dying. “Uncle Joe got cancer and died in a month. Glory hallelujah. He’s in a better place and if you love the Lord that’s where you want to be right now. When the doctor says your time has come, you ought to shout praises to the Lord.” Or this one. “I’d rather be in heaven wouldn’t you? The earth is not my home. I’d rather be with Jesus and mama and Peter and Abraham than spend one more day in this world of woe.”
Not me. Not by a log shot. I like this world of woe, and I really don’t want to leave it.
My attitude hasn’t held me back as a minister. I can do a good funeral. Probably some of my best moments in the pulpit have been talking about heaven and what the Bible says about death. But there always was this one thing: it was the other guy who was dead. Not me. So I automatically had a more positive attitude.
With the arrival of middle age, my fear of death has perched itself on my shoulder like a talking parrot. It waits until every other thought and concern has quieted down, and then it squawks as loud as possible: “You’re going to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” It particularly likes to show up when I am going to sleep at night. I’ll say my prayers, begin to doze off, and SQUAWK, “Just a reminder big guy, you’re going to die.” For a few moments, I live in panic, fear and despair.
Call me whatever unspiritual names you like, but I don’t want to die. Everything about me wants to be alive in this world. I don’t want to say good-bye to my wife, children and friends. I don’t want there to be a last sermon, a last day at home, or a last drive in the country. When someone says we were made for heaven, I say, “OK but that’s not the way it seems to me. I appear to be made for living in this body, in this world, and enjoying it. I haven’t heard a prospect for heaven yet that sounds better than eating at my favorite barbecue place, making love, or going to the ball park.
Now that’s the kind of confessional preaching I enjoy. Bone honest, personal, and what so many of us are already thinking. However, I have to say that I no longer share Rev. Spencer’s fearful outlook about death. There was a time when I did, but not any more. I guess watching my own little child die at the age of four sucked the fear right out of me. Knowing that Alex has made the journey (as well as others I love deeply) I now face my own departure with hope and great expectation.
Thinking about walking on the New Earth with Jesus, the saints from all ages, and those I love deflates my fears, more so than ever. We either believe that the best is yet to come or we don’t. I have to believe it. My whole life has been spent helping others believe it. I’ve come too far to turn back now. I’ve bet my life, death, and resurrection on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. How about you? What are you betting on?