Body Betrayed | Body Disabled

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Monday, July 25, 2016

Thoughts about Death and Dying

I was shocked by the sudden death of Jen Walsh when it was announced on Thursday. For me, I lost a good Facebook friend and it brought to memory the many others who have lost their fight against MG. In situations like this it can even cause us to think about our own mortality, if only for a moment.

Many of you know I served as a pastor for many years. I want to say a few words about the loss of a loved one (death) from a christian perspective. In doing so, I will reprint some edited words from my first book.

Nobody wants to die. But facing the possibility of death—and one day facing death itself—is something we all will eventually do. I like what one of my former pastors said, "You are not ready to live until you are ready to die." How true.

I remember the first time I watched someone die. It was a fascinating and amazing experience, but nothing like I expected. I guess I was expecting something dramatic like we see in movies or on television. But instead, they just quietly breathed their last. No trumpets, no fanfare, no panic, no mystical experience, no final wordy soliloquy. They just simply went to sleep and woke up in the presence of God. Wow!

Not everyone has a healthy attitude toward death and dying; no pun intended. In my senior year at Mercer University, I took a pass/fail course on death and dying. Three professors co-taught the term. The first professor saw death as "someone in his office with his books and someone in his bed with his wife." The second professor, who was radically active in woman's liberation, saw death as a way to express her disdain of men. The final professor was so scared of death that he would not look at a corpse in a casket. True story and sad! This was not a healthy attitude toward death and dying

Our attitudes and reactions toward death are shaped initially by our childhood and our families reactions to death. Those reactions, good or bad, can stay with you for your entire life. Not everyone has a healthy attitude toward death and dying, but we can develop one.

I have preached hundreds of funerals and been present at the death of dozens of individuals over the years. I have watched healthy people and sick people deal with these issues of life and death. I have helped families work through the wrenching decision of “pulling-the-plug” on loved ones. Cathy and I have made those decisions ourselves. I have noticed three things common in all of these experiences that indicate a healthy attitude toward death, which may help us face our own eventual death. Here is what I mean by a healthy attitude toward death and dying.

First, don't be fixated on death. This is not healthy for anyone. God intends for us to live life, not be focused on death. Death is an enemy, not an ally. Death is a conquered foe, not a friend. Focus on living day-by-day and not on thoughts of dying.

I do believe, and I back my belief by experience, that God does grace some people with the knowledge of their impending death. For those people, it is not a fixation but a grace and peace in preparation for heaven. That is a wonderful blessing.

Second, don't be fraudulent about death. In older times in our society, death was seen as a natural part of life. Anyone who grew up on a farm understood the cycle of birth, life, and death. With advances in medical care and our shift away from an agrarian society, we have moved away from facing the reality of death. We tend to mask death's effects.

We spend fortunes to prevent death during the last weeks of life, even in cases where death is inevitable. We use terms like “sleep,” “departed,” and “passed” to ease our discomfort. We buy perpetual care and impregnable caskets and vaults to keep the body as natural as possible. We can dress up death, we can ignore it, we can fool ourselves into improper thinking about death, but it does not change the fact that people die. Death is a terrible enemy, but a natural part of life.

Some parents desire to spare their children the pain that death can bring. I think that in an age appropriate way, it is better to deal with children frankly and honestly about death. This will go a long way toward helping them develop a healthy attitude about death and dying.

Third, don't be fearful of death. That is easier for a well person to say than for one struggling with a serious, life-threatening illness. Can I say, "I am not afraid of death?" Well, that answer has two parts.

Am I afraid of dying and going to be with Jesus forever? Absolutely not; this is our blessed hope and the completion and maturation of our life in Christ. I see death as a transition from this life to the next, much like a child going from the womb to the world. For believers, Christ never leaves us alone and fearful, even through the journey of death.

Am I afraid of the process of dying? Am I afraid of the unknown events of suffering and hardship and pain for myself and my family? Am I afraid of not seeing my grandchildren grow up? Yes, who wouldn't be! No one wants to suffer or be the cause of suffering. Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to go right now.

Am I at peace? Yes! This is where sickness and faith meet and faith overcomes. King David expressed it like this ...

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and loving-kindness will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 
Psalm 23

One thing that eases the fear of death is faith in Jesus Christ. This is the lesson Mary and Martha learned at the resurrection of their brother Lazarus. When a person places their faith and trust in Him, even death itself is defeated.

Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to Him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?" --John 11:24-26

In early 1983, we moved to New Orleans so I could attend seminary. Within three months, Cathy's grandmother died, her father was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor, we were flooded twice, both of my cars were wrecked, and I was robbed at gun point.

I was working the night shift as a dispatcher for the newspaper and going to seminary during the day. It was about 5:30 AM and I was on my way home. Another car hit my car from the side so we stopped to assess the damage. After a few minutes, the two young men who were driving the other car said, “we are going to call the police.” I said, “OK.” I looked at my car for a few seconds and then back at them.

You can count the bullets in a revolver by street light. I know, I did. I laid in the street for about fifteen minutes with a gun in the back of my head, while traffic was continuing up and down the road. As they went through my car and my belongings, I really expected them to pull the trigger any moment. By God's grace, they did not kill me.

I learned some important lessons early that morning. The first lesson was never to stop for a car wreck in New Orleans. But more importantly, I learned that life is too short and precious to take for granted. Life is too short and precious to be consumed with worry. Life is too short and precious not to consider our own death and be prepared for it. It is true, you are not ready to live until you are ready to die. Having MG has helped me focus my living.

I will die one day, that is certain. So will you. I don't know when my time will come, it may be near or it may be far away; only God knows. As far as I can tell, there is no expiration date stamped on the bottom of anybody's foot.

For the believer, there is one day when even death itself will be vanquished. Paul says it like this in the Resurrection Chapter of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 15:54-57:

But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, "DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. "O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

So what is my best advice? Live until you die, whether in sickness or health, with personal faith in Jesus Christ trusting God and glorifying Him in everything, for we have the victory through Him.

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