Wednesday 27 May 2020

On Dying, Death, and What Comes Before

The below is an excerpt from an email written for the congregation where I am one of the pastors.

It was Woody Allen who quipped: ‘I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ He echoes the sentiment of many who say they would prefer to die in their sleep, quickly and quietly, with no warning or suffering, and without being a burden to their nearest and dearest. We’d prefer to skip the ‘dying’ part that comes before death.

And yet, for centuries, Christians prayed for the kind of death that most of us would now prefer to avoid. They wanted to ‘die well’ – to have time to get their spiritual lives in order, to make sure loved ones were provided for, to prepare themselves for what lay ahead.

John Wyatt explores this in his moving book, Dying Well (IVP, 2018), reflecting on what it means to die faithfully in the light of the hope the gospel brings. In the 14th century, when the Black Death was sweeping across Europe, killing more than 25% of the population, documents on the ‘Art of Dying’ started to circulate. Essentially, they were self-help manuals encouraging the dying person to prepare for the journey ahead. John Wyatt holds that we have much to learn from the practical wisdom that helped Christian believers of the medieval period face the ending of their lives on earth.

If you’ve read this far, you may feel this is all terribly morbid for a sunny Wednesday afternoon! Except that death really is the one eventuality that none of us can avoid.

While death has largely disappeared from the fabric of our consciousness as a society, we are now having daily reminders of its reality in every news bulletin. Sadly, with the passing of friends and colleagues, some of us have already been bereaved during this period; many more of us know people who have.

Critics of Christianity sometimes claim that belief in an afterlife devalues life in the here and now, and discourages action that would help people live longer and happier. The argument is that those who are fixated on the ‘life to come’ don’t really care about life now.

Just to be clear, the reality is the exact opposite. Many studies show not only that religious people tend to live healthier and more fuflilled lives than non-religious people, but that belief in an afterlife provides a sharper focus about what’s truly important in this life.

For many Christians through the ages, the certainty of death freed them from the mistaken idea that wealth or power would protect them from it, freeing them to live full lives in loving God and serving others. As C.S. Lewis said: ‘If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.’

Indeed, according to the apostle Paul, confidence in what comes after death provides a motivation for how we live now. At the end of his long chapter on our future life, he writes: ‘Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:58).

By the grace of God, we are able not only to die well but to live well. May it be so.

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