Facing Death

April 5th, 2012

Finding Hope

Whether it’s a battle with terminal illness, the aftermath of a natural disaster, an accident that redirects the course of our lives, or just the out-of-nowhere devastating losses, we are all reminded regularly that we are not immortal beings. We are finite. Our lives will come to an end at some point. Of course, we pretend that we will live forever as we go about our days with full-to-the-brim schedules and a superhero-like sense of being able to fix or conquer anything. But the truth is that death is imminent, and the time of its arrival is unknown.

So how do we face our mortality with hope that death is not the final say? How do we acknowledge the struggle of longing for eternity while not quite being ready to leave our current reality? To answer these questions, we’ll begin by looking at three examples of people who know something about facing death.

A Pastor’s Struggle

Ed Dobson was by any human standard a smashing success as a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is now the pastor emeritus of Calvary Chapel in Grand Rapids; but he was once their senior pastor, preaching to thousands every weekend. And then he started feeling a twitching in his muscles that would not go away. He had difficulty opening jars and writing out his sermon notes. Soon after, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). His nervous system would slowly begin to deteriorate for the rest of his life. Recently, Dobson’s condition worsened to the point that he had to step down from leadership at his church; and he now depends on his family, primarily his wife, to assist with fine motor tasks.

Facing death has caused Dobson to reevaluate his thoughts on the subject. You might assume that because he was such a passionate preacher and church leader, Dobson would immediately turn to God or at least try to gain comfort through prayer and Bible study. But Dobson confesses that he could not bring himself to pray or study Scripture. He shared in a CNN interview, “You get so overwhelmed with your circumstances, you lose perspective.” He also confirms what many believers would claim: that we are not so much afraid of being dead as we are of the dying part. The dying part means having conversations about long-term care, mending broken things, and needing assistance for the most basic, personal tasks.

Through the roller-coaster experience, Dobson writes that he is learning about the birds of the air. In the same way that Jesus teaches his followers to remember that the birds don’t worry about anything and that they should instead trust (Matthew 6:26), Dobson is learning to set worry aside and trust God more. “As I sit here writing, I am looking out the window and I see a bird,” Dobson says. “God takes care of that bird and ultimately the same God will take care of me.” The experience has caused Dobson to take a new focus on relationships and consider what he will do with his remaining days. He also challenges anyone who will listen to remember that they won’t live forever and that we ought to make the most out of our days, prioritizing our time around the things most important to us.

Facing Death for a Living

While some of us safely ponder what it will be like to face death, other brave Americans face death almost daily in careers that literally put their lives on the line. Firefighters, police officers, and soldiers sign up to protect, defend, and save others from deadly situations—oftentimes standing in between the danger and the place of safety for us.

The US Fire Administration (USFA) reports that there were 81 onduty firefighter fatalities in 2011. Law enforcement reports show that 166 police officers were killed in the line of duty that same year. Also, the Military Times reports that as of this writing, the combined military causalities from Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn have reached 6,365. These brave Americans chose careers that took them into harm’s way with full knowledge of the daily risk of death.

Pushing Back Against Death

Yet another example of staring down death comes from a brave mother in Henryville, Indiana. On March 2, Stephanie Decker was at home with her two children when her husband texted to warn her that a tornado was heading their way. She immediately gathered her children and took cover in the basement. When the tornado hit and debris began falling around them, she turned her own body into a protective barrier to shield her children. Moments later, another tornado came roaring through, and again Stephanie used her body to protect her children as their home crumbled around them. “Everything started hitting my back,” she said. “Beams, pillars, furniture. Everything was just slamming into my back. But I had my children in the blanket, and I was on top of them, and I was reaching around holding them.” Her children cried in fear, but she assured them they were going to be OK.

After the storms had passed, Stephanie found that both her legs had been almost completely severed. She recorded a video message on her phone for her husband that might have been her last words to him. Fortunately, her eight-year-old son was able to escape the debris and find help. Although this brave mother lost both of her legs, her children walked away without a scratch. Stephanie Decker didn’t know she would be facing death that day, but she found herself fighting for her life and for her children’s lives.

Where Is the Hope?

Whether through terminal illness, a call to heroic bravery, or an instantaneous reaction to save your most prized treasures, facing death is a real and ongoing part of our lives. So how do we live in the in-between—grateful for the life we have and hopeful for the eternal life promised through Jesus Christ?

In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, theologian N. T. Wright shares that his intensive study of resurrection and eternal life changed his understanding of heaven and of what it means to hope in this world. Wright discovered that “heaven is not a far away place we hope to go some day. Through Christ it is very near, it is the control room of earth, and as we follow Jesus, the reality of heaven comes alive in us and is unleashed through us.” In other words, the living hope we have in Christ is not only reserved for where we go when we die, but it is the promise that heaven has come down to meet us in the right here and now––“thy kingdom come . . . in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, KJV).

Because of this, Christians are called to live this hope and share this hope with the whole world. We don’t work and toil and strive in this world only to hope for escape from it when we die. Instead, we protest death by hoping, by loving, by creating, by partnering with God where God is at work in the world. Like Ed Dobson suggests, we prioritize our lives so that meaning is not in the earthly stuff, but in the relationships forged, the mercy shown, and the justice toward which we work.

Jesus Struggles in the Garden

Another example of struggling with the promise of then while living in the pain of now is the story of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-46). With sweat and fatigue, he prayed that the cup would pass from him, that God would change the plan and save him from the grueling experience he was about to face. This from the one who taught us not to worry, that God will take care of us. But even as Jesus faced this horrific death, he knew that in order to get to the resurrection, you first have to die. That is the tension of the Passion Week we celebrate now.

The season of Lent began with Ash Wednesday, on which we received ashes and were reminded that we come from dust and will again return to dust. Fast forward to today, Maundy Thursday, when the King will be arrested and led to a cross on which he will be killed for the sake of us all. But on the other side of death will be a promise that no matter the kind of death we face, death has no victory, no sting, no hold on us. Death does not have the last word. Instead, we live with a living hope that carries us in this life—through our pain and suffering, through our brave stand against forces out of our control, through unexpected events that shake our existence to its core, through the threshold between this earthly life and God’s eternal realm.

With N. T. Wright, we proclaim that “hope is about what lies ahead and is promised by a God who loves to bring hope to each one of us. It is also about the kingdom of God breaking into our present-day realities and hope spilling out into the world today.”


Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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