"Fear of Death" - March 10, 2019

Psalm 6 

            Let’s talk about fibromyalgia.  Let’s talk about rheumatoid arthritis.  Let’s think about multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s and lupus.  Let’s consider what it means to have any of the hundred and one conditions that are chronic and don’t just go away, but linger for weeks or years or longer, until they take the stuffing completely out of someone and leave them not only in pain or incapacitated, but without enough energy to get through the day, and with a dread of the nighttime.  Let’s think about people who hear the words of the psalmist and say, “That’s me!”

“I am weary with my moaning;
   every night I flood my bed with tears;
   I drench my couch with my weeping. 
My eyes waste away because of grief…”
[Psalm 6:6-7]

Let’s think about their caregivers, who have a different kind of pain which is not physical but no less real.  That’s the pain of helplessness and confusion.  Sometimes it’s a strange sense of guilt for being well when someone they love is sick, for waking up rested when their spouse has had one of those horrible nights.  Or maybe there is, after all, the physical toll on them that comes from caregiving and, again, a kind of guilt for considering their own needs when that other person is so much worse off.

            A friend of mine, a retired physician who is himself in the midst of some serious medical issues right now responded to the news this past week that Alex Trebek has stage-4 pancreatic cancer with these words:

“Alex Trebek ‘might retire in 2020.’ Seriously, ‘might.’ And he’s going to ‘fight this.’ Seems to me he’ll live about 6 months if he was just diagnosed, fight or no fight (but admittedly I’m not up to date). Alex says this whether he believes it or not. It’s expected. Even if we’re heading rapidly to the exit, it’s expected. ‘It’s dignified.’

What does this say about him? About us?

How can we deal with the dying with empathy while both they and we are expected, for far too long, to just keep pretending they’ll live forever? That they’ll be better any day and get right back to work.

The standard scenario is that everybody keeps pretending until one day the Hospice Kit arrives…”[1]

 One thing I hear in that is how tired and hurt the writer is, too, and a big part of it is simply that it is hard for people to acknowledge what is happening, and in the denial they distance themselves from the person who most needs them.

            Without someone there, and many times even with someone there, comes a spiritual crisis and an overwhelming fear that God, too, has given up on them and that death itself will be, not a doorway into life, but into oblivion. Faith and trust do emerge, but they can be the Promised Land that lies way over there, through the desert and across the Jordan.  Until then, they cry out:

   “O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. 
My soul also is struck with terror,
   while you, O Lord—how long? 

Turn, O Lord, save my life;
   deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love. 
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
   in Sheol who can give you praise?”
[Psalm 6:2b-5]

One of the things that the scriptures do is give us words for this.  They give us the way to pray about it.  They do not exclude the shadows that are as much a part of life as any other – and remember that if there are shadows that means that the sun is still shining somewhere.  But the scriptures do not turn away from the realities the way that people do.  They prepare us for them, and one of those realities is that we are not here on earth forever.  The same day I read my friend’s bitter comments, I also read a quote from Eugene Peterson (who died a few months ago) that says,

“That’s the whole spiritual life.  It’s learning how to die.  And as you learn how to die, you start losing all your illusions, and you start being capable now of true intimacy and love.”[2]

That intimacy and love refer to the people around you, but also to God.  Or at least, it can.

            It may take time, and it is not possible ever to say how much or how little.  That’s why it’s a good idea to start right now, whether you’re young or old, healthy or not; whether you work in a safe situation or one that involves dangerous activities – the thing about dying is that you don’t know when it could happen.  (Woody Allen used to do a routine about what it would be like if we all got a two-minute warning, like the end of a football game.  I don’t remember the whole thing but it included running up to someone and telling them something horrible, finishing, “And if that’s not the truth, may God strike me dead!”)  The Church of England has its people pray a long litany together every year during Lent, that has this passage:

“From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine,

Good Lord, deliver us.

From all oppression, conspiracy and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared,

Good Lord, deliver us.

            So, here’s my advice as a religious professional: before you find yourself in this situation, read over the end of this psalm.

“Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
   for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. 
The Lord has heard my supplication;
   the Lord accepts my prayer. 
All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
   they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.”
[Psalm 6:8-10]

On the one hand, the writer did survive whatever illness he faced, at least long enough to compose the psalm.  On the other hand, he did eventually die.  But in between, he gained confidence in the Lord’s power to destroy his enemies.

            What greater enemy do we have than death?

            Of that, another biblical writer had this to say:

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
   we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Romans 8:31-39]

[1] Used by permission of the writer.

[2] "Eugene H. Peterson Quotes." BrainyQuote.com. BrainyMedia Inc, 2019. 7 March 2019. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/eugene_h_peterson_528421