I was listening this morning to a speaker, Abby, where she described a recent conversation with her 92-year-old grandmother. Her grandma told her: I’ve been diagnosed with a slow-developing form of leukemia. The doctors have given me 2-10 years to live.
To which, Abby replied: Grandma, I could have told you that.
Yes, the truth is: a 92-year-old has 2-10 years; or less. But the truth is also: you and I may have 2-10 years; or more; or, maybe less.
I remember sitting in a ministry class one time, and one of the students got to talking about a chaplain at the hospital where she worked. His approach was to pray for miracles for the people there. One day, when he was doing it, the patient said, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but shouldn’t you be preparing me to die?
I am haunted and captivated by that question. In some sense, isn’t that the responsibility of a pastor? At a deep level, shouldn’t Death be an element of every life-changing message given by every preacher and teacher?
Now, to be clear, I don’t mean by this what some often mean. I don’t mean that we dangle people over the abyss of death to spark fear or worry, or to literally scare “the hell out of them.” We don’t point to Death so as to get them simply to make a “decision.” Instead, an honest look at Death calls us to face clearly, as one of my friends puts it, “the reality of my mortality.” And when I do that – when I am honest that Death will eventually come calling – then I can learn how to live.
I love the song “Terminal” by Jon Foreman. In it, he reminds us all that we are, in fact, terminal. He sings:
The doctor says I’m dying
I die a little every day
He’s got no prescription
That could take my death away
The doctor says, It don’t look so good
The truth is: We are all facing a death sentence. Sound morbid? Not the pick-me-up you were looking for? Maybe that’s true. But isn’t the best way to learn how to live is by remembering that we are going to die? Don’t we get the most intentional about life when we realize we can take nothing for granted?
In fact, what do people usually do when they find out they only have so long to live? They fight. They grab onto life. They love better, live more fully, appreciate each moment. They have that hard conversation. They forgive. Petty things fall to the wayside. And they look beyond themselves – to God, to others, to what really matters.
So, as a minister, if I can get people to face the reality of their death, I think I’ll have done a big part of my job. Because, maybe then, they’ll really learn how to live.