Yes, Jon, We’re All Terminal

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
It’s terminal

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.

3 Things We Don’t Talk about in Church

There are three things we don’t talk about in church. Or, maybe I should say: there are three things we don’t talk about very often or very well in church.

The first is death. To be fair, we don’t talk about death very well anywhere in our society. It’s easier to avoid death until you can’t avoid it anymore — like when someone you love is very ill, or when you go visit a friend who has lost a loved one. We have gotten so good at dancing around death that there is an entire website devoted to the many, MANY ways we have of talking about death — without ever actually using the word.

The second thing we don’t talk about in church is sex. Again, we have reasons for this, and some of them are good. One, it’s difficult to preach about it when there are people of all ages in the congregation, including teenagers and kids. Two, it can be awkward and personal — kind of like sex itself.

And the third thing we don’t talk about is politics. Now in some churches this isn’t true. They jump into politics very quickly and regularly. (The truth is: some churches also talk about sex and death regularly, too.) But politics can get a preacher into trouble pretty quickly — with good reason.

In other words, some of the more personal and intimate areas of our lives are the ones we are most likely to avoid in church. It is much easier to talk in flowery generalities and abstract theories. It is more challenging to speak about the realities that hit closest to home.

But should it be that way? Should we avoid these things?

For example, what about politics? Should church be a politics-free zone? Well, yes and no. I believe that church is not the place for us to preach in favor of policies and procedures and laws. No one coming to worship should be told that all true Christians vote one way, or support one particular political party. Our goal, especially in worship, is to point people to Jesus, not a flag, or a political figure, or an ideology.

Even so, not preaching politics is not the same as not being political. For the truth is: we are all political. The root of the word, politics, is the Greek word for “citizen,” or “city.” To be alive and human is to be political — to be a part of a community of people seeking the common good. And that we should preach — that we as followers of Jesus are called to be political (small p), while being careful not to be consumed by the Political (capital P). We have a responsibility to be faithful citizens of our communities, state, country, and world — recognizing that we can do this while also holding different Political views.

What about sex? Can we talk about that? Well, if we are going to talk about the life of faith, and how Jesus transforms people from all walks of life, then church must be a place where all of life is discussed. And sex is certainly a part of that. In fact, if the church isn’t talking about sex, then how will our kids learn a healthy view of sexuality? From Instagram? Or Hollywood? Yikes! For that matter, if we don’t speak about sex, how will married people, or single people, or those widowed, or divorced, or with same-sex attractions know how to find God in the midst of their sexuality? If we aren’t honest about sex, how will we point to the hope of healing for those who have had abortions, or struggle with porn, or have been abused?

And then there’s death. As for the question: Should we talk about death in the church?, I would give an unequivocal “yes.” What seems like such a downer, and certainly a conversation-stopper, should, in fact, be something we don’t hesitate to discuss. Because, if you live long enough, you will die. And not talking about it doesn’t make it any less likely to occur, or any less painful, or push it off even one more day.

For, the truth is, we should be talking about all three of these — faithfully, thoughtfully, and honestly.

As for me, though, I’ll start with the easiest. This Sunday I’ll be talking about death. (Which, I guess you could say, is the whole point of this blog: to make preaching on death seem like a walk in the park. And, compared to sex and politics, that’s what it is. A walk in the park — a park with lots of granite.)

Life’s Many Goodbyes

Recently, our family has to had to learn how to say “goodbye” to some people in our lives. My wife’s uncle died this month, at the way-too-young age of 66. And this week, we said goodbye to a nephew who had been living with us for the past six months.

Isn’t it interesting that we even use the word “goodbye” when someone leaves? What’s good about goodbye?

The answer, it seems, is in history, and the history of language. The use of the word “goodbye” goes back to the 16th century — and began as the phrase “God be with ye.” As the phrase was used, it got shortened, and over time “God be with ye” became “Goodbye.”

Which means: what is good about goodbye is not that we let someone go, but that we let them go with God. Goodbye is good in the sense that God is still God, and He is still with the person we love — even when we cannot be. So, when we say goodbye to someone until we see them next week or next year — we do so entrusting them to God’s care. And when we say a bigger goodbye — the biggest goodbye — that comes when death separates us from someone we love, we do so entrusting them to God’s eternal care.

This doesn’t mean we ever get good at saying goodbye. On an episode of the show “CSI: New York,” one of the cops befriends Ruben, a ten-year-old kid from his apartment building. They go do an activity together, and on the way home, the cop notices a thief escaping the scene of the crime. He tells Ruben to go straight home, and then he begins to chase the criminal. Tragically, Ruben gets caught up in the chaos, and is killed.

Two detectives who work with the cop wrestle with how to comfort their friend: “What do I say?” one of them asks. “I’m not good at this kind of thing.”

“Just tell him you’re not good at this kind of thing,” her friend tells her.

I don’t think we ever get good at saying goodbye. And the bigger the goodbye, the harder it is. But because of Jesus — because of Easter — because we have hope, goodbye is not the same as The End. For even in our goodbyes, even in our biggest goodbye, we have a promise — that God really is with us through all our goodbyes.

You see, because of Easter, we can say goodbye. We can say, “God be with ye,” because through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we come to experience God’s presence — the kind that no separation can end. Not even the separation of death.