"...teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom." (Psalm 90:12)
Within a recent period of about forty-eight hours duration, the brother of a friend collapsed, was rushed to the hospital for emergency treatment, and died at twenty-three years of age. There had been no warning, no previous knowledge of the hidden heart condition which an autopsy revealed. Tragic incidents such as this one are, sadly, all too familiar to many of us.
All of the living are inexorably moving toward death. We do well to consciously consider its inevitability, that we may be prepared. There is no reason for this to envenom us with undue gloom. A perpetually funereal countenance is as unproductive as ignoring death is foolish. There is a brooding, unhealthy preoccupation with death that steals the present joy of God's wonderful gift of life. How, then, can we be ready to meet "the grim reaper" with peace and hope?
Most often we check ourselves if we begin to contemplate our own demise. We quickly put aside the "what if..." thoughts as they present us with prospects of incurable disease, sudden accidents, or scenarios wherein we become the victim of any one of an assortment of human cruelties. Dismissing the idea, we let ourselves expect a quiet departure, asleep in our own beds. Does the end of earthly life ever come in quite that fashion?
When we dream, the fantastic sequences of events can seem to take any amount of time. The common dream of trying to walk or run and finding one's legs uncooperative, or stuck in frustrating id-mire, can seem interminable. On the other hand, illusory dream conversations seem to consume several minutes as would a coherent waking discussion. We use "hallucinogenic license" to skip through days, months, and years, compressing or expanding time to suit the play our minds are enacting. In reality, dreams transpire in minuscule amounts of time. The waking mind, wanting to remember, grasps in vain as the psychological content of the dream retreats at the speed of thought.
So it would seem likely to be at the moment of death. Witness the near drowning victim who says he "saw his life pass before his eyes". Perhaps those fractions of a second before the head on collision crushes the skull or severs the spine are like dream time. When cardiac arrest occurs, perhaps the mind survives the stilled heart muscle for a few moments. Are those moments filled with seeming hours of mental activity? What of patients awaiting death on a bed of terminal illness? First, there is the conscious expectation of the end, surrounded by family and friends. Is that eclipsed by a complex personal psychodrama materializing during the apparently "semi-conscious" last breath, the death rattle?
Here is another element to this hypothesis about how we experience the passage of time at the moment of death. In one respect, "death time" may radically differ from "dream time". In dream time, the bizarre and surreal reign. By contrast, perhaps a startling clarity of thought is present as the soul realizes that death has arrived; not only super speed, but super accuracy suddenly courses through the mind. The point is that what we believe in, value, and meditate upon now will fill our hearts immediately preceding our entry into eternal bliss or eternal agony. It is those beliefs, values, and habitual meditations which will determine if we face the moment of death with horrified terror or calm courage.
Let us then, in seeking to be prepared to die, first abandon the method of the ostrich with her head in the sand. The idea of quietly slipping away into oblivion is a lie. The going may be only physically quiet, and our conscious personality, our spirit or soul, will never be annihilated. Squarely facing this is step number one.
It is Jesus Christ who offers the solid truth which we can believe in, value, and meditate upon. He has great news! The forgiveness of all the wrong we have done is possible through His sacrifice of Himself in death. His coming back from the grave shows that He conquered death, which we suffer as the just penalty for the wrong we have done. He lives now, never more to die, to bring those who trust Him to eternal life. If you have never sought Him, now is the time to do so; this is step number two.
For those who have this Christian hope, step number three is to apply its reality to our thoughts, to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. In this way it is truly possible to be unterrified by death. Here are a few concrete ways to accomplish this.
Cultivate the habit of thinking about eternity, and relate this life's transitory brevity to the unending glory of the redeemed. Far from producing eccentric, out of touch persons hoping for "pie- in-the-sky", this spiritual exercise yields a realistic outlook on life. It gives to those who practice it a true perspective on their existence, and real peace of mind. The apostle Paul, whose New Testament letters evidence a mind much occupied with eternity, was able to say that "to depart and be with Christ is far better...to die is gain."
Consider how death has come to others; Christ Himself and those who have had faith. The first century Christian, Steven, experienced death by stoning. His last words were a prayer for forgiveness for those hurling his death at him, and asking that God "receive his spirit". The words which Jesus spoke during His very execution, as He actually hung on the barbaric cross, are well known throughout the world. These words are not those of a frightened criminal, but of a Man who had a confidence which saw beyond the grave. Accounts of Christian martyrs are unrivaled for the supernatural bravery they exude.
Nothing is easier or more natural than to avoid talking about death, to put off thinking about it until "tomorrow", to shield children from even the mention of the king of terrors. Nothing is ultimately more foolish or dangerous, either. Jesus came that He might rescue those who were subject to an emotional and mental bondage, the fear of death, all their lives. He lived, died, and rose from the dead...And He is gloriously alive forevermore!
Keith Graham, July 1990
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