November here in Florida is a month of endings and beginnings. It is the end of the heat of summer, hurricane season, and reasonable traffic. It is the beginning of “snowbird” season, weekend outdoor festivals, and pretty much every reason people want to be in Florida from now through April.
This November has hit hard with endings. Death, dying, and serious illness has been all around me. Friends of all ages are battling serious illnesses and a few are preparing for what I call the “final journey” in life. Several recent deaths were the usual course of life and at an old age. Several were heartbreaking and devastating.
Rick had heart bypass surgery a few weeks ago and it was a great success. He and I talked at length before the surgery. All of the understandable fears and concerns about such a major surgery were there. He was ready to die if that is what was to be, but at 64 years old he didn’t want to die. He had a list of reasons he wanted to live. I prayed with him and he went into surgery feeling confident that no matter what the outcome, good or bad, he was fine and his family would be fine.
A few days after surgery, he was recovering ahead of schedule. He and I talked about life and death again and how it seemed God’s will for his life was to live longer. He talked about how he intended to make it his mission in life to talk to men about their health and taking care of their bodies, including what they ate and the importance of not smoking.
Two weeks later, Rick was dead. In a series of health events no one fully understands yet, he went from having an infection, to serious bleeding, to “dead colon” surgery, to a second surgery, and finally to a body that could not handle the stress. The night before, all of us, including his wife, Dell, went to bed knowing it was serious, but also sensing the last surgery had done the job and the road to recovery would begin. But he did not recover.
Talking to God
I did not see this coming . The morning before Rick died, I could see he was not well and he was concerned, but my prayers were bold and victorious. He needed confidence and assurance and I was happy to provide it. I felt that way. Then the afternoon came. He got worse. And worse.
I remember praying, “God, I know you know this, but I don’t want Rick to die. You can do the miraculous. I ask you to do that for him.” I prayed that all night long, ever more fervently as the reports came to me throughout the night.
I got a text just after 7 am. The new widow told me her husband was gone. My hands covered my face and I wept. Even as I write this nearly a week later, I can’t believe it. The family is devastated. We are all numb with shock.
The seasonal nature of life
November has hit hard with endings in life. Rick’s story is one. As terrible and heartbreaking as it is, it is only one lately. In every ending, I have learned to look for beginnings. I have learned to look for hope.
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” God reminds us of the seasonal nature of life with those words from the writer of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. There is hope in those words. Renewal. Life. Future. Even joy.
We are not told why some people live long seasons of life and others only hours. We are not told why some people have health and abundance and comfort and others do not. We are simply told that one day, a new season comes to everyone. Laughter will follow tears. Peace will follow war. Dancing will follow mourning.
There is a time for everything. There is a time for beginnings — births, fresh starts, new realities. There is a time for endings — deaths, dying, terminal illness, finishing well.
No cause for despair
Most people don’t like to even think about endings like death, much less to talk about it. But part of the reason I became a pastor was I felt like not talking about these things was missing something essential, important, and in so many ways, beautiful about life.
I remember being in a Catholic church during college and a woman fell over dead in church. Paramedics came down the center aisle and started working on her. Right there. Fifteen feet from me. When they wheeled her away, I was eager to hear what the priest said next. “We must remember that this too is part of life. Death is a part of life.” He said it with simplicity and dignity. They were the perfect words. Do not be afraid of this. It is part of this life too.
Death is part of life. Yes, it is hard. Yes, it hurts when it comes suddenly. Or at too young an age. Or tragically. But no one is immune to the reality of death. We must come to terms with it.
I won’t speak for how others come to terms with death, but as a Christian, I process death differently. With Rick, who is also a Christian, I believe he passed through physical death to eternal life with God in heaven. It happened because of a singular event of human history when God became flesh and blood in Jesus Christ. That singular event changed many things, including eliminating fear and anxiety about what happens at death. “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” Jesus once said to a grieving woman.
Of course, we weep, but there is a difference. We mourn, but there is something deeper beneath the mourning. We are sad, but we do not despair. We have hope. My funeral worker friends tell me they can tell the difference between the grief of a person with faith and a person without faith.
What to do with endings
So when life hits hard and endings force themselves upon you, what do you do? It is the question of the moment for Rick’s family. It is the question of the moment for many families. I too am dealing with the question. Besides being attentive to the unique journey through grief, a work so important to healing, what do you do?
I suggest three things, all of which have to do with finding peace. First, make peace with yourself. If you have done wrong, failed, or sinned, remind yourself that you are human, that humans do such things, and make peace with yourself. I realize your wrong may have been terrible or tragic, but unless you are planning on doing it again, it is in your past. Leave it there.
Second, make peace with others. If you have wronged someone, apologize. Just do it. If they respond well, fantastic. If not, you have done your part. As long as making amends won’t cause further harm, reach out and humbly express your sorrow. If the other person is no longer alive, write them a letter expressing it. And let me name the core issue blocking such peace making: ego. Pride. Embarrassment. Call it what you want, just get over it and make peace. Death bed reconciliation stories are great. Even better are making peace followed by decades of enjoying each other.
Finally, make peace with God. One day we too will follow Rick through death to what lies beyond. If you have not taken seriously the fact of your inevitable death, you have not really made peace with God. You are not ready to meet the God before whom you will stand one day. Now is the time to get ready for that moment. Doing so prepares you for death and makes this life far more fulfilling, liberating, enjoyable, and purposeful.
One of my favorite stories ever is the story of a monk working in a garden. Someone came up to him and asked, “Father, if you knew Jesus were to return to this earth this evening for the Second Coming, how would you spend the rest of this day?” The monk leaned on his hoe, wiped the sweat from his brow, thought for a moment, looked down the rows of vegetables, and then said, “If I knew Jesus were to return this evening, I think I would finishing hoeing this row.”
That is a man who is at peace with himself, at peace with others, and at peace with God. He lives in the moment and is ready for anything, including the end of time.
Live ready. Hug your friends, kiss your spouse, and tell everyone you love them. Don’t wait. Do it today.
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