The Fear of Facing Death
We all know that someday, unless our Lord returns, our earthly "tents" will cave in; we are all going to die. But I know it differently. My "tent" was nearly blown over. As I walked close to the cliff's edge I could sense how far a fall to death might be, how frightening it was for me to encounter the end of my days on Earth. Our Christian faith assures us that death is the experience of transition to a far better life with our Lord in heaven, where a room is well prepared for each of us. I have known that and I have believed that all my life. I had also wondered in days gone by how I would do were I to be confronted with my mortality, with a terminal disease— not with a life sentence of difficulty, but a death sentence once and for all my days. Would my Christian faith hold up? Would I sense God's presence in the room when I heard bad news about my future? I wondered especially how calm or how frightened I would be. Well, now I know: I was afraid.
"You have blood cancer; it is either aplastic anemia or acute leukemia. Most likely one of the two ... probably leukemia." Those were the words of a new reality, unbelievable to me but true. Suddenly everything was different. A day later I was told I had been diagnosed with AML— acute myelogenous leukemia. I had heard lots of stories in my years of ministry about people who died from leukemia. The word always gave me shivers; now I was the one shaking from the news.
"So ... what are my chances?" A common question—but it became my question. "At your age, we have about a 50 percent cure rate. It depends a lot on your basic health and how you respond to the chemotherapy. It's pretty powerful. And then you will probably need a bone marrow transplant. That will be done later in Ann Arbor when you have enough health and strength to endure it." I quickly learned that the survival rate on such a transplant for someone my age was about 75 percent; one in four people, I was told, run into significant complications with infection that takes your life because for a period of time you have no immune system to speak of. Or, later, there are problems with guest vs. host disease, your body fighting the new stem cells in your blood system. One thing was clear to me: I could soon be gone from this earth.
I did not feel just knocked to my knees; I felt kicked to the floor, without the strength to get up. At such moments, as always, life itself is so up to God. I often lay there hoping and praying that I could live. I remember one evening at St. Mary's Lacks Cancer Center when eleven bags of ice were cooling the edge off a high fever caused by heavy-duty antibiotics. It was work to open my eyes. I remember my fear that night; in ways it is still with me.
Talking with students nine months later in a pastoral counseling class, I rehearsed how frightened I had been. For all of them, well on their way to ministry, I wanted to model a strong, solid faith in my Savior and demonstrate the confidence that a Christian can have in the face of death. But there in the classroom, on medication every day to counter chemotherapy fatigue, I told my story with a lump in my throat. Not the strong, self-assured Christian teacher that I wanted to be; not that model of a strong Christian faith. I was still scared to death of my death. Students were positive, reassuring, reminding me of how well I had done so far, but their words had little traction with my fears. Then, a Chinese student spoke in somewhat broken English: "You feel like Jesus felt in Gethsemane. He was afraid of dying too. Jesus knows how you feel—he was scared too!" My heart did a double-take, the thing that happens when God's Spirit moves and you hear the word of the Lord in the words of others. I heard the whisper of God that my fears of dying were acceptable, truly human—that God understood.
Yes, Scripture tells us that Jesus was overwhelmed by his death that was soon to be. Mark reports that in Gethsemane, "deeply distressed and troubled," Jesus confessed to Peter, James, and John: "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death." He needed their prayerful support: "Stay here and keep watch" (14:34). Luke reports that "an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground" (22:43-44). I have often wondered about that image of Jesus bleeding drops of sweat, of how deeply distraught he must have been, knowing what was before him. Distressed, troubled, sorrowful . our Lord was so human, so deeply engaged in his fear of dying ... and so could I be. My Chinese student was Christ to me that day, telling me powerful words of spiritual comfort.
As a Christian I take heart, first of all, in knowing that Jesus the Christ has gone before me and taken the lead in facing death straight on, as tortuous as it was for him. Being sure that Jesus was terrified gave me courage to face my own fears. But there was more. Not only did I know about Jesus taking on death and winning that battle, but I also experienced Jesus in the many ways that people continued to be Christ to me. I read cards from people at LaGrave CRC whom I did not know. I heard the report of the prayers of many, advocating for my life before the throne of God. I heard the prayers of pastors and family and friends who assured me that I was not alone in all my fears. Some read Scriptures that I knew, planting in my mind and heart the truths of our Christian faith. The presence and the voices of others calmed my fright. These people were the body of Christ to me when I was too weak to speak to God myself. As the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us, faith is both knowledge and confidence—knowing about our eternal salvation, sealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and having confidence that his Spirit, the Comforter, never leaves the room.
Facing the challenge of dying includes facing the biggest questions of living. My fears drove me toward a shift in personal values. When the future looks precarious you weigh your choices more carefully— like how you spend your time and who you spend it with. Or how you spend your money. What matters little now really matters little. And what matters more comes more sharply into focus. Services of worship are one of the things that simply mean more. When sunlight streaks through stained-glass windows I quietly sense God's smile, his blessing in our direction. In the time of Lent when we remember the suffering and death of Jesus, I know that Jesus died so that ultimately we don't have to. When psalms of lament echo through the sanctuary, I remember my own distress and how, in my case, God delivered me from my fears and my sorrows. When the congregation sings songs of thanksgiving, I look at the cross and recall our Lord in Gethsemane facing his fears, showing me how.
And the people of God mean more to me. My own family members are part of that people. If I have just a few more years to live, if remission breaks and leukemia takes me down, I want to have spent enough time with these people. I want to share my faith with children, grandchildren, friends near, friends far. Such time of communion, conversation, and care has become premium for me. I have learned this about fear: you can face more of it if you are not alone. Being alone doesn't work when it comes to facing such spiritual and emotional challenges. In the community of Christian faith we can stay open, we can stand up before the door of death, and ultimately fear no evil. Yes, I still carry some fears, but they lessen. I never needed the marrow transplant, and my remission looks to be solid now two years out from the disease. Today I am pretty healthy, living life again, but knowing now how lightly we all walk on the face of the earth. If I do die, I know well in mind and in heart with you who read this, that in life and in death, yes, we belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.