Living well and dying even better

Travelling along the icy roadside one cold wintery day, Henri Nouwen, renowned professor at Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame, was struck from behind by the large protruding mirror of an oncoming van.

The result was a near-death experience that left him hospitalized for months, but certainly changed his life and resulted in one of his more reflective books called Beyond the Mirror. Naturally, this short but very thick book tells of his meeting with said mirror and how it changed his life.

It is unfortunate that it often takes a brush with death to prepare us for life, but when such an experience comes our way, we are better for it.  For a sobering example of this, spend time with anyone battling cancer.

For someone fighting any possibly terminal illness, their condition becomes a cruel teacher and life a much more open book.  The lesson is this – I wasn’t guaranteed any of my one, three, five decades on this earth so far – and I’m not guaranteed another single day.  Therefore, with death possibly imminent, I will live each day with gratitude and make the very most of it, for it could be my last.

Over the last few years, my little brother has been my tutor in this regard.  This healthy strapping man of forty years, one who has never smoked but habitually jogged for exercise, discovered that he had a very aggressive form of lung cancer.  Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation were next.

Not long ago we were having breakfast somewhere together.  A young lady who served as our waitress came to the table and asked us how we were that day.  My brother happily said “Great!  I woke up!”

There is a particular glow that comes from a chemo-induced bald head.  Not a physical glow – instead, the tell-tale glow of the joy of today and the gratitude for small things.

A very good friend of mine serves as a chaplain for one of our area hospitals.  He often tells me of his experiences with the dying, and those they leave behind.  There is the pain in death, but there is a more stabbing pain in his opinion – the pain of being woefully unprepared to die.  Death comes knocking at the door; it is inevitable.  Despite the presence of this unseen but unstoppable force, the dying and their mourners are often unable to face the fact that the end has come.  They simply never considered it as a possibility, and when it suddenly (or not so suddenly) comes, the world seems to fall apart.  This creates panic, in-fighting, and all sorts of messes.

Jon Foreman sings a different tune.  In his song “Learning to Die”, he mourns this dirge of resolve: ‘All along I thought I was learning how to take, how to bend not how to break…how to laugh not how to cry.  But really I’ve been learning how to die.’

Moses of the Bible says it this way in Psalm 90: “Teach us to number our days that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”

Back to the late Henri Nouwen.  Reading his memoir you learn that he really did think he was going to die.  This great man, a world-famous priest, writer, professor and theologian, says that the greatest pain in dying was not the loved ones he would miss but rather leaving behind the people he had not forgiven and people who had not forgiven him.

He writes, “I suddenly felt an immense desire to call around my hospital bed all who were angry with me and all with whom I was angry, to embrace them, ask them to forgive me, and offer them my forgiveness.  As I felt life weakening in me, I felt a deep desire to be free from the burden of judgments.  I had to die completely free of judgment.”

May this heart of wisdom grow in us.  It shouldn’t take an illness or a natural disaster to make us prepare for the end.  Prepare for it now, and do so with a smile.  And consider this radical thought: the best way to prepare isn’t necessarily filling up your gas tank or stocking up on bottled water.  Maybe instead it has more to do with certain damaged relationships in our lives which perhaps this short article has brought to mind.

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About VCC

At VCC, we believe that church is not a function: it is a family. Our religion is only as alive as we are, the people that pursue it. So, rather than acting as an organization, we want to act as an organism. We have no time for casual contacts and meaningless formalities. We are a fellowship on an adventure towards the stuff of God. Church means worshipping God together, studying the Bible together, fixing our cars together, hiking together, eating together, playing together, praying together... enjoying the warmth of the Holy Spirit in all parts of our lives together, not just in appointed meeting times.