I had a rather upsetting experience recently.
My son and daughter in law and my wife and I went out to eat at a Chinese restaurant. I know this sounds corny, but you know what I really love about Chinese restaurants?
The fortune cookie. I’m not superstitious – I just like to see what the message says. Besides, I’ve never met a dessert I didn’t enjoy!
My son opened his and he read it aloud. “You will have a happy surprise.”
My daughter in law opened hers and read it aloud: “Make the most of every opportunity.”
My wife’s fortune cookie said, “Look to the future.”
I opened mine, and it said “Resolve all unfinished business immediately.”
My son thought that was funny. He suggested that this might simply be nothing more than a way for the restaurant to say we’d been sitting at the table too long and we needed to pay the check and get out of there.
Then my wife suggested that perhaps the waitress knew something about the chicken that I didn’t know.
Well, I smiled, but inside I found it rather unsettling.
“Resolve all unfinished business immediately.”
The phrase had the ring of death to it.
The simple fortune cookie had allowed death to enter our lives and to sit with us at the table of our meal. I didn’t like that. I don’t like the possibility of death to be allowed into my everyday life. And in that regard, I am a child of my culture, and so are you.
We live in a culture that does not know how to deal with death.
Woody Allen put it this way: “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens to me.”
What it takes for most of us in this world to accept the reality of death is a shock. Face to face with a doctor, we hear the words, “I’m sorry, I’ve looked at your tests, Maynard, and I think you should resolve all unfinished business immediately.”
Now there was a time when the church saw it as one of its main missions to help people to think about death. Not death in general, but their death. This was not a morbid sort of activity. It was considered to be very helpful. In fact, a main focus of devotional material centuries ago was built on the belief that by learning how to die, we will learn how to live.
There was an entire collection of this devotional material called the Ars Mo ri en di, the “art of dying well.”
John Cheever has written a short story called, “The Death of Justina.” It is about a man with the very symbolic name, Moses. He lives in a little town called Proxmire Manner. One day Moses comes home from work in Proximire Manner, and when he enters the house he finds there on the couch is his wife’s elderly cousin Justina. Dead as a doornail.
Now when you find your cousin dead as a doornail in your home, you have two tasks. Get the body out of the house and get her a proper burial. But Moses finds that in Proxmire Mannor, this is no easy thing to do. He discovers you can’t take the body out of the house without a death certificate, and you can’t get a death certificate in Proxmire Manner because the County Council in a fit of community spirit and in the effort of keeping a funeral home from building a location in Proxmire Manner made it illegal to die in Proxmire Manner.
So Justina is not only dead, she is criminal.
Moses contacts the head of the County Council and asks if an exception can be made in this case since she is already dead.
“No, it would set a bad example” says the head of the council. “People don’t want to live in a place where things like this happen.”
Finally he was able to succeed at getting the cousin out of the house and buried in a cemetery. In the final lines of the story, are in the voice of Moses. Here is what he says. “How can people who cannot deal with death ever deal with life?”
That is, in fact, what the ancient Christian leaders were trying to say in their devotional material of the Ars Mo-ri-en-de. In order to know how to die well, you must first know how to live well. And in order to live well, you must be prepared to die well.
About 30 years ago, one of the hot books about death was Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ Death and Dying. If you know that book, you will recall that she presented a wonderful presentation of how people deal with the process of their own death. She said that people move through a very specific set of stages.
According to her, people start out with denial – “I’m not going to die.” But then people would realize they were indeed going to die, so they became angry. Then they moved into bargaining. They would bargain with the doctor, with the family with God Almighty. When that didn’t work, they would move into depression. And once they worked through that stage, people would arrive at the peaceful state of acceptance.
Now as helpful as that book was in many ways, it has also been criticized more and more over the years, and rightfully so. Because people do not move through these stages in an orderly progression. Most people meander from one stage to another and sometimes circle back into a previous stage they had left behind. And sometimes they even get stuck along the way.
As a matter of fact, many have observed that most people do not move through stages at all at the end of life.
The fact of the matter is that people die the way they live. And the living and anticipation of our mortality is a dress rehearsal for how we will die.
If we are a bargainer in life, we will be a bargainer in death.
If we are angry in life, we are angry in death.
If we are trusting in life, we are trusting in our death.
The early church saw itself as a source of alternative thinking. The world may teach one thing about how to think about death, but the church calls on its members to think boldly, courageously and creatively about death. So Paul wrote in his New Testament letter to the Philippians, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
And to the Thessalonians, Paul would write “I don’t want you to grieve as those who have no hope.”
He is not suggesting that we do not grieve. He is suggesting that grief should be shaped by the hope we have in the resurrection. And when that happens, grief becomes a different kind of dynamic, a different kind of emotion. 
The ancient writers of the devotional works about how to die well focused on different virtues for life as a way to prepare for death. Embrace and exercise these virtues in daily living, and you will be better prepared for your death, or the death of your loved ones.
Our New Testament lesson is a wonderful letter written by
Paul writes from prison, and it seems that it slowly becoming clear that
he will die while in prison. It is as if
someone has passed him a fortune cookie that contains the message, “Resolve all
unfinished business immediately!” St. Paul
In this letter he wrestles with death. In the opening verses of the letter he toys with how he might face death, and then he boldly says, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Paul had learned how to face death, by learning how to face life.
And likewise we will learn how to die well, by learning how to live well.
Or as Paul would say in his letter to the Philippians, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Philippians 1:27)
That is an interesting phrase, because Paul began using it a lot shortly before his death. It shows up over and over in the letters he wrote late in his life. “Live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ.” “Live a life worthy of your calling.” “Live a life that is worthy…” Colossians. First Thessalonians. Second Thessalonians. Philippians.
One of the places where Paul uses that phrase, “Live a life worthy of Christ” is in his letter to the Colossians. And in that letter, he sets forth a plain statement on what it means to live a life worthy of Christ.
Paul says, “As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love...”
You can take each of those virtues and spend a lifetime looking at each one, but let’s look at just a couple.
One of the things that makes it difficult for us in our culture to deal with death is our impatience.
Paul said in Romans 12:12 that we need to learn to be “patient in our afflictions.” But the greater the affliction, the less patient we become.
We are impatient for suffering to end, so when we see others suffering, we walk away as quickly as we can.
We are impatient for suffering to end, and when we are the ones suffering, we might pour alcohol into our systems, take drugs to deaden the pain or long for a society where euthanasia is legal.
I’m fascinated by the way Rembrandt’s artwork changed during the course of his lifetime.
As a young man, Rembrandt painted that wonderful but disturbing Old Testament story of Abraham and his son Isaac. Abraham is about to sacrifice his only son to God, when thankfully an angel appears and stops the father from taking the life of his child.
What young Rembrandt saw was Isaac on the altar and Abraham is pulling his head back and Isaac’s neck is exposed and the father has the knife and is about to thrust it into the flesh and blood of his child. Abraham has covered the mouth of the child so Isaac cannot speak and argue for his defense. The angel has to wrestle the knife from the young Abraham. Abraham is staring into the eyes of the angel as if angry that he is being interrupted, and the angel has one hand on Abraham’s right hand, wrestling the knife from him, while the angel’s other hand is raised as if ready to fight Abraham.
Rembrandt sees in Abraham a determination, and zeal and even an impatience to “get it over with.”
But as an old man, Rembrandt revisited this biblical story with an etching. With the patience learned through suffering and wisdom, the artist saw everything differently. Isaac is no longer on the altar, but is lovingly and gently held by his father who has pulled him to himself in a loving embrace. Abraham does not cover the child’s mouth, but he does cover his eyes so he cannot see the suffering that is to come. The knife is held reluctantly. It’s even pointed away from the child.
There is in aging Rembrandt an understanding that we should not rush the timetable of death, but we should be hesitant and patient.
A key factor in whether a person will “die well” is found in how well that person can embrace the virtue of patience in dealing with grief, suffering and sadness.
Forgiveness is another element of Paul’s list of virtues in Colossians, and like the other virtues it is important to embrace so that one may live well, and die well.
One of my Methodist colleagues was taking his wife out to eat one night, and they were walking on the streets of the city where they lived. They saw a man collapse nearby. While his wife called 911, the Methodist minister leaned over the man to comfort him.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ve called for help and they will be here any moment. Just hang on.”
Suddenly the stranger reached up and grabbed the minister by the coat and pulled him close to him so they were eye to eye – “Charlie,” the stranger said.
“I’m not Charlie,” said the minister. “But don’t worry. I’m with you and we’ve called for help. Just hang on.”
The stranger ignored him.
“Charlie, forgive me.”
“I’m not Charlie. Charlie isn’t here. But we’ve called for help.”
“Charlie, listen to me, forgive me!”
“I’m not Charlie.”
“Charlie, listen to me. Forgive me.”
And seeing the desperation in his eyes, the Methodist minister said, “I forgive you.”
And those were the last words the stranger would ever hear before his death.
The minister later thought about how arrogant he had been to offer forgiveness. “Who am I,” he would later ask, “to speak for this Charlie and to offer a word of forgiveness.”
But then he realized as a minister he did that every Sunday in worship, and ever day of his life.
We are called to forgive. God means for us to be forgiving to others and to receive and enjoy forgiveness.
At death, people often desperately seek forgiveness from others, or they desperately seek to extend a word of forgiveness before it is too late.
But to die well, or to live well, means that we walk in forgiveness throughout all of our lives.
In New Testament, Paul wrote to the
, “forgive whatever
grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Colossians 3:13 Colossian
All of this keeps bring us to the same truth – if you want to die well, you must live well. You learn to prepare for death by learning how to live.
If you are angry in life, then you will be angry at death.
If you are bitter in life, then you will be bitter at death.
If you are forgiving and compassionate and patient in life, that is how you will face death.
Copyright 2014, The Rev. Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.