Friday, May 25, 2007

What Kind of Death Are You Choosing?

This work week has been book ended by two different kinds of funerals.

The first, on Monday, was your basic "most dreaded" scenario for a minister. Part of the reason it's "most dreaded" is that I didn't know the man all that well. I've been pastor at his church for five years, but he's been bed-ridden for all of that time, refusing visits from me or our deacons who take communion to our homebound church family. That made it difficult to eulogize him gracefully or accurately.

The other part of it is that not many others knew him, either. Aside from his wife and two adult children, there were a total of 8 people at the funeral, counting me and the pianist. It was truly heart breaking for me to watch this widow grieve virtually alone. Perhaps he just outlived all his friends who might have come to his funeral. I don't think that's the case, though. The surviving family seemed so oddly out of synch in how they communicated with others that I suspected their eccentricity explained a little about why the chapel echoed when I spoke. I and they moved stiffly through the liturgy, we each speaking holy words of care and consolation ringing hollow in a relational vacuum. It was empty.

The second funeral was different. Not just because the main sanctuary was respectably full. Not just because I knew this woman more personally. Something was different, and I'm not able to put a finger on it. The liturgy lived, the holy words of care and consolation were spoken from a relational context, and those same words fell on ears that knew them to be true - not because they were spoken more eloquently or passionately, but because they were drawn from the same deep well common amongst our congregation.

Neither of these people chose their death, rather their type of death chose them. The man in the Monday funeral died in his sleep of old age, "not with a bang but a whimper." The woman in the Friday funeral died after a hard fought three year struggle with cancer. But whether they went gently into that good night or whether death was fought - well - to the death, the result is the same and neither of them could stop death's advent.

But more of us choose how we'll leave this life than you'd think. All of us want to end on a high note, a blaze of glory, or as a widely watched "season finale." My father says he wants to die at age 93 having been shot by a jealous husband. I suppose that's not a bad way to go. But most of us choose the death of a thousand cuts, making small decisions, taking tiny actions that lead us up to and over the brink of oblivion.

So this lonely afternoon in my study, I turned aside from preparing a sermon for the weekend to ponder - "What death am I choosing?" Is it bold and faithful? Or is it slow and timid? Or more importantly, what life am I choosing? Am I squandering precious moments and experiences, stuck in self-absorption, arrogance, and jealousy? Or am I choosing a life that means something, gives something, leaves something worthy behind?

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