the art of dying
I’m looking at a man just days from his death, and I can’t help but to envy him.
I went home this past weekend to celebrate my younger sister’s graduation.
On Saturday, I got an odd request from my father to visit a friend of his who had recently been put on hospice.
Understanding the dangers of COVID-19, I questioned whether our visit was a good idea or not. Coming to terms with the fact that this man will likely pass away in the coming days, my question seemed a bit tone deaf.
I agreed to accompany him on the visit.
This man is a family friend of ours, but it had been years since I last saw or spoke with him. On the drive over to his house, Dad reminded me of the man he is and has been throughout his life.
This man is a retired Judge who worked with my father, and he is uniquely intelligent.
Dad recounted cherished memories of this man randomly dropping into his office and carrying on an hour or two-long conversation about the history of our community and the characters involved.
His memory has always been impeccable. He was personal friends and acquaintances with Louisiana political legends we learned about growing up. A walking history book, so to speak. Dad also told me that he had led Sunday school classes and Bible studies for decades devoting much of his time in developing others through Christ.
“If his funeral was public and everyone knew about it, he could fill the Superdome with people wanting to say their goodbyes.” Dad said. “He is a giant of a man.”
“How bad is it?” I asked. Dad replied, “He is in renal failure. Doctors say he is living his last few days. They’ve sent him home to live them out there.”
We pulled into the driveway, put our masks on, walked up the front stairs, and rang the doorbell.
His son answered the door and invited us in.
I could see the man sitting in a wheelchair at the head of the table with his back turned toward us. Walking around to greet him, I could see how dire the situation was.
Dark skin spots covered his face, his fingers are blackening and shriveled, and his shirt stained from who knows what.
He did his best to greet us back, but words were not coming as easily as they once had.
We sat there for a couple of hours as he told us stories, prompted by my father and his family’s memories of past tellings. “Remember that time…” someone would say. Or “What about the story you told me about….”
His granddaughter had a box of pictures on the table to jog his memory and a stack of paper to collect the treasures of his final stories.
Each word was a struggle.
Fifteen or twenty seconds in between words, the stories became increasingly difficult to put together; however, I was impressed by how much he did still remember.
Right when you thought the story was complete, he would add an “and” to the end and link it to another.
Other than greeting him when we walked in and wishing him my best before leaving, I didn’t say a word. I sat there listening to a man reminisce on the full life he was soon to complete.
While he would occasionally wince in pain, never once did I sense even a fragment of fear or anger or regret from him. He radiated confidence, assurance, and a remarkable sense of peace in the face of death.
I took in as many details and images as I could from the stories he was telling, but I couldn’t shake a thought in my mind..
I’m looking at a man just days from his death, and I can’t help but to envy him.
I don’t want to die.
I love my life.
I cherish each day that I’m given, but this man has spent the entirety of his life feeding into the lives of others and spreading the love and message of Jesus Christ, and is just moments away from being in His presence.
What a feeling it must be to approach the finish line knowing that you fought the good fight, you won the race, and you have been a good and faithful servant to your King. Not perfect, but redeemed.
I envy him.
Not only because he gets to depart for Heaven, but also because I must stay here on Earth.
As I grow in my faith, each day brings a clearer image of the death, mourning, crying, and pain that this world has in store while magnifying the promise that one day the tears will be wiped from my eyes, eternally.
This man is done crying.
Two songs have played in my head since the day we went to visit our friend. The first is “Where Rainbows Never Die” by the Steeldrivers. The other is “I Can Only Imagine” by MercyMe. If you haven’t heard them, do yourself a favor, and listen to them now.
The verses in “Where Rainbows Never Die” sum it up perfectly.
“I'm an old man now
I'm bound for glory
Time to lay these burdens down
Had enough of this old world of worry
Gonna trade my troubles for a crown
I will make my way across the fields of cotton
And wade through muddy waters one last time
And in my dreams I come out clean
When I reach the other side
Waste away the sunsets
Where rainbows never die
I've got one last thing to do
One more mile before I'm through
Casting off these early chains
Going where there's no more pain”
This man is on his last mile. Like Andy Dufresne wading through muddy waters one last time.
Is his burning out graceful? No. But he’s not dying begrudgingly, and he isn’t in any hurry to make up for lost time.
He is walking into glory trading his troubles for a crown. This tired body for a new one. This fleeting life for an eternal one.
“I can only imagine what it will be like
When I walk, by your side
I can only imagine what my eyes will see
When your face is before me
I can only imagine
Surrounded by Your glory
What will my heart feel?
Will I dance for you Jesus?
Or in awe of You be still?
Will I stand in your presence?
Or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing hallelujah?
Will I be able to speak at all?”
As I looked into his eyes, I can only imagine what they will see in the upcoming days.
Surrounded by God's glory, dancing on the legs that no longer support him, singing with the voice that can barely tell a story, walking by the side of his Lord out of the wheelchair that currently binds him.
And while it makes sense for us to put the idea of death into the context of a person of this man’s age, we could all be a matter of days away from our end.
I sat by him and envied the fact that he is soon able to cast off the chains that shackle him, but in that moment, I also achieved a greater sense of appreciation for the life I pray I still have yet to live.
More than anything, this experience served as a massive motivating factor and encouragement to devote my life to pouring into the lives of others through Christ as this man had. This is the goal.
What would our world be like if believers cared less what people said about them when they leave Earth and more what God says to them when they enter Heaven?
We’re not living for this life. We’re living for the next.
Jesus makes it abundantly clear: steward and grow what God has given you in this life. Use and multiply your talents to further the kingdom and pour into His creation.
And once we’re done, we’ve fought the good fight, and our race is won, we get to enter Heaven to share in our master’s happiness hearing, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Because you have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” Matt 25:21
Ask yourself, is Heaven your ultimate prize?
Dr. John Piper says this is the critical question.
“If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the
friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and
all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties
you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no
human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with
heaven, if Christ were not there?”
Let that sink in.
Heaven isn’t the ultimate reward.
It never has been. If you are living your life to merely get to Heaven, you’re missing the whole point of this life. God wants more for you than to simply win a medal for your race.
He is the prize.
This man paid his dues. He fought his fight. He finished his race.
He’ll get into Heaven, but Heaven pales in comparison to the eternity he is stepping into with Jesus. He didn’t have to tell me this, I could see it in his face and hear it in his voice. His eye is on the real prize.
It always has been.
But, now it’s our turn. While there are tremendous hurdles along the way, the race is preparing us for the eternal majesty on the other side of the finish line.
More than anything I could accomplish during this life, I want to achieve the peace and assurance that I saw in this man as I watched him run his final mile.
I pray that you’re running alongside me because Jesus proved this life is not a race designed to be run alone.
As the only man to ever live on this Earth capable of running the race on his own, Jesus instead chose twelve men to accompany Him on his journey.
Jesus was able to run alone, but chose not to. We are not able to run alone, and I pray that you aren't choosing to.
Love the life you live.
Cherish the days you have.
Use the talents you’ve been given.
And run the race set out before you.
For any of us, Glory might be closer than we think.
Are you confident in what lies on the other side of the finish line?