Talking about Dying before it is too late

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“Talk about dying before it is too late.”

That is the message from consultant anaesthetist, Helgi Johannsson. She writes of the dilemmas that ICU clinicians face in hospitals when treating patients seriously ill with Covid19 at this present time. Very often the doctors know that ventilating a patient will give them only a slim chance of surviving, and, even if they do survive, it may be to a quality of life that few would choose. But it is often impossible to discuss these matters with the patient, and, in the present circumstances where relatives are unable to visit, equally difficult to consult them too. If only the patient had had a sensible conversation with the family, about how and where they would prefer to die, everyone would be clearer about what to do when the time came. But no, most people have shied away from having that conversation, because they don’t want to be morbid, upset themselves, frighten their loved ones, or ‘there’s never really been the right time’. But Helgi Johannsson says, “I want to ask you, please make now the right time. Talk about dying before it is too late”

The same message should be given to the church at large and especially to all preachers of the Gospel: “Talk about dying before it is too late.” In tune with our generation in society, we have not prepared ourselves, or our people, for death. We have ignored this universal fact of life: that we are all going to die. In doing so we have also managed to ignore the most vital part of the gospel: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We have preached a gospel about the forgiveness of sins; we have preached a gospel about how much God loves us. We have not preached the gospel of resurrection from the dead, and of everlasting life in Jesus name.

As a preacher myself for over 50 years I recognize myself in this accusation. When I was a relatively young vicar I preached a sermon one Evensong in one of our country parishes about the fear of death and the good news of the resurrection. I think the text was Hebrews 2.14-15. As the people left afterwards a woman said to me, “Please don’t talk to us about death. It’s morbid.” I have to confess that that remark intimidated me for many years. It was only after I had retired, and my own mortality was becoming more real to me, that I started to mention the dreaded word again and to preach again the Good News of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I do not think that I am the only preacher who, consciously or unconsciously, has avoided talking about death. At least since the World Wars we have all lived in a society in which we are not familiar with death. In our experience it rarely happens, except to those in extreme old age, and even then it rarely takes place at home, but hidden away in a hospital or nursing home. Meanwhile that national god, the NHS, will cure us of all our diseases and infirmities, so we do not need to worry about it. But underneath, in all of us, lurks the terror of death. Plenty of people deny it, but it is deep within the heart of every sentient being. That text from Hebrews speaks of us all as being “in lifelong bondage to the fear of death”. This new, incurable, virus has triggered this fear of death in all of us, and sent us into an individual and corporate panic.

Above all at this time then, it should be the task of the church and its leaders to address this fear of death, to call it by name, and to combat it with the gospel of hope and redemption. In a word, “Talk about dying before it is too late”.

To do so we need to ask different questions from the questions above about where and how we want to die, important as these may be. We need to ask the questions, “What happens when we die? Where do we go next?” No one else is going to ask people these questions, but they are the most important of all. We, Christians, are the only people who can give people an answer that is any more than wishful thinking, because we are the only people who know someone who has come back from the dead. We can give people a message of extraordinary hope and assurance: that Jesus died and rose again and lives for evermore, and that those who believe in him, even though they die, will live with him for evermore. So we need to invite people to turn to Jesus, the only person who can offer us salvation from death.

But at the same time we cannot escape giving people a warning: that those who reject Jesus, will then suffer something much worse than death when they die, something from which there is no way back; that we have a choice, the choice to believe in and follow Jesus, or to go on living our own way; and that we all make that choice, implicitly or explicitly, here and now.

We have not preached the call to repentance in this form for a very long time. We have not lived with this fear of death for a very long time. It is not an easy message to preach to a generation that believes in all sorts of contrary ideas: that we are all going to the same place in the end (whatever that place or non-place may be); that we are all good people, and are all heroes (except those who persist in going out and mixing with others). But this is the very thing God needs us to find a way to do at the present time, if we are ever to break the power of corona virus and the even more powerful virus of fear, to save people from a fate worse than death, and to bring them to that eternal life that God offers to all who believe in Jesus.

Martin Down

(Martin Down is the author of The Christian Hope, Reheboth Media 2016, and co-author with Philip Giddings, Elaine Sugden and Gareth Tuckwell of Talking about Dying, Wilberforce Publications 2017)