It amazes me how many people are not prepared to face up to their mortality, even although income tax apart, death is the one inescapable certainty in life. Today death is often the last thing we talk about. Some doctors, for instance, find it difficult telling people they are terminally ill – so too many families find it difficult telling their loved ones they are going to die. It wasn’t always so. The Victorians made almost a fetish of death – on the other hand, they couldn’t cope with talking about sex. Some Victorians were even covered up the legs of their pianos. By contrast, we have no difficulties in talking about sex, but death is another matter.
But how do we face up to our mortality? In the first place by responding to Jesus’ offer of life. Jesus, in the context of the death of his friend Lazarus, declared: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11.25).
Secondly, by fulfilling the role that God wants us play at home and at work, in the community and in the church. What a difference it would make if when we die we could know that we had been reasonably faithful in the stewardship of the life that God has given us.
Thirdly, by reflecting together with other Christians on the challenges we may face as we come toward the end of our lives. So, for instance, facing up to our mortality can involve thanking God for his goodness and learning to be content even when things are tough; letting go of past hurts and forgiving those who have let us down; putting our affairs in order and planning arrangements for our funeral; and having the courage to let go while at the same time holding on to Christ.
It is with this this third option in mind that I decided to write a study course for small groups in the church where I worship. Each of the five sessions contains two or three passage of Scripture followed by a series of practical reflections on the issues raised by the Scriptures. To encourage inter-action between members of the group, there are also questions for discussion. The aim of this course is to ensure that when the time comes for us to depart this world, each participant can say with Pope John XIII “I’ve packed my bags and I am ready to go”.
So, for instance, the very first session entitled ‘Acknowledge your mortality’, begins with three Scripture passages: Psalm 90 (God’s eternity and human frailty); Ecclesiastes 12.1-7 (‘the trials of old age’) and Luke 2 (the ‘Nunc Dimittis’). This is followed by my reflections on the issues raised by the Scriptures. Questions for group discussion included: “How challenging do you find this concept of mortality? How do you respond to the observation that “The new unmentionable is death. Not death in general or someone else’s death, but my death?”
Feeling I had done a fairly good job in creating this course, I circulated it to the church’s small group leaders. To my surprise, every single leader felt that this course was not suitable for their group! There was a general consensus that the issues raised were too sensitive for many people. If there were to be such a course, it should not for be for small groups in general, but rather a ‘stand-alone’ course into which people could ‘opt in’. So we decided instead to follow a study course exploring ‘God’s mercy’ based on Psalm 137!
While respecting the group leaders’ views, I wonder whether there is deeper issue which needs dealing with – perhaps in a sermon or two rather than in small groups. A recent survey revealed that 34% of Christians felt unable even to talk about death with their family. If the church is ‘the community of resurrection’ then something surely is wrong. Why is it that for some Christians death is still “the king of terrors” (Job 18.4: see Ps 55.4)? Is it that they have yet to discover that Jesus, by destroying the one who has the power of death “has freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebs 2.15)? Or is it that they fear not so much death itself as the process of dying? I shall seek to address this issue in next week’s blog!