The final session on my course Facing Our Mortality is entitled ‘Let go and hold on to Christ’. The Scriptures I chose for study were Psalm 23 (“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil”; Phil 3.12-14 (“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus”) and 2 Tim 4.6-8 (“The time of my departure has come”).
In my comments I said I find it significant that when the Apostle Paul spoke of his departure in 2 Tim 4 he used a Greek word (analusis) from which we get our word ‘analysis’, which literally denotes a separation of one item from another, and can denote the loosening of a ship from its mooring. This word for ‘casting off’ was often used as a euphemism for death: dying was viewed as a voyage down the river Styx into the underworld. Coins were placed in the eyes of the deceased to pay the ferry pilot, who would give the dead person passage into the afterlife. However, over against the pagans of his day, Paul had a more positive view of death. He looked forward to making the journey across the sea of death into the haven of eternity, where on his arrival he would be “with Christ” (Phil 1.23). Indeed, there in Phil 1.23 we find the same Greek word again (analusai).
Charles Henry Brent (1862-1929), a former bishop in the American Episcopal Church, got to the heart of the metaphor when he wrote:
What is dying? I am, standing on the seashore. A ship sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean. She is an object of beauty and I stand watching her till at last she fades on the horizon and someone at my side says, ‘She is gone’. Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all… Just at the moment when someone at my side says, ‘she is gone’, there are others who are watching her coming, and other voices take up a glad shout, ‘There she comes’ and that is dying.
As I noted in last week’s blog, the reality is that not all Christians look forward to dying. In part this may be that they fear not so much death itself, as the process of dying. As my friend, David Frampton, a former palliative care specialist, commented to me, this fear of dying is often linked with a fear of pain, loss of control of bodily functions, dementia and mental deterioration, and the embarrassment of potential total dependence. Thankfully, through the support of doctors and nurses, strategies can be developed to help the dying to cope with death, but even so we are still called to exercise faith and courage.
Even then, some Christians find the thought of ‘casting off’ not easy to accept. To quote David Frampton again:
They continue to talk about getting better in spite of objective evidence of deterioration. Sadly, often such people ‘die badly’. They are like someone standing on a jetty with one foot in a boat and one on land. As the two drift apart, there comes a point where the tension will no longer hold, and in dying patients, this may be resolved by a retreat from reality into confusion and unreachable anxiety. Here the only useful answer could be appropriate sedation.
He went on to instance three “experienced Charismatic Christian leaders” finding themselves in such a situation, for each believed that they would be miraculously healed:
With one of them, who had been a blessing to many people, it ended badly. The other two, toward the end, came to the reluctant and dislocating conclusion that, somehow, they had got it wrong, but were able, peacefully, to let go into the hands of the God they didn’t now understand.
Dying involves letting go – but it also involves holding on to God. We need to continue to exercise our faith and trust in God – holding on in faith to the faithfulness of God, who said “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebs 13.6). So Paul wrote of his pressing on “to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me” (Phil 3.12 NIV). This reminds me of the motto of Spurgeon’s College, of which I was principal: ‘teneo et teneor’ – ‘I hold and I am held’.
I ended Facing Our Mortality, with these words:
Although I have yet to begin the journey that leads through “the darkest valley” (Ps 23.4), I dare to believe I have no reason to fear – for the Lord, the shepherd of his sheep, is with me. Yes, along with all other Christian believers, we need to prepare for the day when, in John Bunyan’s words, all the trumpets will sound and we shall cross to the other side.
The section for group discussion included the question:
What do you think might help you in your final hours to ‘let go and hold on to Christ’? Is there someone whose hand you would particularly want to hold? Would receiving communion be an aid to faith? Would holding a wooden hand cross be helpful?.
When, as I hope, I do eventually run this course, I will be interested to hear people’s answers.