April 29, 2018
5th Sunday of Easter
This is the third in a series of sermons about the spiritual challenges of aging, and the spiritual tools for dealing with those challenges that I’m learning about from people in nursing homes. Currently, I work as a volunteer chaplain at the Hebrew Home nursing facility in Rockville. For the last two years, I’ve been leading a Bible Study class for Christians there. As I speak about some of the nursing home residents I have known, I am going to fictionalize their names in order to protect their anonymity.
Today, the spiritual challenge I plan to talk about is Fear of Dying. Since I started working as a chaplain at the Hebrew Home, I encounter death frequently. I can identify by name at least 16 people I have worked with who have passed away. I have been a companion in dying for about half of them. Lately, it seems that someone I know dies at least once a month.
According to my training, my role as a chaplain is not to get emotionally involved with those I serve – my job is to focus on their spiritual and emotional needs, not mine. I do respond emotionally, and I do grieve. But when I am with them, I try to focus on their experience and feelings, not my own.
Therefore, this sermon is not about grieving those who have died – it’s about being a person who will die. When I put it that way, it’s clearly a spiritual challenge that is relevant to all of us, not just to those who are elderly or seriously ill. But there is so much to learn from those who are elderly or seriously ill. And so, I focus on them.
What is the fear of dying all about? Well, it’s the end of life as we know it. For each of us, it’s the permanent end of everything we know and everything we can comprehend.
But is it the end of everything?
In varying ways, the Christians in my Bible Class say “no.” One wheelchair-bound man, who knows way more about the Bible than I do, said, “I think death is overrated.” Another person likes to say, “this is not our permanent address.”
When I asked my students what happens after we die, most of them said we go to Heaven. One of them acknowledged that it could be Heaven, or it could be Hell. Another said we will “be with Christ in the spirit.”
I offer up belief in a hereafter as a powerful spiritual tool for addressing the fear of dying.
Recently, I heard a statement about death that really threw me for a loop: “Don’t worry about dying. There’s nothing to be afraid of – death is perfectly safe.” “Death is perfectly safe???” At first, that made absolutely no sense at all to me – after all, my definition of “unsafe” is “I may die.” To say “death is perfectly safe” is to use opposites to define each other.
What does “perfectly safe” mean, I wondered. It occurred to me that death brings to an end all human pain and suffering – is death ‘perfectly safe’ because we have no pain and suffering once we’ve died.
But many of my friends at the nursing home believe death leads to something more than the absence of bad – it leads to a new experience of something good. One day Judy, a woman in her 90s said to me, “I really want to die — I’ve been ready for quite some time.” Judy didn’t have much pleasure in her life at this point, so her statement didn’t take me entirely by surprise. But I took a risk and asked her why she wanted to die. She said, “are you kidding? I want to see all my friends and relatives that are already in heaven waiting for me!”
I asked the class once, what do you envision heaven will be like? My favorite answer was, “it’ll be like a huge block party – everyone will be friendly and supportive, there will be plenty of really good food, and everyone will be having a good time.” Another person said, “it’ll be like this Bible Study class, only it will last for eternity.”
As a result of working at the nursing home, I’ve had to look at my own beliefs. Right now, we are in the liturgical season of Easter, a period of seven Sundays when we affirm the resurrection of Jesus by saying, “Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!”
Yes, I believe Jesus was resurrected after his death. But do I believe that I will live again after my death? Like the concept of God, the concept of life after death exceeds my human ability to comprehend…but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
So what do I believe? Do I believe the hereafter is real, or just something that we invented in order to cope with the fear of dying? Until about a year ago, I didn’t know – and I didn’t care. I figured something after death was just as likely as nothing after death.
But now, having been a chaplain to so many people as they have declined and died, I have this sense that their death was not just an ending, but also a beginning.
And I’m beginning to see our diminishment as more than a time of loss – I’m also beginning to see it as preparation for the next step.
This leads me to my second tool for addressing the fear of death. The second tool is Aging itself. My friend, Emmy Lu Daly, crystalized this concept for me when she sent me this quote from an essay by May Sarton:
Old age is not an illness.
It is a timeless ascent.
As power diminishes
we grow toward the light.1
When we think about aging, we tend focus on what we are losing. I invite you now to think a bit about what we are gaining: we are gaining distance from many of the values and activities of the materials world – working, building, achieving, succeeding. In some ways, we are gaining freedom; we know longer need to worry about increasing our earning power or improving our credit score. In their place, we have the opportunity to get more in touch with the things of the spirit –patience, serenity, courage, acceptance. In other words, as we disengage from this world, we can begin to connect with the next.
I first became intimately familiar with diminishment as a caregiver for a husband with Alzheimer’s Disease; then, I got to know other people living in nursing homes with various forms of dementia. That’s when I began to sense that as people ‘s ability to participate in this world diminishes, their ability to be “of God” increases. They are growing toward the light. And as we get closer to that light, I think it becomes easier to make that transition from this world to the next.
But not all aged people are calm and collected about death. Some people are aged and afraid, while others are aged and unafraid. Why the difference? There is something more to it. Because I don’t fully understand it myself, I’m going to turn to the words of two other people.
The first is John, the author of the second scripture passage that we heard read this morning – from 1 John, chapter 4. John wrote, “if we love one another, God dwells in us, and God’s love is brought to perfection in us….here is no fear in love…for perfect love drives out fear.”
I offer up love as a third spiritual tool for overcoming the fear of death. I confess that I don’t fully understand love as a spiritual tool – there may be another sermon from me down the road — but I want to think about it briefly now. Love is a tool, in that it is an action we can choose to take: as John wrote, God loves us, and we can love others. But love is also a state of being: for example, “God is love,” and if we abide in God, we “abide in love”. And, according to John, if we are in a perfect state of love, we will be without fear.
To help us explore this idea of a ”state of being in which we have no fear,” I want to introduce you to Hank Dunn. Dunn is a health care chaplain who published a book on end-of-life decisions entitled “Hard Choices For Loving People.” In it, he writes about the differences between Giving Up, Letting Go, and Letting Be. For me, his concept of “Letting Be” seems to correspond with John’s concept of “abiding in love.” Here is an excerpt from a poem in Dunn’s book.
Giving up implies a struggle
Letting go implies a partnership
Letting be implies, in reality, there is nothing that separates.
Giving up says there is something to lose
Letting go says there is something to gain
Letting be says it doesn’t matter.
Giving up dreads the future
Letting go looks forward to the future
Letting be accepts the present as the only moment I ever have.2
I want to close by telling you about Ruth, a resident at the Hebrew Home who died two weeks ago at the age of 96. Ruth was an unusual woman – she never complained. She was also a woman of very few words. If I asked her, “how are you, Ruth?” she’d say, “fine.” If I told her it was time to go to dinner, she’d say “fine.” If I asked her how was your visit with her grandson, she’d say, “fine.” I imagine that two weeks ago, God said to Ruth, “It’s time for me to take you now.” And I’m certain that she said, “fine.” AMEN.
1May Sarton, “Jan. 30, 1978: Lighter With Age.” New York Times, New York edition, September 26, 2010, page F16, at https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/opinion/etc-sarton.html, accessed 2018_04_30.
2Dunn, Hank. Hard Choices for Loving People. Landsdowne, VA, 2009, p. 72. Reprinted with permission. To learn more, visit: www.hankdunn.com. In his response to Michele’s request for permission to include his poem, Mr Dunn mentioned that he briefly attended Seekers when first arriving in the DC area in 1978. He eventually joined 8th Day, where he was a member from 1979 to 1985.