I remember one member of this church saying to me something like:
I’m not afraid of death,
what I fear is dying.
This is what I want to talk about this morning.
We know the difference Christ makes to death,
he conquerors it,
he removes its sting
he breaks it power.
'There is a hope so sure, a promise so secure,' *
that means the last word is not death, but life.
But what difference does Christ make to dying.
How do we die well?
I want to tell something of the story of John Ames
as we find it the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. **
The novel is one long letter that Ames writes to his young son.
Ames is a widow who marries again unexpectedly late in life
and then finds that he has not only become a husband, but also a father.
The novel begins with Ames discovering his heart is failing,
that is, he is dying.
So he decides to write a letter to his son.
This letter is his attempt to say the things he believes as a father he should teach his son.
As he says, ‘I’m trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had bought you up myself …’
This long letter tells his son all about his family, his grandparents and great grandparents,
giving him a sense of history and of place and of example,
but it also speaks other words,
words of the wonder and beauty of ‘this life, this world.’
Ames sees a young couple playing in the rain and he says:
… it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash … This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
He says of his son and of life:
‘I love you for your existence. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.’
‘You have been God’s grace to me, a miracle.’
Of his wife, he says, I think, a most beautiful word:
‘Your mother has always struck me as someone with whom the Lord might have chosen to spend some part of His mortal time.’
He also finds time for humour.
Ames is a pastor and he attends the bedside of one of his congregation.
He writes this:
Lacey Thrush died last night. Isn’t that a name? … She died promptly and decorously, out of consideration for me, I suspect, since she has been concerned about my health. She was conscious half an hour, unconscious half an hour and gone. We said the Lord’s prayer and the Twenty-Third Psalm, then she wanted to hear ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ … She’s given me a lot to live up to, so to speak … At any rate, she didn’t keep me awake past my bedtime, and peacefulness of her sleep contributed mightily to the peacefulness of mine. These old saints bless us every chance they get.
And another time, he decides he wants to do some dancing:
I decided a little waltzing would be very good, and it was …
And then he adds:
I have thought I might have a book ready at hand to clutch if I began to experience unusual pain, so that it would have an especial recommendation from being found in my hands. That seemed theatrical, on consideration, and it might have the perverse effect of burdening the book with unpleasant associations.
But there is also an honesty about being one close to death. For example:
I have not been writing to you for a day or two. I have passed some fairly difficult nights. Discomfort, a little trouble breathing. I have decided the two options open to me are (1) to torment myself or (2) trust the Lord.
‘I don’t fault myself for feeling this way. The Lord wept in the Garden on the night He was betrayed.’
Also in this long letter, he records that:
‘I have written a letter to her [his wife], with instructions.’
In other words, he’s made sure she will be looked after financially.
Weaving through all of this are reflections on God and heaven, the Bible, prayer and the sacraments – baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
It might be because he is a pastor, but I think it is also that he his dying.
In his dying, he turns even more to God and the gifts of God as a source of faith and hope, comfort and courage.
If Ames sounds a little too pious,
there is the return of Jack Boughton.
Jack Boughton is the adult son of Ames’ best friend.
Boughton is a prodigal son returned.
He left Gilead in disgrace,
and Ames is concerned at his return,
for what it might mean for his friend’s health to have his son return,
but also in the way that Boughton gives attention to Ames’ wife and son,
Ames is both concerned that Boughton will be a bad influence, as well as jealous of this younger man spending time with his younger wife.
For much of the novel Ames is closer to the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son than anything like the forgiving father.
Ames tells the story of his own father and grandfather falling out.
He writes of his father:
‘The last words he said to his father were very angry words and there could never be any reconciliation.'
This is one of the questions that runs through the novel,
will there be forgiveness and reconciliation for Jack Boughton?
This is not easy. Ames writes:
‘I spent several hours in meditation and prayer over Jack Boughton … My only role is to be gracious.’
But he goes on to say:
‘Jack Boughton is a piece of work.’
And therefore, again with a hint of humour, he says:
‘Much more prayer is called for, clearly, but first I will take a nap.’
And then later, he says:
‘I don’t forgive him. I wouldn’t know where to begin.’
Towards the end of the novel,
they meet and the meeting does not go well,
Then Ames sends Jack a note, and a second meeting takes place,
and there is truth-telling, confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and blessing.
In sharing the story of John Ames of Gilead,
a dying man writing to his young son,
I think we see something of what dying well might look like
and the difference Christ makes.
I say this fully acknowledging that some forms of dying are anything but serene,
they are horrible and painful,
like Jesus’ own dying.
means telling stories, our own and others.
One of the chief roles of the dying is to make sure the stories of the past get
passed on, remembered, so that they might continue to be retold.
It means telling stories of how lives have sought to follow Jesus,
in all their faithfulness and fragility,
in all their grace and transgressions.
The gift of the dying
is to testify to their own living
in the midst of God’s call and blessing, guiding and discipling.
and in this teach the rest of us how to die and to die well.
The gift of the dying
is to recognise the things that matter,
family, friends, church,
prayer, bread and wine, God’s word,
the beauty of creation,
and to let go of the things that don’t.
Dying well is about leaving instructions for those we leave behind.
We call this writing a will.
What will happen to our earthly possessions, our savings?
What have we put in place to look after family and church?
Writing a will is to do theology,
because it is way of showing that God matters
and in death we want to be a blessing to that which matters to God.
Dying well is about honesty, forgiveness and reconciliation.
This is why it might well be a gift that we don’t die quickly, painlessly and in our sleep,
because it can mean there is no place to say the things that might need to be said.
And that we might die quickly,
perhaps calls us not to leave things unattended,
with words unspoken.
Dying well is about telling people we love them.
In another story, a tragic story of Adam, he dies before his daughter is born,
but he finds time in his final months
to buy her a present for each birthday of the first 18 years of her life,
that she might know of his love for her. ***
It might mean like Ames, we become letter-writers.
Dying well is about finding time to laugh as well as cry.
Dying well is about joy in the midst of sorrow and pain.
Ames gives his son the gift of being able to smile when he remembers his father.
Dying well requires patience, courage, hope, faith, love, humility, generosity.
These are the same virtues for living well.
Christianity is a life-long lesson in learning to live,
and it is a life-long lesson in learning to die.
In that sense it starts now, not just in our final days, weeks or months.
The difference Christ makes to the dying is to say ****
the past is forgiven,
the future is assured,
and the present is a gift,
admittedly sometimes a difficult and painful gift,
but a gift to family, friends, the church and beyond,
of God’s love and friendship,
of the truth that we do not die alone,
and that in Christ life is stronger than death.
May we all learn to die well.
* Graham Kendrick, 'There is a Hope So Sure' © 2002 MakeWay Music
** Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)
*** Richard Lischer, Stations of the Heart: The Parting of a Son (2013)
**** I owe these last lines to Sam Wells, ‘How To Die’ in Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear With Faith (Brazos, 2011)