Before retiring as an evangelism consultant with the Baptist State Convention of NC, one of Don McCutcheon’s many duties was to lead an intensive three-day “Intentionally Evangelistic Churches” seminar for pastors and other church leaders. In the very first session of the seminar Don would make a provocative statement: most churches exert significantly more effort praying to keep Christians out of heaven than praying for ‘lost’ people to find it. Don would then elaborate, reminding attendees of the typical church prayer meeting or prayer list.
That point caused me to rethink the way I guided students to pray, but it also caused me to more closely examine the church’s attitude towards death & dying. Revisiting a number of scenarios over the years, my single-person assessment concluded that so many of us are stuck between being afraid of death and being arrogant towards death. I’ll try to explain.
We’re all going to die. That’s revolutionary insight, huh? We all know we’re going to die. Sometimes we even say it out loud. But, when sickness and death visit our families they can catch us by surprise. We become panicky and desperate. It angers us. It’s easy to nod our heads and say “amen” when the preacher tells us, “God doesn’t promise us tomorrow.” When we’re forced to live that out firsthand, we want it to apply to everyone else and not ourselves.
One of the biggest bluffs among Christians is to say “I’ll pray for you.” It’s unfortunate that prayer – for many – is reduced to a ritual during corporate congregational gatherings or before meals. I look back now at numerous occasions when prayer requests were being shared during a church gathering and someone would offer, “We need to have a SPECIAL prayer for ________.” What makes their request special? Usually because it involves somebody who is important to THEM who is very sick. I realize in hindsight that such a statement reveals at least two things about the person making it. In general, he or she doesn’t realize how special ALL prayer is (or should be). More specifically, the person probably isn’t offering much in the way of sincerely praying for anyone else’s concerns.
I can recall several situations over the years when a family would lose a member who was well into their 80’s. Some of them were closer to turning 90 than having turned 80 and had enjoyed remarkably healthy, productive, and fruitful lives. When sickness set in, so did the family’s desperation. They’d burn the phone lines up to get prayer chains started in every congregation possible. Every conversation would start with and be dominated by the theme, “Please pray for _____, it’s not looking good.” When the person’s earthly life was no more, I’d witness family members go into prolonged and sometimes overly dramatic bouts of being angry at God or questioning God. I have literally asked people on a couple of occasions, “How would you want circumstances to play out differently so that you wouldn’t be mad at God?”
When we personally encounter death in a way that people label “premature” or “tragic,” faith is really tested. When winters of grief are ushered in by these storms, it doesn’t mean God loves us less than the next family that seems to have everything always working out perfectly. It doesn’t mean that we’re being punished. It simply means God doesn’t make exceptions. For any of us.
We’ve all heard some version of this statement: “I don’t understand why God would take such a good person when there are so many mean lying cheating stealing jerks in the world.” I get the deep, dark emotions from whence that thinking originates. I really do get it. Nonetheless, there’s an element of arrogance attached to a statement like that whether it’s intended or not. We’re ignoring the fundamental theological truth that none of us is “good” (I refer you to Romans 3:10 and Romans 3:23). We’re also asserting that someone else deserves to die more than our loved one, another family deserves to grieve more than we do.
Let me be clear on a few things. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t pray for those who are sick or dying; we absolutely should. I’m not saying that we’re wrong to not understand God’s ways or His timing. I’m saying this: the less humble our attitude is towards death now, the more humbled we will be when it visits our house. Death reminds us of our mortality, it robs us of our connections, it can change our circumstances. Those are humbling – even troubling – realities. When we’ve already accepted that me and my family aren’t exceptions to the rule, we don’t have nearly as far to fall emotionally when it’s time to grieve.
This post hasn’t been a waterfall of encouragement, has it? Stick with me, the end is better (and the next couple of posts will have a much more positive tone). Someone recovers fully from a horrific accident. Cancer is about to claim another life before a 180-degree turn occurs. A patient elects to undergo a surgery that he may not survive, and two weeks later he’s stronger than he’s been in months. These things happen and we’re quick to exclaim, “God is so good!” And He is. But He’s also the same good God when the accident victim doesn’t recover, when the cancer doesn’t go into remission, when the patient doesn’t survive surgery. That same good God loves us, unconditionally and always. Believe that, and there’s always at least one daffodil trying to bloom for you.