The Art of Dying

In ages past, Christian leaders wrote treatises with titles like On Dying Well or The Art of Dying fairly often. Life was short and people died at home, surrounded by family, so everyone witnessed death. And since medicine had few cures, people knew they could die any time. Many wanted to die well.

     No one writes treatises on the art of dying today, but we probably should. About a fifth of all people still die suddenly, essentially without warning. We suffer heart attacks, aneurysms, accidents, and, tragically, overdoses and suicides. People in the thirties, forties, and fifties still contract deadly diseases that resist every line of therapy. Physicians know we all hang by a thread.

     This week Gerry, my great friend and an elder in my church, left this life and began life with his Lord. He had battled cancer for a year. He was 58. A year ago, he was a tallish and muscular 195 pounds.  

     Gerry earned the phrase "loving husband and father." He was a great friend and elder too. The parents at our church marveled at his tender instruction of two and three year old children, for twenty years. He used simple words and action-related rhyme to communicate the gospel to them. Because he detected the subtle clues people emit, he was an ideal usher, smiling at everyone, giving space to those who wanted it, and finding seats for those who needed aid, singing hymns softly as he went. Later in the day, he joined the men who led worship and Bible studies in the county jail. He joined prayer teams and led challenging committees when needed. He could also quote my sermons back to me, years after he heard them.

     As much as we worked together in the church, I knew Gerry best through tennis. In 1994, I was often the guest speaker at his church, before I became the pastor from 2003 to 2013. One week I used an illustration from the world of tennis. Gerry asked if I would like to play and we kept it up for the next 23 years. Gerry was a gifted athlete and a fierce competitor; no one wanted to be at the net when he unleashed his blistering forehand at their navel.

     Two years ago, he put together a team of capable players who had just turned 55, the age for senior events in tennis. The goal was a city championship and beyond. I was on that team and often his doubles partner. One blazing summer day, we played together in a match we had to win to attain that championship. Our opponents were fine, but we were supposed to win. Unfortunately, we lost the first set 6-3 and trailed in the second, 4-1, leaving us just two games from defeat. Gerry was playing better than ever, but I was dreadful. During a short break, I told him, "I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm light-headed and my stomach hurts, but there is no excuse for the way I'm playing."

     He looked at me carefully and said "Dan, I would rather lose with you than win with anyone else." Our season was swirling down the toilet, but he meant it: "I would rather lose with you…" Of course, he still wanted to win, so he added, "Also I have an energy bar if you want it." I gobbled the food, but the loyalty meant more. We stepped back onto the court and never lost another game, taking the second set 6-4 and dominating the tie-breaker 10-2. A couple weeks later, we won the championship. That was Gerry: intense competitor and tender friend.

     Fourteen months later, he had cancer, and the moral beauty of the next year continued his longstanding moral excellence. Gerry was always an encourager; now he needed encouragement and he readily asked for it. I saw him hours after he got his diagnosis – kidney cancer, stage four. Very few survived it and six months was a typical time frame. After thirty minutes, he asked, "Will you visit me every week?" It was a big request and he knew it. I paused momentarily as I considered my demanding schedule. But I knew the answer, "Yes, every week, as long as I am in town." And so it was. Later, he asked four others the same question.

     The "Art of Dying" works say the first step toward dying well is living well. This led me to notice that the request to visit every week expressed one aspect of Gerry's excellence. He gave his presence freely, to the children he taught, the prisoners he visited, and more.

     Moreover this gift of presence echoed God's presence with his people. Gerry gave eye contact, a hug, a hand on the shoulder. When greeting friends, he called out, "My brother!" In fact, when he played tennis poorly, he'd ask himself, "Do you want to be here or not?" The crime was to fail to be present. This held even in his illness. When I came to his home, he greeted me with a hearty Helloooo. We held hands, laughed, joked, prayed, read Scripture, and talked about faithfulness in illness. He spoke honestly of his hopes, pains, and fears. Even when he was tired, even when pain was tattooed on his face, he asked friends to stay, to give our presence to him as he gave his to us. So we lingered longer than the rules for visitors dictate. And he stayed at home, with his beloved wife and children, to the last day.

     God created every person in his image and likeness. We have intrinsic, abiding dignity, and a capacity for glory. Some show this more than others, but everyone reflects or captures God's character in some manner. They present an aspect God's glory. For funerals, I believe it's helpful to capture this if possible. Gerry reflected the way God is present to bless his people. Still he was present to bless in his greetings, his smile, his laughter, wit, and even joy, despite pain, in his last months. Of course, the manner of God's presence is distinct and greater. Jesus gives his presence, in flesh and blood, in the Incarnation, and even more in his death and resurrection, to win our salvation. Jesus' resurrection means death need not be the last word for Gerry or for anyone who trusts him.

     Gerry certainly didn't save anyone. Indeed, he was intensely aware of his failings and never claimed to be the ideal man. He was an alcoholic. His desire for alcohol never entirely departed and a several times he succumbed to it. He struggled and failed as every man does. He knew he needed a Savior.

     And that is the second step toward dying well – knowing that however well we live, we do not live well enough to merit God's favor. For as much as we reflect God's image in some ways, we distort it in others. In fact, we fall short even where we are strongest. Gerry was not always present to bless; in time of distress, he sometimes withdrew from everyone. This is true for everyone. All sin, all fail God and humanity. That is why Jesus offered his redeeming presence, to die and to rise, that we might die to sin and live with him. That is our solace, when death comes suddenly and claims a beloved brother or sister in the faith. Through repentance, faith, and union with Christ, we who are bound to die are also bound to live and to do so forever.

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.

Dan Doriani