I’ve been a fan of Carolyn Arends since 1995, when I saw her open for Rich Mullins at the Ryman Auditorium here in Nashville. That means that for seventeen years of my life I’ve been affected by the songs and writings of this most excellent Canadian. I count it a great blessing to call her a friend. Her newest book, Theology in Aisle Seven, is a collection of pieces she wrote for Christianity Today, and is available here. –The Proprietor
The day before he died, my father wore what his doctors called the “Star Wars mask”—a high-tech oxygen system that covered most of his face. Pneumonia made his breathing extremely labored, but that didn’t keep him from chatting.
“Pardon?” my mom would ask patiently, trying to decipher his muffled sounds. Exasperated, he’d yank off the mask, bringing himself to the brink of respiratory arrest to ask about hockey trades or complain about the hospital food.
After several hours, he gave up on conversation. He started singing.
“What are you humming?” my mom asked. My dad repeatedly tried to answer through the mask before yanking it off again. “‘With Christ in the Vessel, I Can Smile at the Storm’,” he gasped. “Wow,” murmured my mom, before singing it with him.
My dad learned “With Christ in the Vessel” at Camp Imadene in 1949, the summer he asked Jesus into his 8-year-old heart. Six decades later, hours before his death, that silly old camp song was still embedded in his soul and mind, and he was singing it at the top of his nearly-worn-out lungs.
I have never liked thinking about my own death. But I’ve considered it enough to know I hope I go down singing, or at least speaking or thinking, something about Jesus. I suppose that is why I found myself sobbing on an airplane while reading Margaret Guenther’s The Practice of Prayer. In one section, Guenther discusses the Eastern Christian discipline of continuously repeating the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” She reports her own efforts to incorporate the practice into her daily life, even sizing up the logs she chops for firewood by the number of Jesus Prayers she’ll likely get through before they are cut.
I love the idea of having such truth-giving words ingrained into my routine. But here’s Guenther’s line that really got to me: “I hope that by imprinting [the Jesus Prayer] on my subconscious, it will be with me for the rest of my life, especially at the end, when other words will perhaps be lost to me.”
Guenther, a former professor at General Theological Seminary in New York, is an accomplished and educated woman. Yet she is humble and practical enough to do what she can to prepare for her own death—and for the possibility that even before her death, her mind might fade into dementia. In a culture consumed with denying mortality, here is a woman who plans for it, in a way that affects the minutiae of her life now.
Many early Christian communities encouraged believers to engage in the spiritual discipline of considering their own deaths—not in order to create morbid fear, but to put this life in the proper perspective. Memento mori, medieval monks would say to each other in the hallways. “Remember your mortality,” or, more literally, “Remember you will die.”
Death unaddressed is the bogeyman in the basement; it keeps us looking over our shoulders and holds us back from entering joyously into the days we are given. But death dragged out from the shadows and held up to the light of the gospel not only loses its sting, it becomes an essential reminder to wisely use the life we have.
When we remember the mortality of those around us, they become more valuable to us. Madeleine L’Engle once noted that when people die, it is the sins of omission, rather than the sins of commission, that haunt us. “If only I had called more,” we lament. Remembering a loved one’s death before it happens can spur us into the sort of action we won’t regret later.
And remembering our own mortality helps reorder our priorities; a race toward a finish line has a different sense of purpose and urgency than a jog around the block. When a believer acknowledges that he is headed toward death (tomorrow or in 50 years), he can stop expending the tremendous energy it takes to deny his mortality and start living into his eternal destiny, here and now. And he can be intentional about investing himself in the things he wants to be with him at the end, much the way Guenther seeks to make the Jesus Prayer a permanent part of her psyche.
I don’t want to romanticize death. My friend Bernie calls it “the Great Gash,” and I must confess that on the six-month anniversary of my father’s passing, the hole left by him is still gaping.
But though death hurts, it is not the end. Though we mourn, we do not mourn as those who have no hope. And so I offer my dread of death to the Author of Life, asking him to help me to number my days rightly. I don’t know how many I’ve got, but I want to use every one of them to get the truth about who Jesus is—and who I am in him—more deeply ingrained.
That’s why I’m teaching my kids “With Christ in the Vessel.” We sing it at the top of our lungs.
From the April 2011 Issue of Christianity Today, now included in the the new ebook THEOLOGY IN AISLE SEVEN.
Lord help me invest in the things I want with me at the end. And let me go out singing. Or at least with someone singing over me.
Thank you for this, Carolyn (and AP).
This is beautiful. Last year, I read the following from Buechner,
“… Because a distaste for dying is twin to a taste of living, and again I don’t think you can tamper with one without somehow doing mischief to the other.”
I wanted to write about it, but was fearful that my heart would be misheard. I rarely speak of it for the same reason. This piece conveyed a hard, beautiful truth with gentleness and compassion. Thank you.
It’s so good to have the voice of Carolyn Arends here in The Rabbit Room (more!). This post brought to mind a familiar CA chorus:
Seize the day, seize whatever you can,
‘Cause life slips away just like hourglass sand
Seize the day, pray for grace from God’s hand
Then nothing will stand in your way
Seize the day
We’ll only seize this day if we learn to “number our days” (Ps. 90:11). Finding the divine grace to face our mortality is how we are enabled to “present to [God] a heart of wisdom.” That, and reading a thoughtful post like this one.
My mom suffered for many years from periodic incidents during which she was not fully cognizant (cause, we later discovered, by medication side effects). These spells were deeply humbling for a highly intelligent, normally eloquent teacher and writer. Yet I still remember her frequently saying that she wanted to so fill her mind and heart with God’s goodness and truth when she was lucid, that nothing else could come out during the times of less control. And this she did, right up to her death from cancer.
I also remember how, in the days after her terminal diagnosis, people came to comfort her and instead went away comforted themselves. As she dragged death “out of the shadows and held it up to the light of the gospel”, the sting was reduced not just for her but for those around her. Her living and her dying became a platform of God’s grace.
This is beautiful. Thank you.
Beautiful! Thank you Carolyn, for your willingness to share a personal story about your father to edify us. As I have been grieving the death of a dream lately, the Lord has been reminding me of songs from childhood. During a lunch break from the office earlier this week, I sat on the stone wall of Jonsrud Viewpoint looking at Mt. Hood and the Holy Spirit drew a song from my heart to my lips that I had learned in childhood:
“O Lord you’re beautiful
Your face is all I see
and when your eyes are on this child
your grace abounds to me…”
p.s. I love that Clay quotes Seize the Day. That song is one of the first I learned to accompany myself on guitar and sing when i was in jr. high. (I recently rediscovered the old printout of the chord chart, printed in pink ink.) Another reason it is such a blessing to read this post by Carolyn!
So nice to read this again. I don’t always read everything in CT, but I definitely read Carolyn Arends’ column every month.
Thanks for the beautiful reminder that death is not the end, and we can sing even in the face of death.
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