Die before you die
“John Donne once said that there is a democracy about death,” Billy Graham told the mourners at Richard Nixon’s funeral, five days after the latter’s death in 1994. Then, quoting the poet, he continued: “It comes equally to us all and makes us all equal when it comes.”
Almost twenty years later and after more than 70 years in the ministry, the Reverend Graham is himself close to death. Last week a staffer with the BGEA told me the evangelist is coming out of semi-retirement, preparing for one final crusade to be held at or near his 95th birthday this fall. Although he has crisscrossed the world and loves and respects all peoples, he wants his last effort to be held here in the USA.
He’s lived well, and is confident he’s going home. So too, Dr. Graham would be the first to tell you, was Christ.
Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
What was finished? Well, to paraphrase the immortal words of William Jefferson Clinton, that depends on what the meaning of the word “it” is. His mission in life? According to the Apostle John, Christ’s purpose in being manifest to us was to destroy the work of the devil, which obviously hasn’t happened yet. Was Christ saying His ministry was finished? Not at all. He acts as our Advocate in heaven, constantly interceding for us. Christ’s earthly life? Yes, that was finished. After years of ministry, after months of staying one step ahead of the authorities, after hours of torture, death was upon him.
A friend with terminal cancer told me last week that his dying process is actually a gift. There are those who die without even knowing it – a bullet to the brain, perhaps; a neck snapped in a sudden accident. Some might find an instantaneous, pain-free passing preferable, but my friend disagrees. He struggles physically and mentally as the disease takes ever-growing hold on him, but at least he’s had the chance to put his affairs in order. And he has time to reflect. He thinks about his life’s work, his accomplishments, his family, and other meaningful things, and is grateful for the opportunity to do so.
Two of my closest friends died of cancer in their forties. Like me, they were married with elementary school aged children. They were well cared for, receiving not only excellent medical treatment but spiritual help as well. Both were on staff at area churches and were well-known and well-regarded in their communities; hands were laid upon them, they were anointed with oil, prayers on their behalf went up from hundreds upon hundreds of Christians. Yet they died anyway.
Everyone will. Death awaits us all. Please don’t think it morbid to keep this in mind – it is actually healthy. Doing so is an antidote to the youth-obsessed and materialistic culture in which we live. Botox and tummy tucks, hair dye and hair plugs, tanning beds and little blue pills, supplements galore and so much more entice the aging with a veritable fountain of youth. But this is a false promise. An old but still popular advertising slogan for a brand of beer says, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Yes, it does. Even a famous contemporary American preacher tells us you can have “your best life now.” No, you can’t.
You can, however, understand and accept its very brevity is what makes earthly life precious. “Teach us to number my days,” Moses prayed, “that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” In other words, knowing life is short helps keep it in proper perspective. You and I have a limited time on this planet. Will we waste it, or make the most of it? Will we obsess on the trivial and the meaningless, or will we, recognizing that life in this world and everything in it is temporary, choose to invest in eternity instead?