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March 26th, 2015
The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well. Most of us are at ease in discussing what makes for a good life, but we typically become tongue-tied and nervous when the discussion turns to a good death.
To help me sort through the thoughts and feelings of my time in mourning, I’ve re-read of late Richard John Neuhaus’ “meditation on returning,” As I Lay Dying. Born of his own experience of nearly dying due to medical negligence (though he would later succumb to cancer several years later), Neuhaus opens his book with the above words, asserting such a paradoxical thing as a “good” death.
For Neuhaus a good death rests on how one chose to live. The courage to face one’s demise is built on the foundation of a life that seeks integrity, that owns it failures, and, yes, that takes refuge in the Grace that leads us home. And yet he says later in the book that one can’t ever adequately prepare oneself for death in the way one pulls a shotgun in tightly to one’s arm to manage the recoil; there is no foolproof way of mitigating what death brings. That’s why Neuhaus offers the consoling thought that good death also rests largely on what is beyond our control. He closes one chapter, saying, “to meditate on death is to meditate on a helplessness we know only in dying. . . .Nothing we can do can help now. That is the point.”
I’ve had the thought in these couple weeks since my father died that, in the spirit of something John Piper has said in a variety of contexts, one ought not “waste” the death of a loved one. That is, while the world will never be the same again, the depth of feeling and reflection a season like this engenders will not continue unabated. Now is the time to discover–or recover–new appreciation for the time remaining and the hope awaiting. Before the mundane things tempt us to take for granted again all that is. Before we’re seduced into letting far pettier concerns become primary.
So as much for you as for me, it’s worth listening to the voices and lives of those who’ve sent communiques on how to live and how to die.
Father Thomas Hopko, an Orthodox priest and widely renowned theologian and author, died just this last week at the age of 75. In a podcast he gave during Lent several years ago, Fr Hopko outlined no fewer than 55 short maxims that he considered to be fruitful patterns for a good life. You can read his whole meditation on the abundant life here, or listen to it below (and be prepared to hear many things that have a decidedly and expectedly Orthodox flavor), but here are just a few of those maxims:
- Read the Scriptures regularly—not reading them to fight with others, not reading them to show off quoting, but reading them as fuel, as food. Because if we don’t read the Scriptures regularly, we die. It would be like trying to live without eating or to drive a car without putting fuel into it.
- Read good books, a little at a time. Don’t gobble them up. Don’t read through it to say “I’ve read it.” Slowly read books. Sometimes, read the same book two or three times over again—trying to put into practice what it says.
- Cultivate communion with the Saints. Learn who the holy people were in Christian history. Learn who they were who taught, who suffered, who died, who lived a Christian life. And emulate them. As St. John of the Ladder said: “Anyone who does not emulate the Saints is a fool, but also a fool would be someone who tried to imitate another person in the details of his or her life.” You can’t do that, but we must learn from the holy people.
Meanwhile, it’s likely you’ve at least heard the name Kara Tippetts in recent months. Married to a PCA church planter in Colorado Springs, mother of four, author–and cancer-sufferer. Until last Sunday when she died.
Catapulted to a kind of fame she’d never have wanted, Tippetts documented her journey on a blog called “Mundane Faithfulness.” She even wrote an open letter to Brittany Maynard, the young woman who elected to end her life late last year in the face of incurable brain cancer. An article in our denomination’s journal, ByFaith, offered one of many inside looks into Kara’s suffering and what she was learning from, and teaching by, it.
Before she died, she penned a letter to all who’d come to share in her suffering from afar. That letter was published on the day of her death.
You might think all this talk of death unhealthy. Surely fixation on our mortality can’t be good for us. Fixation isn’t. But our flourishing depends on a frequent consideration of it. Jonathan Edwards said as much (see resolution 9)–to say nothing of Psalm 90. But so, too, a more modern day, though not self-styled, theologian. As we quoted him last week, Christian Wiman, warns:
Any life that does not take account of death, that does not, in one way or another, hear the annihilating silence inside every sound, the nullifying stillness within every action, is a life that can neither harness nor redress that dark energy–which is to say, a life of which death already has possession.
Don’t waste the deaths all around you; your life’s vitality depends on it.
We made two requests of you last week on behalf of the children–born and unborn–of CtK. Consider this a friendly reminder for you to consider serving as part of our Nursery leadership committee, or providing meals to our families with newborns. Karla Pollock is your contact for the nursery. Liesl Raikes, the meals-on-wheels effort. (An effort now underway for little Ruthie Chambilla!–see below)
Community Quick Hits
- Don’t forget our invitation for you to videotape yourself reciting Romans 8 from memory. Send us your finished work and your blooper reel. Let us know if you need equipment to record yourself, too.
- Join us Good Friday, April 3rd, at 6:30pm for “a liturgy of last words” (stay tuned; you may be recruited to participate)
- Our next Introduction to CtK Conversation will be May 16th.
When you pray, remember to pray for
- Jose and Lisa Chambilla as they welcomed Ruthie into the world on Wednesday!
- our soon-to-be parents of newborns: the Elams,
Chambillas, Martinezes, and Garmons
- our friends in far-flung places seeking to make Christ known: the Rayls, the Gasslers, Kyria Johnson
- our near-term efforts to serve the poor in our community, as we challenged several weeks back
- and the family of Kara Tippetts