Lessons in dying

A Good Friday meditation on Jesus’ words in Luke 23:39-43, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!”  But the other rebuked him saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

It is never too late for us, and it is never too late for God.  The collect we just read together points to the truth that Jesus is still loving, still teaching, still promising to be present to the sinner hanging on the cross beside him—even at the hour of death.  It is never too late for us, and it is never too late for God.

You might be surprised to find that some of the most precious moments of a priest’s life are spent at the bedside of those nearing death and dying.  This truth is not borne out of a morbid fascination, but out of the realness and vulnerability present at death, creating an intimacy that is difficult to articulate beyond the moment itself.

Four years ago, I experienced a particularly poignant week of death during Lent.  Three people who were dear to me died in the span of seven days.  First, Henry—a 10-month old baby who we had been praying for since before his birth.  Henry was a twin, born with only half a functioning heart.  His parents and the doctors knew before he was born that his first moments of life would be risky moments of surgery and hope.  The first pictures we saw of Henry were of a tiny, beautiful boy, breathing tubes in his nose and a vertical scar across his chest.  Those preliminary surgeries were just a temporary fix until his could receive a heart transplant.  At four months, Henry received the gift of life through the heart of a toddler girl who had died in a car accident.  It was a painful rejoicing.  An answer to prayers difficult to pray.  Eventually he came home to his family and his twin sister, finally strong enough to live without the assistance of machinery.  And then one day, his body rejected his heart.  He had given life all that he could, given us all that he could.  Ten months may not seem like much, but I can tell you as the mother of a ten-month old right now that ten months is a lifetime.  Henry, in his dying, taught us how to always live on the precipice of life—on the very edge of hope.  He taught us how to inspire love without words.  He taught us the ministry of presence, for that is all he had, and it was more than enough.

Henry’s funeral was on a Saturday morning.  From his funeral I drove to the home of my friend Aimee, dying of colon cancer.  Aimee was lying in a hospital bed in her living room, unconscious and surrounded by family.  She would die the next day—a Sunday.  Two years earlier, Aimee’s husband and I had sat down with their two daughters to tell them their mom had cancer.  You see, Aimee was one of my closest friends, but she was also my colleague on staff at church, which meant that I was a youth minister to both her girls.  It was hard for all of us on staff to grieve the loss of our friend while also ministering to the parish we cared for.  That first night after Aimee died, her husband handed each of their daughters a box of sealed letters.  Each envelope was labeled with a certain occasion Aimee knew she might miss: Graduation, Your first heartbreak, Your first time having sex, When your dad falls in love again, Your wedding, Your first child.  One of her daughters ripped every envelope open, pouring over the words of her mother all at once.  Her other daughter opened only one envelope labeled: When I die.  Aimee, in her dying, taught us about selflessness.  She died her death in the same way she lived her life—mindful of what others might need and how she could best serve them.  Her death was like an exclamation point on an already loud life full of loud love.

From Aimee’s funeral, I went to the bedside of my friend Milton.  Milton was the father of my best friend, and he was dying of brain cancer.  Milton’s nick-name was “Magic.”  He was well beloved in the community for his contribution to the arts, but he was well beloved to me for his thoughtful and challenging conversations about faith.  Milton was an atheist.  Not an angry atheist, but a clever and caring one.  And really, I don’t think ‘atheist’ is an appropriate term to describe him—he talked way too much about faith not to espouse it himself.  He was a lifelong learner, always open to teaching and being taught, a truth that shined through in our conversations.  Not many people got to sit with Milton in his dying, but I did.  And when I asked him if I could pray with and for him, he nodded his head, yes.  He knew it was my language of love, and he let it wash over him as a loving recipient.  Milton, in his dying, taught us how to depart in dignity.  He helped us to find beauty in his death, even commissioning pottery pieces to be glazed and fired with his ashes—vibrant red candlesticks and vessels.  And he taught me the grace of letting love come in whatever form it will.

Before Jesus was resurrected, he was dead.  And before Jesus was dead, he was dying.  Jesus, in his dying, tells the penitent sinner, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  And the implications of his response are this: You are forgiven, you are loved, death cannot separate you from me or my love, I am with you now and will be with you to the end and beyond.

Nothing is too much for Jesus—not the brokenness of the sinner hanging beside him, not the brokenness of his own body nailed to a cross, not the brokenness of the world that put him there.

It is never too late for us, and it is never too late for God.

We do not get to sit at the bedside of a dying Jesus, we do not get to hold his hand and wait for the kind of wisdom only death can impart.  Instead we wait at the foot of the cross.  It is a gruesome and uncomfortable place to wait.  It is, for me, the most uncomfortable time of Holy Week.

And yet Jesus, in this most excruciating moment, speaks of paradise.  Jesus, in the midst of torture and wrongful death, meets us with love and invitation.  Jesus, ever the teacher, spends his last words on us, that his dying may teach us how to live.

My brothers and sisters: It is never too late for us, because it is never too late for God.


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