Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lord, Let Me Know My End

During more than three decades of ordained ministry, I have spent much time with the terminally ill. There is a lot that is uplifting about such a ministry—at least if one is dealing with someone who has a living faith. There was a priest once who wrote in his memoirs about something that cheered him up “almost as much as reading the Episcopal burial service!” We do believe in eternal joy and glory and triumph and endless love, and we let the congregation know that very thoroughly with every funeral we do.

In 1981 I wrote a letter to a terminally ill person so he would have something to read repeatedly during his last days. He was one of the early members of Blessed Sacrament. His name was Jack Suiter. In the letter, I wrote, “Recognize that you have been given a magnificent gift which many desire but few receive: you know about how and when you will die. The prayer that we occasionally use in church–that we might be delivered ‘from dying suddenly and unprepared’, has been granted you.” He really liked the letter. Said it gave him a lift. He was full of jokes right to the end.

When I wrote that letter—which has since been published and distributed in many places—I was only 33 years old. Other than being as old as Jesus was when he was crucified, I didn’t think very often about my own death at that age.

Now that I am middle-aged—admittedly, a term I use loosely since it can apply to me today only if I live to be 116—I sometimes wonder about my own death. As I read through the Psalter regularly, I occasionally stop and muse on Psalm 39:5— “Lord, let me know my end and the number of my days, so that I may know how short my life is.”

Except for my own sinfulness, I am not terminally ill, so I can only guess what’s ahead. Father Hope Patten, the restorer of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, England, died in 1958 of a heart attack while presiding at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament for a church full of bishops on pilgrimage. When I read that, I thought it was extremely cool. If one is going to die, what better way than to do so during the most thoroughly Anglo-Catholic service before a most prestigious congregation. The only way one could top that would be to be martyred under similar circumstances. Trouble is, I cannot envision any way that our Placentia church will ever have a churchful of bishops when I am presiding at Benediction, during which I am liable to be shot. Still, in today’s Episcopal Church, as we know, just about anything is possible and I have not entirely abandoned hope of such a glorious consummation.

Sometimes I have a weird premonition that I might die by fire. Now this is a frightening thought. I would really forgo this experience if possible. But sometimes it seems that I have a fire within. Sometimes the love I feel for God and people surges and roils like a blaze inside of me that I know I cannot contain for long. I could see myself going up in spontaneous combustion, and I suppose that would be okay. I just hope it wouldn’t happen while I was at an airport about to go through the metal detectors. There would always be someone who was convinced that I had been carrying a flammable substance that got out of control, and my reputation would be ruined.

Or perhaps it would be fitting to go out in a whimsical way. It would be a laugh to be a priest who was hit by lightning. Or a science fiction writer who was walloped by a meteorite. People wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face during the funeral. And that would be alright. But I’d be relieved that I wasn’t the priest who’d have to preach that sermon.

Best of all, of course, would be if Jesus returns first. Then I wouldn’t have to die at all. And I could ask him personally if I could take my favorite books with me. I suspect it’d be a lot easier to ask him if I weren’t dead at the time.

“To him everyone is alive” (Luke 20:38).


Daniel Peckham said...

So after several episodes of bursting into laughter while I read this, Daniel gave in and had me read to him what was cracking me up.

The good thing is, now you've set yourself up to at least prompt a serious (probably never entirely conclusive) debate about the real cause of your death if you really DO die from combustion of contraband flammables in an airport security checkpoint... very wise...
-Katie P

Jon Cooper said...

What a glorious way to approach our departure from this life to the next! How encouraging. I'm glad that my time of death is not really up to me; Christ is in charge of that decision, and that gives me great joy. I just pray that my death will bring Him glory and honor. I'd much rather live a short life filled with the Lord than a long one devoid of His presence.

Anonymous said...

I once heard a preacher tell a story about a funeral for a pastor he attended. The funeral preacher said something like, "Pastor X was the kind of man who lived ready to die at any minute. You have to be living every minute like you could go at any minute..." and the funeral preacher at that minute had a heart attack and died.

I hope it's a true story.