Monday, January 28, 2013

Denying Death and Some Kind of Ecstasy

            Facing death, we often slip into denial.

            Sometimes such denial is tragic. I remember a friend who had terminal lung disease. Over time the disease left him constantly out of breath. He was confined to his home, then to his living room chair, and finally to bed. No doctor offered any hope for healing.

            Remarkably, my friend refused to face his impending death. When I tried to talk about it, he claimed that he wasn’t worried because he was waiting for a miracle. When I brought up some issues related to his will, he said, “later." When I said he needed to check into a hospice, he claimed my lack of faith was going to be the death of him. A few friends dropped by to pray for his healing and anoint him.

            And then, one day, he died.

            Now, I don’t want to give the impression that my friend was an idiot. Death is the last enemy, says the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:26). It is an especially difficult one to face in your forties. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross told us long ago that in such circumstances denial is a natural emotional response.

            Still, right to the end, my friend remained in denial about his impending death. And that was sad on a number of levels. His affairs were not in order. He didn’t say goodbye to all his friends and family. He wouldn’t go out in public because he didn’t want to be embarrassed by the paraphernalia of dying he had to drag along. For months, he isolated himself from the world.

            My friend was an extreme case. The truth, however, is that most of us also deny death, often in mundane and thoughtless ways. Euphemisms such as “passing” and “no longer with us,” are used to get around mentioning death. Many of us stubbornly refuse to make wills, take out life insurance, prepare Advance Health Care Directives, or name someone to have power of attorney. We don’t have conversations with loved ones about end-of-life health care or financial issues. We don’t take children to funerals for fear of upsetting them. And, denial of death sometimes means putting more emphasis on praying for a miracle than on praying for courage or comfort.

            I’ve also noticed that people have begun speaking of funerals as “celebrations of life.” Family members will sometimes say that, “You know, Joe wouldn’t want us to be sad. He wants us to be happy.”

            Of course, when an elderly person who has suffered finally dies, it is natural that we are relieved that the suffering is over. At the same time, even the death of elderly people robs us of their company, their wisdom, and often, their love. To celebrate a life-well-lived at a funeral is fine; but this celebration should not come at the cost of giving ample opportunity for those who mourn to weep.

            Of course, denial shields us from the inevitable. Denial means never having to think about the pain or circumstances that might accompany our own end. But denial does so in the manner of a narcotic that sends us on a trip to Never Never Land.

            Denial also robs us of our ability to finish well, to care properly for our loved ones, and to deal with our own hopes and fears. Denial robs us, in other words, of the ability to fully live the time we have left by leaving a good part of that time in shadows we are too afraid to explore.

            Finally, denial even robs us of solace, of what Canadian composer Bruce Cockburn, in his song, “Wondering Where the Lions Are” describes as, “thinking about eternity.” A time, hopes Cockburn, when perhaps even “some kind of ecstasy” will get ahold of us.

(Do you have an example of denying death? What do you think? Leave a response!)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fear, Yo-Yo Dieting, and Gratitude

            Weight is my enemy. I’m always on the verge of seeing my weight balloon uncontrollably. I can barely remember when it wasn’t so, when I didn’t have to stretch over to see my toes in the shower or feel self-conscious about the spare tire I lug around.

            I’ve tried a lot of different diets. They all work for a while. I lose weight. I celebrate my discipline. I buy new clothes.

            But then it slowly creeps back. I rue my dietary lapses. I buy new clothes yet again. I feel bad. Irene, my wife, worries about my yo-yo dieting. “It isn’t healthy,” she says. But without this dietary tapping of my metabolic brakes, once or twice a year, I’m afraid I’m in for run away freight-train weight gain.

            So I struggle. This month I’m starting a Herbalife diet. I make tasty milkshakes twice a day. They are loaded with supplements. I take vitamin pills. I try to remember to drink more water. And, of course, I try to eat less of everything else. I hardly dare visit the Tim Horton’s drive through anymore for fear that a momentary lapse of discipline might led to gobbling down a donut. In fact, yesterday, pathetically, while ordering my “medium black,” I broke down and also ordered a single Timbit. I felt guilty about it.

            The Herbalife diet is only the start. At church I’ve joined an exercise class for over-fifties. So far, I’ve discovered that I’m not limber. I can do the jumping jacks and lunges but am amazed at how hard the planks and stretches are.

            This is in addition to my three-times weekly (well, at least twice weekly) visits to my gym, where I put in 45 minutes of elliptical training. It all seems like wasted time. I could be reading or daydreaming, instead. That would be living.

            So why do I go through all this trouble? Fear. I want to be healthy. I want to see my grandchildren grow up. I don't want to die young. So, no matter how hard, no matter how inconvenient I try and I try again to keep this whole weight and health thing on track.

            But it also got me to thinking. Ultimately, this fear isn’t working for me. My weight remains a problem.  I always feel bad about it.

And this is exactly what authentic Christian life should not be like.

            The Christian life—including all of its good deeds such as loving neighbor or turning the other cheek—is not properly motivated by fear of hell, fear of being wrong, or fear of community rejection or judgment. Even when it is, you’ll just feel bad about it.

No, the healthy Christian life and every good work we do is properly rooted in gratitude.

            The bottom line is that in a cold and dark universe God has blessed each of us with the spark of life and a sun that rises and sets. Many of us are beloved by parents, children, and friends. We have skills to hone and days to spend. Life is a beautiful gift.

            The best response to such life is gratitude, gratitude that permeates every living moment and shapes our every act.

            And perhaps one day, I’ll even be able fit my dieting and exercise into that picture!