What I learned from my dad when he was almost at the finish line
My dad passed away in July of 2010. This piece was written in early 2011. It’s still true.
The day before he died, my father wore what his doctors called the “Star Wars mask”—a high-tech oxygen system that covered most of his face. Pneumonia made his breathing extremely laboured, but that didn’t keep him from chatting.
“Pardon?” my mom would ask patiently, trying to decipher his muffled sounds. Exasperated, he’d yank off the mask, bringing himself to the brink of respiratory arrest to ask about hockey trades or complain about the hospital food.
After several hours, he gave up on conversation. He started singing.
“What are you humming?” my mom asked. My dad repeatedly tried to answer through the mask before yanking it off again. “With Christ in the Vessel, I Can Smile at the Storm,” he gasped. “Wow,” murmured my mom, before singing it with him.
My dad learned “With Christ in the Vessel” at Camp Imadene in 1949, the summer he asked Jesus into his 8-year-old heart. Six decades later, hours before his death, that silly old camp song was still embedded in his soul and mind, and he was singing it at the top of his nearly-worn-out lungs.
I have never liked thinking about my own death. But I’ve considered it enough to know I hope I go down singing, or at least speaking or thinking, something about Jesus.
I suppose that is why I found myself sobbing on an airplane while reading Margaret Guenther’s The Practice of Prayer. In one section, Guenther discusses the Eastern Christian discipline of continuously repeating the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” She reports her own efforts to incorporate the practice into her daily life, even sizing up the logs she chops for firewood by the number of Jesus Prayers she’ll likely get through before they are cut.
I love the idea of having such truth-giving words ingrained into my routine. But here’s Guenther’s line that really got to me: “I hope that by imprinting [the Jesus Prayer] on my subconscious, it will be with me for the rest of my life, especially at the end, when other words will perhaps be lost to me.”
Guenther, a former professor at General Theological Seminary in New York, is an accomplished and educated woman. Yet she is humble and practical enough to do what she can to prepare for her own death—and for the possibility that even before her death, her mind might fade into dementia. In a culture consumed with denying mortality, here is a woman who plans for it, in a way that affects the minutiae of her life now.
Many early Christian communities encouraged believers to engage in the spiritual discipline of considering their own deaths—not in order to create morbid fear, but to put this life in the proper perspective. Memento mori, medieval monks would say to each other in the hallways. “Remember your mortality,” or, more literally, “Remember you will die.”
Death unaddressed is the bogeyman in the basement; it keeps us looking over our shoulders and holds us back from entering joyously into the days we are given. But death dragged out from the shadows and held up to the light of the gospel not only loses its sting, it becomes an essential reminder to wisely use the life we have.
When we remember the mortality of those around us, they become more valuable to us. Madeleine L’Engle once noted that when people die, it is the sins of omission, rather than the sins of commission, that haunt us. “If only I had called more,” we lament. Remembering a loved one’s death before it happens can spur us into the sort of action we won’t regret later.
And remembering our own mortality helps reorder our priorities; a race toward a finish line has a different sense of purpose and urgency than a jog around the block. When a believer acknowledges that he is headed toward death (tomorrow or in 50 years), he can stop expending the tremendous energy it takes to deny his mortality and start living into his eternal destiny, here and now. And he can be intentional about investing himself in the things he wants to be with him at the end, much the way Guenther seeks to make the Jesus Prayer a permanent part of her psyche.
I don’t want to romanticize death. My friend Bernie calls it “the Great Gash,” and I must confess that on the six-month anniversary of my father’s passing, the hole left by him is still gaping.
But though death hurts, it is not the end. Though we mourn, we do not mourn as those who have no hope. And so I offer my dread of death to the Author of Life, asking him to help me to number my days rightly. I don’t know how many I’ve got, but I want to use every one of them to get the truth about who Jesus is—and who I am in him—more deeply ingrained.
That’s why I’m teaching my kids “With Christ in the Vessel.” We sing it at the top of our lungs.
“Going Down Singing” original appeared in Christianity Today (April 2011) and is now available in Carolyn’s ebook: Theology in Aisle Seven.