When religious leaders face their own mortality, they too have to come to grips with the reality of the situation. For some, the challenge makes them rethink their theology of death and dying. One pastor describes his recently diagnosed ALS in the piece here. His reaction is very human, very tangible. For him, there is a desire to try to run away from the fear and terror associated with facing mortality. Yet, he is clear that he fears the dying but not being dead, something I have heard from countless hospice patients. People are often more worried and scared of losing one’s self and dignity yet not afraid of the ultimate end of it all.
Pastor emeritus, Calvary Church, Grand Rapids, MI
I was diagnosed with ALS in November, shortly before Thanksgiving. About a week later I was sitting on the porch of my house watching the first snowfall of the season. As I sat there I was beginning to sink into that darkness. I was thinking that this would be my last winter. I was thinking that this would be my last Christmas. I was hoping to make it to spring! As I sat there depressed, I noticed a bird on the bush outside the window. As I sat there watching, it flew away, and I thought, “I wish I could be that bird.” And I thought that the birds have no cares, no issues and no ALS. Then immediately I was drawn to the words of the writer of the Hebrew Scriptures:
“My heart is in anguish within me:
the terrors of death assail me.
Fear and trembling have beset me
Horror has overwhelmed me.
I said, “oh, that I had the wings of dove!
I would fly away and be at rest —
I would flee far away
And stay in the desert.”
— Psalms 55:4-7
This is exactly how I feel. I love the language — anguish, terrors, fear, trembling and horror. I’m not afraid of being dead. It’s getting dead that bothers me. For me, “getting dead” involves choices about wheelchairs, communication assistance, feeding tubes and breathing assistance. It’s not pleasant when I think of the future. Of course, I try to ignore it but the underlying reality is always there. I think it bothered the writer of this prayer as well. In the face of death and dying, I would like to be a bird. I would like to get away from this situation. I would like to feel like I am free. This passage expresses my deepest feelings.
I am a follower of Jesus. And I am fully aware of what Jesus says about worry. (Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself,” Matt. 5:34). Do you know how many people have come up to me and quoted this verse? Their attitude is that since Jesus said this, I should obey it. However, they have little to worry about. I am facing death and a life hereafter and I have a whole lot to worry about. This quotation comes from an extended passage in which Jesus deals with the subject of worry. In the middle of this section on worry, Jesus refers to the birds. “Look at the birds of the air, they do not sow or reap or store in barns yet your heavenly father feeds them.” So every time I see a bird, I am reminded that God takes care of them and if he takes care of them, he will take care of me. As I sit here writing, I am looking out the window and I see a bird. God takes care of that bird and ultimately the same God will take care of me. Of course, I’m not sure how God takes care of a bird. Neither am I sure of how God will take care of me. But since he takes care of the birds, I know he’ll take care of me.
So every time I see a bird I have two options. First, I can want to be like the bird and fly away to be at rest. It’s the longing to be set free from ALS. It’s the longing to be set free from the terrors of death. Second, I can realize that God takes care of the birds and ultimately he will take care of me. Sometimes I go for option one. I long to live and be free. Other times I go for option two. I know God takes care of the birds and I know he will take care of me. My life is lived between these two options. On the one hand is the fear of death. And on the other hand the reality that God will see me through.
Everybody has something to worry about. It may not be ALS. So whatever you worry about, whenever you see a bird, remember that God will take care of you.