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How to Die
September 5, 1976

St. Paul's United Methodist Church


Several weeks ago, a good friend of ours died. His name was Bill and he was only 46 years old. He left a wife and three sons. Bill had open heart surgery, a bypass surgery, a year ago. It didn't work right. He had ups and downs during the year and finally, two weeks ago, he went into Stanford Hospital where the great Dr. Shumway himself operated on him. But it didn't work and Bill died. He donated his body to Stanford hospital so they held a traditional Memorial Service in the church. Four days later, we were invited to go back to Palo Alto to a party, as his wife called it. Over 50 people gathered—friends of theirs. Everyone was from the church except relatives and the next door neighbors. All the rest of the 50 people were from their church—their fellowship, their people. We gathered at a beautiful home up in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was a beautiful evening. We ate a potluck dinner out on the patio. We looked out over the bay. It was beautiful weather. The Bay Area usually has cool evenings, but this particular night was Manteca weather— beautiful, cool, sunny. We had a festive time. Then we went inside and sat down on the living room floor on the carpet. On the coffee table were bread and the juice of Holy Communion. Two of his sons played guitar and we sang and sang. We sang festive songs, boisterous songs—“This land is your land,” “He's got the whole world in his hands,” “ Celebration” —that type of song, rejoicing songs. 

Then the minister invited us to share spontaneously about our feelings about Bill, what his life had meant to us, and our feelings about death in general. It took over an hour of people sharing, talking, celebrating his life. Then we had Communion. His oldest son who is entering seminary at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia to be a Methodist minister, and his wife served us Communion. He broke the bread, held the common cup to our lips and embraced us all. I had never been through an experience like that. I suppose it was like the old fashioned wakes the Irish used to have, although they were a little more boisterous maybe. I had never been through an experience like that. It was beautiful. 

It got me thinking about what does it mean to die? How do we die? What is a good way to die? I'd like to lift up before you today the concept, the challenge for each of us to put death within a context of celebration, within a context of celebration of life. Put life in there too for life is a celebration. I think this is what Paul was saying in his letter to the Philippians, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” He summed it all up in the Book of Romans, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” We are the Lord’s and being his people is a celebration. Have you noticed that those who live life to the fullest, who live life with zest, who live life in a celebrative style often die well. They meet and accept the fact of death. It is axiomatic to say that he or she who is not afraid to die is not afraid to live, for life is celebrating the good gift that God gives us. 

To put death in the context of celebration means, first of all, to accept the event, accept the certainty, admit to ourselves that death is a part of the picture. For you will die. Admit death. Accept death and put it in your picture of life. As you look at your life, as you draw that painting, put death in there for you will die. Is death in your picture? Are you prepared for it? Are you preparing for your death? Our fathers and mothers used to ask, “Are you prepared to meet your maker?” Do you have things in order in case you die yet today? Are you ready? Are you ready so that life is made as easy as possible for those you have left? Are there any grudges? Are there any resentments? Are there any harsh words that you've spoken? As Jesus says, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Are there some things unresolved between you and those you love, between you and the important people in your life? Do you need to ask someone to forgive you? Have you forgiven someone else? Do you have things ready so you could go? To accept the reality of your death means to live in such a way that you could go. It means to live in celebration because when we accept the fact of our death, then today becomes so much more meaningful and so much more important. Thank God, I'm alive. Tomorrow I may not be here. That's okay, but thank God I'm alive today. When you accept the reality that your life may end, then you can enjoy and live today more fully. Thank God I can breathe today. I can breathe air. I can stand, I can walk, I can talk with my friends and my loved ones, I can love, I can share, I can give, I can enjoy, I can laugh, I can cry. I have all the gamut of emotions. Thank God I'm alive! Isn't life beautiful? It's a gift. Enjoy it and live it gratitude, in celebration. 

To accept the reality of the fact that we will die also means to accept the fact that your loved ones will die. Those people close and near and dear to you will someday die. Are you preparing for that? Do you discuss death openly with those people important to you in your relationships? Do you talk about it? People who refuse to talk about death are denying it. People who refuse to talk about death even when they they encounter a major illness say, “I don't want to talk about it because it may bring it to pass sooner.” It's just denying it out of fright. Talk about it. For the facing and meeting of death together may be a very beautiful experience. Discuss it, make the burial plan. Have it all ready. What's going to happen? Where are you going to be buried, how's it going to be done? Who is going to do it? Make the will, get everything ready and discuss it openly because you will die. It is far better to meet death openly than deny it. 

Accepting death openly also means to be ready and open to the stages of grief through which we go. Grief has a certain pattern that works its way out. It usually involves shock at the beginning when nature gives us an anesthesia. Our body goes into shock so for the first few days, we’re kind of numb and everything seems unreal. Then as the reality begins to come into consciousness, the tears come. The sense of loss is deep. We weep and it is good to weep. Men, it is good to cry. It is good to let it all that out. Because if we do not release our feelings, if we don't let that stuff come out, it comes out in ulcers and heart trouble and all kinds of evil, insidious ways. Let the emotions we feel be expressed. Weep, cry. 

Then after a while comes anger. Why did he or she leave me? Why did God take them? I have to do all this by myself. It's not fair. And then comes guilt because you've had such feelings. Oh, I shouldn't have, I shouldn't feel that way, I shouldn't get angry. What if I'd only said something. What if I'd only done something? Why didn't I remember to do this? Why didn't I remember to do that? Why didn't I live my life better—all kinds of guilt. 

And then finally, the accepting of the situation. Give yourself to these experiences. Give yourself to these stages, and go through them openly. Live them, celebrate them, offer them to God, even the pain. Feeling pain means that we're alive. Be thankful even for the pain and offer it to God. 

How to die. First of all, accept it, admit it. Secondly, celebrate the past. Celebrate that past life. A young girl about 20, a couple of weeks ago, was going through a scrapbook and came across letters her brother had written to her and the family. He was killed in war nine years ago. She ran across some of the letters that he had written. She read the letters. She relived all those old memories. She relived some of those experience and she cried. She wept and wept. She relived again those experiences with her brother who had died nine years ago and at the end of the day, she said, “You know, this has been the best day I've had in a long time.” She remembered his life. It involved laughter, it involved tears but she celebrated his life. 

People say, “I don't know what to say to someone who has lost a loved one. I don't know what to talk about with them.” Talk about the loved one. That's the most beautiful, healthy thing to do. Talk about the loved one. Talk about, remember some of the experiences. Remember the joys, remember the anguish. Remember out of honor, out of respect, out of love. You're celebrating a life. You're holding it up to God and you're saying “Life is good”. What God gave you in the life of the deceased person is good, it's beautiful. Remember it. Honor it. Celebrate it. 

Accept the reality, celebrate the past, and thirdly, celebrate the future. A couple of weeks ago, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, that fighting atheist, was on the Ed Bush talk show on KNBR. She was coming across in her usual aggressive, boisterous, sarcastic style. She has very interesting tactics. If she can come on strong enough and inflammatory enough and then cut to the ribbons and be sarcastic, she hopes the opponent will be so overwhelmed by it all that he'll forget what he was going to say next. She was talking about how she didn't believe in any kind of hereafter. She didn't believe in any kind of a heaven or hell or anything like that. She believed that when she was dead, she was dead and that was the end of it all. She said, “I don't know anything about death. I've never been through it. I don't know anything about death.” And she said to the caller, “You don't either.” Well, I disagree with her. I know many people who have experienced the death of a person very close to them, and they have discovered that they now have a relationship with the deceased. They can feel the presence. They can feel love, strength and support. They know that this person is still loving them, still praying for them and they feel a bond. 

A couple weeks ago Fordie Cline passed away. His six-year-old girl neighbor (her mother disclaimed ever using any of this language) said about Fordie, “His outsides died but his insides didn’t." I think she knows more than Madalyn Murray O’Hair! Fordie was a grand, old fashioned gentleman. The children of his neighborhood loved him like a grandpa. A real test of a person's character is when the kids flock around you. The kids know genuineness from faking and superficial reality. She knew, she had already experienced that his insides weren't dead. 

As Christians, we believe there's a future. As Christians, we believe that life has a purpose. God put you on this earth for a purpose. There is a reason for you being here. There's a reason and this reason is larger than this existence on this earth. The reason for you being began before you were born and it extends afterwards. In the Bible, they call this pre-ordination or predestination. The reason for you began before you came on this earth and the reason for you continues into eternity. God’s great plan is larger than your existence on this earth. We believe, we rejoice, we celebrate. Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you that where I am, you may be also.” To go into eternity, to go through death into eternity is to go to be with God, and to be with him more fully than we know him here. 

What do you know of God in this life? What do you know about him? Is he cruel? Is he harsh? Is he frightening? Does he scare you? Does he intimidate you? Or have you discovered what Jesus showed us? Have you discovered what Christians have said for centuries? God is love, God is peace, God is strength, God is joy. To go into eternity is to go into God more fully in a way that we don't know him here. Perhaps the most profound thing we can say about the future is the most simple. Perhaps the most profound yet simple thing we can say about the future is that to die is to be with Jesus, to be safe in his arms. As we hold babies in our arms in baptism, so God holds us. God reaches out to us in this life and God reaches out to us in depth and he holds us in his arms. We are safe. We are released from pain, sorrow and anguish. We are freed from all that which shackles, holds and inhibits. And we are loved. I think the best description of death is this poem by Weldon Johnson based on his memories of the old, black preachers. 

Go Down Death

Weep not, weep not,
She is not dead;
She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.
Heart-broken husband—weep no more;
Grief-stricken son—weep no more;
Left-lonesome daughter —weep no more;
She only just gone home.

Day before yesterday morning,
God was looking down from his great, high heaven,
Looking down on all his children,
And his eye fell on Sister Caroline,
Tossing on her bed of pain.
And God's big heart was touched with pity,
With the everlasting pity.

And God sat back on his throne,
And he commanded that tall, bright angel standing at his right hand:
Call me Death!
And that tall, bright angel cried in a voice
That broke like a clap of thunder:
Call Death!—Call Death!
And the echo sounded down the streets of heaven
Till it reached away back to that shadowy place,
Where Death waits with his pale, white horses.

And Death heard the summons,
And he leaped on his fastest horse,
Pale as a sheet in the moonlight.
Up the golden street Death galloped,
And the hooves of his horses struck fire from the gold,
But they didn't make no sound.
Up Death rode to the Great White Throne,
And waited for God's command.

And God said: Go down, Death, go down,
Go down to Savannah, Georgia,
Down in Yamacraw,
And find Sister Caroline.
She's borne the burden and heat of the day,
She's labored long in my vineyard,
And she's tired—
She's weary—
Go down, Death, and bring her to me.

And Death didn't say a word,
But he loosed the reins on his pale, white horse,
And he clamped the spurs to his bloodless sides,
And out and down he rode,
Through heaven's pearly gates,
Past suns and moons and stars;
on Death rode,
Leaving the lightning's flash behind;
Straight on down he came.

While we were watching round her bed,
She turned her eyes and looked away,
She saw what we couldn't see;
She saw Old Death. She saw Old Death
Coming like a falling star.
But Death didn't frighten Sister Caroline;
He looked to her like a welcome friend.
And she whispered to us: I'm going home,
And she smiled and closed her eyes.

And Death took her up like a baby,
And she lay in his icy arms,
But she didn't feel no chill.
And death began to ride again—
Up beyond the evening star, 

Out beyond the morning star
Into the glittering light of glory,
On to the Great White Throne.
And there he laid Sister Caroline
On the loving breast of Jesus.

And Jesus took his own hand and wiped away her tears,
And he smoothed the furrows from her face,
And the angels sang a little song,
And Jesus rocked her in his arms,

And kept a-saying: Take your rest,
Take your rest.

Weep not—weep not,
She is not dead;
She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.

© 1976 Douglas I. Norris