The Light Is Still Waiting

 In Books, Culture, Evangelism, Faith, Fred's Blog, Theology, Transitions, Uncategorized

Listen to “The Light is Still Waiting” by Fred Smith

 

When my father became ill near the end of his life, he fought death as hard as anyone I knew – just as he had willed himself to overcome every other obstacle in his life. He often told us about his mother who would set chairs across the kitchen to hold her upright when she could no longer stand. She had drilled into him, “When nothing but your will says go.”

As his physical condition deteriorated, my father’s will to beat death only grew stronger. His enormous spirit to persevere that had served him well for so long was not open to – or capable of – allowing him to die.

Like many of you, I don’t have much experience reflecting on death. When the topic does come up with friends, I notice that many even consider it morbid or unhealthy to think about death and dying.

When did we begin to distance death from our everyday lives?  When did we cross from preparing for death as a part of life to avoiding the subject whenever possible?

While there are countless reasons for the change in thinking, there is no doubt that medical and pharmaceutical advances, private and government insurance programs, sophisticated technology,  the dispersion of families away from home, higher disposable incomes, and increased media have worked together to influence the ways we have shifted dramatically in our attitudes toward death and dying as a normal part of life.

In days past, death was a natural part of the community and church worship. It was present and concrete – even in the Easter service. In an essay in “First Things,” author Carl Trueman writes, “The congregants left each week having faced the deepest reality of their own destinies. Perhaps, it is ironic, but the church that confronts people with the reality of the shortness of life lived under the shadow of death prepares them for resurrection better than the church that goes straight to resurrection triumphalism without the awkward mortality bit.”

But now our churches are reluctant to address it. Trueman writes that we want either to ignore the topic altogether or mask it with triviality and sentimentality. Instead of preparing people for death, there is a demand that pastors smooth it over with songs and sermons that focus on life.

Equally ironic is the data showing that terminally ill patients who have not talked frankly about their death – with their physicians, pastors and families – are more likely to choose the most aggressive (and sometimes desperate) treatments in the final weeks of care.

Physicians are trained to use every treatment, test and technology to prolong life. Patients expect their pastors to pray for miraculous healing. And families feel undue guilt about not doing everything possible.

Our obsession with the “abundant life” here has made it more difficult to let go of life when it becomes little more than physical survival. We have convinced ourselves there is nothing natural about having a full life and leaving.

Wendell Berry writes, “And yet love must confront death, and accept it, and learn from it. Only in confronting death can earthly love learn its true extent, its immortality. Any definition of health that is not silly must include death. The world of love includes death, suffers it, and triumphs over it.”

Two weeks before my father died, while sitting beside his bed as he slept, was the first time I began to consider how I wanted to die if I had a choice. I settled on something that resembles more of what Berry has written so beautifully in “Three Elegaic Poems“:

I.

Let him escape hospital and doctor,

the manners and odors of strange places,

the dispassionate skills of experts.

Let him go free of tubes and needles,

public corridors, the surgical white

of life dwindled to poor pain.

Foreseeing the possibility of life without

possibility of joy, let him give it up.

Let him die in one of the old rooms

of his living, no stranger near him.

Let him go in peace out of the bodies

of his life –

flesh and marriage and household.

From the wide vision of his own windows

let him go out of sight; and the final

time and light of his life’s place be

last seen before his eyes’ slow

opening in the earth.

Let him go like one familiar with the way

into the wooded and tracked and

furrowed hill, his body.

II.

I stand at the cistern in front of the old barn

in the darkness, in the dead of winter,

the night strangely warm, the wind blowing,

rattling an unlatched door.

I draw the cold water up out of the ground,

and drink.

At the house the light is still waiting.

An old man I’ve loved all my life is dying

in his bed there. He is going

slowly down from himself.

In final obedience to his life, he follows

his body out of our knowing.

Only his hands, quiet on the sheet, keep

a painful resemblance to what they no longer are.

III.

He goes free of the earth.

The sun of his last day sets

clear in the sweetness of his liberty.

The earth recovers from his dying,

the hallow of his life remaining

in all his death leaves.

Radiances know him. Grown lighter

than breath, he is set free

in our remembering. Grown brighter

than vision, he goes dark

into the life of the hill

that holds his peace.

He’s hidden among all that is,

and cannot be lost.

 

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Showing 12 comments
  • Avatar
    Steve Beck
    Reply

    Thank you for your personal reflections, Fred. I always look forward to receiving your weekly thought and I share your love of (obsession with?) Wendell Berry and his writings!

    I’m thankful for several recently-published books that confront the reality of death with realism and compassion, including “Dying Well” (written from an informed Biblical perspective by Dr. John Wyatt) along with the more popular “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande and “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Steve. Another fine book on the topic is Rob Moll’s “Art of Dying”. He writes that American evangelical Christians are afraid of death than thoroughly secular people. They have been taught to either avoid it or to cling to a miraculous healing. As well, Brian and Jan Babiak at Harvard Medical have done great work on this topic.

      Someone told Josh Kwan they were relieved I was retired so they would not have to hear Wendell Berry quoted at the conference any longer. I have their names. I have their address.

  • Avatar
    John Kelly
    Reply

    Thank you, Fred. Beautiful words to ponder. Especially Berry’s heart-aching poems. I’m with him.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, John. I love that poem as well.

      • Avatar
        Ann
        Reply

        The poems touch the deep ache in my heart from walking unto death with my husband.

  • Avatar
    Tony morgan
    Reply

    Fred, a great blog post this week! One of my best friends, now passed, was a veterinarian. As he helped me euthanize my old hunting Labrador he told me “ we don’t seem to be able to give our human loved ones a dignified death, but thank God we can still give our animals one”

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Tony. I have been surprised by how many people have responded to this one positively. I thought it would be something of a downer when I published it.

  • Avatar
    Tim Winn
    Reply

    Well done, as always, Fred. As I have faced serious health issues over the past few months, I would be less than honest if I said I didn’t think about dying. My conclusion is that death is simply the vehicle I will ride from here to there. I’ve got my ticket for the train, and I am going to do my best while I’m waiting for the train!.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Tim. I did not know about your health issues! Can you say more in an email? I don’t have health issues but in teaching about resurrection I think about what it will be like. Blessings, friend.

  • Avatar
    Ann Schubert
    Reply

    Dear Fred,
    The facts you cite are exactly what happened to my late sister, Karen. An infection in spring doomed her to 5 helpless months in bed,with open heart surgery that ultimately shut down all her organs! My kids and my partner have copies of my will and DNR! Like you and Berry, I hope to live until I die, God willing!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you for this, Ann. I believe in the resurrection!

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