Won’t you spare me over to another year?
I remember how terrifying the thought of my own death was when I was young. There were horrible nights lying in bed shaken to my core by fear.
But as we get older we begin to get used to the idea of death. If we live long enough, we may feel that we have accomplished some or even most of what we wanted to do in this life. We have seen other people pass out of this life, some of them tragically young, but others at the end of long battles with ruthless and progressive illnesses, people who have come to see death as a blessed release. As our time goes on, for some reason it becomes a little less terrifying to think of dying. You actually can see how you might be tired or ill enough someday to relax and let go of living.
The thought of having no tomorrows, no choices, and realizing that you’ll never pursue a dream again, though – that still feels like a drop off a precipice to me. What? Time’s up? So soon? That stinks.
I had the opportunity to feel and think about dying recently when I had a TIA. Now I feel ready to grab life with both hands and shake that mother down for all it’s worth. Suddenly it seems so important to live as fully as I can. To spend time with people. To sing, to laugh, to love. To get out there and be. I don’t want to be, as the joke goes, so heavenly minded that I’m no earthly good.
Which brings us to the afterlife. As a Christian, how do I view the afterlife?
In Baptist Sunday school I was taught that when I died I would go to heaven and be with Jesus, providing I was saved, and there would be angels singing and streets lined with gold and everybody I loved and who loved me would be there and I would be happy for eternity.
I like that heaven. I would love to believe it is so with all the earnest simple faith I had as a child.
People who have had near-death experiences have come back to talk about how it was so peaceful and wonderful. They talk about a bright light. They talk about being greeted by people who had gone on before them. This is similar to that Baptist heaven in some ways, except that many of these people are not what they or anyone else would call saved in the sense the Baptists meant it.
I love those stories. I dearly hope that’s exactly what I experience when I die.
Of course there are scientists who postulate that those blissful death experiences are a part of the body shutting down, just a normal function of our oxygen-deprived biology as we die.
Talk about harshing my mellow.
I’ve heard of people who remember nothing at all of death. My father-in-law was allergic to bee venom, and once as he was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge a bee came in the car window and stung him in the neck. He managed to make it all the way to the Presidio hospital, and gasp, “Bee sting!” before passing out and dying. They brought him back, but he was angry forever after at psychologists, mostly, who asked him what he saw while he was dead.
“Nothing! I saw nothing! Damn psychologists!”
So that was his story.
Then there was Rick’s Grandma Florence. She died in the hospital and felt all the bliss that so many people report, but a huge angel told her, “Florence, it’s not your time. You have to go back.” She didn’t want to go back, but the angel apparently wasn’t budging on this point, so she did, and lived on several more years.
People who do remember that blissful place say they no longer fear death now that they know what it is. I don’t have that sort of fearlessness but I sure love hearing about those experiences.
Mind you, my theology has changed. If our spiritual tradition teaches us that God created and loves humanity unconditionally, and mine does, then it follows that we are all going to heaven. All of us. I hope we get along better dead than we do alive.
It is natural to wish some people to hell – I’m sure we all have candidates in mind – but as I once said in a song I wrote, God is a much better sport than any of us. She simply is.
Can’t wait to hear the backchat on this essay. Blessings, peace, and grace to you all.
“O Death” is a traditional American folksong that has been recorded many times since the 1920s. Probably the most famous version is the one done by Ralph Stanley for the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?” If you want to get a little chill, look up the lyrics. They do not equivocate.