The Ways We Die

Even Smartphones Will Die

The headline from The Financial Times hooked my attention:  “The smartphone is eventually going to die, and then things are going to get really crazy.”  It was a technological reminder of the truth we heard on Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”  None of us will get out of here alive.

The question is not if or when but how we will die. Not “how” in terms of a medical diagnosis, but “how” in terms of the spirit, attitude or faith with which we face our death.

How Jesus’ Died  

Each gospel writer tells the crucifixion story differently, like different artists capturing what happened on 9/11 in their own unique way. Listening to Jesus’ last words and reflecting on the ways I’ve seen people die led me to music that felt like a commentary on the biblical text. I hope you’ll take time to listen to the music in this message as a part of your journey through Holy Week.  (You’ll be surprised to discover that none of them are Wesley hymns!)

“My God, why have you forsaken me?” 

The last words Jesus speaks in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 33:34 are known as “the cry of dereliction,” defined as “the state of being abandoned or deserted.”  There’s no getting around it.  Jesus spoke the way we feel but are often afraid to express when he shouted at a silent sky, “My God, why?”  

Because Jesus asked that question, we can ask it, too. It’s the gut-wrenching question we ask when death comes at a time and in a way that we never expected.  It’s the cry of the parent whose child is killed by a drunk driver on the highway, hit by stray bullets in an urban ghetto, or buried beneath the rubble of bomb blast in Mosul.  With Jesus, we scream the question toward a leaden sky and listen in silence for an answer that doesn’t immediately come. 

Looking back from this side of the resurrection and Pentecost, Paul Jones offered the Trinitarian answer in The Shack when he had Papa say, “We were there together…Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I never left him.” (p. 96, italics his.)  It’s the mystery of the incarnation that led Paul to declare that at the cross, God was “in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”  (2 Corinthians 5:19)

Feeling my way into the darkness of of Jesus’ cry took me to the dark feeling of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  The final verse says:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.

One of the ways we face death is with the pain-soaked cry, “My God, why?”

“It is finished!” 

Of the translations I read, only J.B. Phillips adds the exclamation point to Jesus’ words in John 19:30.  It captures the mood of the newer translations that say, “It is completed.”  In John’s gospel, Jesus’ takes his last breath saying that the mission for which God sent him has not been defeated; it has been accomplished, completed, fulfilled!  It is not a cry of resignation or defeat, but a breathless shout of victory, even in the darkest, loneliest, most miserable moment of the world’s rejection and horrendous death.

Some people die with a deep sense of fulfillment and gratitude, satisfied that they have done what they were called to do.  In their own imperfect way, they have been faithful in their life of discipleship.  It’s what Paul meant when he said, “I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

That sense of fulfillment reminded me of Vachel Lindsay’s poetic description of “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven”.  The wildly extravagant musical version by Charles Ives captures the exhuberant celebration as the founder of the Salvation Army leads his company of “vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath, unwashed legions with the ways of Death” into heaven where they “marched on spotless, clad in raiment new…And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world.”

One of the ways we die is with gratitude knowing that our work has been completed.

“Into your hands I commend my spirit.”  

And then there is Luke, my favorite of the gospel writers.  Only Luke records Jesus telling the criminal on the cross, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”  (Luke 23:43) Immediately after offering that unexpected word of undeserved hope, Luke records that “darkness covered the whole earth…while the sun stopped shining.”  In that impenetrable darkness, Luke hears Jesus “crying out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’”  (Luke 23:44-46)

All I can say to that is, “Wow!  What a way to go!”

Like Jesus, some folks die with absolute peace that comes from unrelenting assurance in the love of God and the hope of resurrection.  People don’t generally pick up that peace at the last moment.  It is the result of a life of spiritual discipline that is rooted in scripture, shaped in prayer, celebrated in worship, and practiced through self-giving service.

Palm Sunday will mark the 72nd anniversary of the day when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in a German prison because of his courageous faithfulness in calling the church to oppose Hitler.  As he was led from his cell, he said to another prisoner, “This is the end.  For me, the beginning of life.”

Shortly after my mother’s death, I listened to “Gabriel’s Oboe”, Ennio Morricone’s extravagantly beautiful theme music for the movie, “The Mission.”  I was overwhelmed with the feeling that the music captured the way she left this life, walked through the darkness of death, and entered into the new life of the resurrection. I want to live so that I will die that way, too.

The headline said that after the death of the smartphone, “things are going to get really crazy.”  But for people who have lived a life of faith, after death, things are going to get really amazing!

Grace and peace,

Jim

P.S.  If Cohen, Ives and Morricone are too much for you, my friend and former musical colleague, Penny Walsh, recently posted this beautiful arrangement of “Abide with Me” which says the same thing in a more traditional way.

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8 thoughts on “The Ways We Die

  1. Thank you, Jim. As always you speak to my spirit, expressing deep convictions that I also share with you. You are a gift to me and to the church. Thank you. Paul Leeland

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Dear Jim,
    May I also suggest this by name i have called you john angotti on You Tube.
    It has been sung at the funerals of two friends lately and I hope that it will be at my own funeral – although I hope that isn’t real soon.
    Think of your mom so often. So great a cloud of witnesses that we have been blessed with over the years.
    Love to you and Martha.
    Cousin Nancy

  3. So beautiful, Jim! Thank you for your encouraging, inspiring messages. Really miss you!

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  4. Jim,

    Thank you so much for this wonderful piece leading us faithfully toward another Good Friday. Your insights here are so helpful. In particular I appreciated your explanation of “It is finished!” (the exclamation point makes all the difference)! This is a particularly helpful insight to me, as I will be singing these words in the Dubois “Seven Last Words” on Good Friday.

    I checked out all of your links, and they were all very inspiring!

    This may be your best blog yet (hard to choose). I hope you write many more!

    Blessings to you and Martha.

    Love in Christ.

    Tom >

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