The View from the Hospice Couch
             My mother-in-law passed from this life early in July. The last week of her life was spent in a hospice in Iowa. My wife and I spent each night in the hospice room with my mother-in-law–my wife slept in a recliner, and I slept on the sofa (which was too short for me; I had to either assume a fetal position or hang my legs over the sofa’s arm; perhaps a metaphor for life and death: no matter how long we live, life always seems too short). We sat day after day in the hospice, keeping vigil, waiting. Oddly, even the ways we found to pass the time involved death: we watched the Casey Anthony trial (a case involving a death), and I read a book on the gunfight at the OK Corral (involving three deaths, admittedly 130 years ago).
             But the Anthony trial and the book on the OK Corral were just the tip of the iceberg...for in the days immediately before and immediately after my mother-in-law’s passing, I was struck again and again at how hard it is to get away from thoughts of death. In human life, death always seems to be the elephant in the room–and that ponderous pachyderm sticks his trunk into just about everything. I tried to find some relief in a comedy–“Annie Hall”, the classic Woody Allen film–and it turned out to be about death! (“Every book you ever gave me had ‘death’ in the title,” Annie Hall tells the Woody Allen character at one point). Actually, at the beginning of the film, Allen tells the classic joke about two women at a Catskill resort complaining about the food: one woman says, “The food is this restaurant is terrible.” And the other woman says, “Yes, it is terrible–and they give you such small portions!” That’s what life is like, Allen says: It’s full of misery and woe...and it’s over much too quickly!
             And then I picked up atheist journalist Christopher Hitchens’ autobiography...and found that it was all about death, too! In the first chapter, he tells why he wrote the book: a photo caption had misidentified him as “the late Christopher Hitchens”, and it made him realize that he needed to get around to writing his memoirs before life came to an end. (Strangely enough, immediately after the book was published, he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He still seems to be clinging to his atheism, however. Say a prayer for him–even though he doesn’t want you to!)
             Then I found on I-Tunes a song that I’ve been seeking for a long time–something I heard on the radio in Louisiana during one of our work trips. “Roughneck’s Paradise”, it’s called–a rollicking hillbilly two-step about what heaven would be like for an oil-rig worker (a “roughneck” in Texas/Louisianaspeak). I downloaded the song and played it. The singer was going on about diamond-studded drill bits and cold Dixie beer and good Cajun music...when suddenly a chill came over me, as I remembered the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf last year...which sent eleven precious souls to “roughneck’s paradise”. Even this lighthearted little song was shadowed by death.
             So death is all over the place–it’s inescapable, it seems. In a strange way, we’re all sleeping on that hospice sofa. That elephant is always in the room.
             And that would make life oppressive and unbearable–like the restaurant with bad food and small portions–if it wasn’t for one thing: Death has been defeated.That’s the wondrous assurance that we have as Christians. Our Eastern Orthodox friends sing in their Easter service: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the grave.” The power of death has been shattered by the crucified and risen Jesus.
              St. Paul, in describing how believers will rise into eternal glory, cries out: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (I Corinthians 15:55). The image Paul is using here is that of a scorpion–a creature with a potentially deadly sting. But when the scorpion’s stinger is cut off–it can’t hurt you! And that’s what Christ has done–by dying for our sin and rising to new life, he has chopped off the tail of that scorpion called death.
              Actually, death goes from being a deadly enemy to being something like...a friend. Scripture calls death “the last enemy” (I Corinthians 15:26)--but also declares “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). If I may be permitted a Christmas reference in these hot summer days, death is like the Abominable Snowman in “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. The Abominable Snowman throughout that story threatens Rudolph and his friends. But then–the old prospector pulls all the Snowman’s teeth out. And the Snowman is no longer a menacing terror–on the contrary, he helps decorate the North Pole Christmas tree by putting the star on top. And Jesus has the same transforming effect on death–it goes from being the terrifying shadow that stalks and hunts us down, to being gentle “Sister Death” (in St. Francis of Assisi’s words).
              Indeed, the dominant image for death in the Scriptures is “sleep”. “Lazarus has fallen asleep,” Jesus tells the disciples in announcing his friend’s passing. (John 11:11). The martyr St. Stephen, as the stones fell upon him, “fell asleep” (Acts 7:60). That’s the Bible’s favorite way of talking about death. And there’s nothing menacing or terrifying about sleep. Indeed, the Bible says, “God gives His beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2). Sleep is a gift of God. Sleep refreshes, and renews. And that’s exactly how the Bible would have us think of death–it brings us the refreshment and the renewal of eternal life!
             I mourn my mother-in-law’s passing–she was one of the most pleasant and positive people I have ever known. But sleeping six nights on a hospice couch was not a totally negative experience. It reinforced my conviction that death is just like falling into sleep–a sleep that leads us into eternal joy!
             God loves you and so do I!

Vol. 82 - No. 8
August 2011