The birth of a baby is a holy event, a grand entrance into a new dimension.
But so is the moment when a person quietly exits this life. The heart’s baton comes to a final rest, the last breath is received, and a sacred silence follows for those who witness it.
Several times I’ve had a bedside seat as someone transitions from this life into the next. And on one occasion, I found myself wondering if my ministry played a role.
Eighty-five years old, John was admitted to Hospice Care on a Friday afternoon with a history of heart and respiratory issues. He was present for most of the admission process, and bravely answered a few questions, but a wheeziness in his breath made speaking difficult.
I received a call early on Monday morning on behalf of his granddaughters, who knew me and worked at the Assisted Living Facility where he resided. His condition had changed rapidly overnight, and they wanted me to come quickly and pray for John. Our Hospice Nurse Annie had already been there that morning and placed him on our “transition list”, which means that end of life may be imminent.
I arrived to find John unresponsive, with his granddaughters sitting by his bedside. Although I began a conversation with them – how the weekend had been, and the reaction of the greater family to his decline – I was concerned that his breathing was rapid and shallow. I paused the discussion and timed his respiratory rate, which was approximately 40 breaths a minute. (A normal pace is 15 - 20). I stepped outside his room to call Annie, who stated that she was already on her way, and would give him some medication to help his breathing relax.
During admission I had learned that John had sung in the choir for decades at a local Lutheran Church. Knowing that he sang baritone, as I do, I had decided to sing a couple of classic hymns that I was confident he would know. But just before I began, Annie arrived and administered a small dose (0.5 ml) of liquid morphine under his tongue.
After singing two verses of It Is Well With My Soul, I started Abide With Me, which is a prayer uttered by a faithful disciple as death approaches.
As I began to sing the last verse, John’s respiration rate dropped dramatically to a normal pace. Surprised but pleased with the sudden shift, I finished the song and began to recite Psalm 23 before praying for him.
Halfway through the Psalm, having just spoken those comforting words – even though I walk through the valley of the death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me – John’s breathing stopped. As I finished reciting the passage, John took two or three more breaths, and then stopped completely.
Four sets of eyes – Annie's, his granddaughters', and mine – jumped around the room, looking at John yet silently sharing together our amazement at what had just taken place: the Shepherd had gathered up one of his sheep and took him to the house of the Lord forever.
Following Annie’s medical confirmation of his death, I placed my hand on his forehead, released his spirit into God’s hands, and pronounced the benediction for the ages:
May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you his peace, both now and forevermore.
Questions abounded, but none were spoken. Was it the meds that helped him relax? Or was it the palpable presence of God among us? He loved to sing; did he simply join the angelic choir? (Or maybe … did God have mercy on him and release him because my singing was causing him further agony?)
Let’s talk about dying. Well, not actually dying … but what happens after you die? Or more specifically, what are you hoping for?
If the topic makes you uncomfortable, it might be time for you to face your mortality head-on.
I have a playlist of two songs to choose from as someone's death is imminent, both written as though the nearly-dearly-departed might sing them.
Most of the time I sing I'll Fly Away, a popular bluegrass favorite*. You may remember it from the movie O Brother Where Art Thou. It has some wonderful lyrics, with the title plucked straight from Psalm 90:10. It’s all about the destination – flying away to heaven, to a land where joys will never end. I’ve had a couple people take their last breath within an hour of my singing this song. Here’s verse one and the refrain:
Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away; to a home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away. I’ll fly away, O glory, I’ll fly away. When I die, hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away.
Abide With Me** is not well-known, so I generally only sing it for people who have a rich history of singing hymns. It was written by Henry Lyte in 1847 as he was dying from tuberculosis. Here are the verses I sang for John.
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide When other helpers fail and comforts flee Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies Heaven's morning breaks,
and earth's vain shadows flee In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me
Did you notice the difference? The author had one wish – that God would be present with him both in life and in death. That’s a wonderful definition of heaven, one that I have long chosen to keep as my focus: a place where we are fully present with God.
In The Great Divorce, his delightful story about the life we have after death, CS Lewis contends that if you’re not interested in being present with God in this life, you’ll find heaven to be annoying and boring, and will likely take the return trip back to the desolate suburbs from which you came.
Back to the original question: what are you hoping for when you die – a place or a person?
I’ll Fly Away is popular because we want the destination (heaven) to be our destiny. As a result, our theology places a premium on saying the right words and punching one’s ticket to a land where joys will never end. But if God is merely the means by which we get what we want, then we’ve made heaven our idol.
But a better reading of God’s word tells us that we have been invited to sit with the multitudes at the Lord’s feast, at his table. Read again words from the Prophet Isaiah, and place your focus and your trust anew in a Person, the One who promises to abide with you, both in life and in death.
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.
In that day they will say,
“Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”
Benediction of Blessing
May you have the common sense and the divine wisdom to face your mortality.
May you make it your daily prayer to abide with God and that he would abide with you.
May you trust in the one who has invited you to sit in his presence and at his table – both in this life and in the life to come.
* I’ll Fly Away – Written by Albert Brumley in 1929.
** Abide with Me – Words by William Monk, 1861.
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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM