Befriending Death to Embrace Life

In John 12, Jesus interprets Mary’s extravagant gesture of pouring perfume on his feet as preparation for his death (John 12: 7–8). Both Mary and Jesus seem to be aware that Jesus’ death is looming just over the horizon. Both are aware of how his head-on clash with the powers will end. Mary’s extraordinary expression of love is offered in light of Jesus’ impending death.

Henri Nouwen writes about a time when he was hit by a car and ended up in the hospital. He didn’t have any external injuries to speak of, but after he was carefully examined, the doctor told him, “You might not live long. There is serious internal bleeding. We will try to operate but we may not succeed.”

Suddenly everything changed. Death was right there in the room with him. He was confused and in shock, and yet in the midst of his confusion and shock, he felt “at rest” and experienced an “embrace of God” where he felt safe, that God was going to bring him home. Nouwen says that he was so much at peace that he was surprised when he woke up and discovered that he had survived the surgery and was alive.

During his recovery he began to be aware of some unfinished business. He realized he was holding on to some particular hurts from the past. He became aware that there were some people he hadn’t forgiven and some people he had wounded and he needed to seek their forgiveness. Nouwen began to feel that he had been given a gift of extended time to live his life more fully and to better prepare himself for his death. (Finding My Way Home, Crossroad, 123–26)

Perhaps if we, too, befriend death, we could all live more fully in the present, more authentic, honest, and true to our deepest selves. Perhaps we could live more attentive to others and more honest and confessional about our own faults and failures.

I believe that befriending our own death enables us to navigate better all the passages of our lives. Life is a series of movements or passages—a new school, a first date, passing the driver’s test, a first job, leaving home for college or a place of one’s own, children come, children go, then, perhaps, grandchildren, parents become ill, frail, and die. Through all these passages, we grapple with loss. 

Some are welcomed, others, not so much. Some are the natural losses that come with the transitions from one stage of life to another; other losses, such as the breakup of a marriage or the unexpected death of a loved one, break upon us as sudden and tragic intrusions.

Such losses can become occasions for blame or for anger, resentment, and bitterness that can lead us to the brink of despair. Or we can allow these losses to become gateways to something new—not necessarily better, maybe better, maybe worse—but a gateway to a larger and wider life, a life oriented in the greater story of the kingdom of God.

Embracing these many deaths, both small and great, prepare us to embrace our own final passage into another realm where, I believe, the adventure of life, growth, and change continues and expands.

It is interesting how Jesus speaks of death in John’s Gospel. He draws an analogy with a grain of wheat that dies and then bears much fruit (12:24). He tells his disciples that he is going to leave them, but he will not leave them alone. He will send the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth who will lead them into the truth and peace which he embodied in tangible ways while he was with them. The Spirit will teach them how to love to another.

It’s never too late to make a difference. I believe everyone should watch The Bucket List at least once a year. It received mixed reviews from critics. Some thought its portrayal of terminal cancer was unrealistic. Maybe so. 

The final scene, however, may be one of the most powerful portrayals of reconciliation and redemption I have ever seen on film. I have watched it numerous times and every time I hear the voice of God. It grips me and moves me.

On his death bed, Carter (Morgan Freeman) hands Edward (Jack Nicholson) a letter. The letter reads: “Find the joy in your life. You once said that you are not everyone. Well, that’s true. You are certainly not everyone. But everyone is everyone. My pastor always says, ‘Our lives are streams flowing into the same river toward whatever heaven lies in the midst beyond the Falls.’ Find the joy in your life, Edward. My dear friend, close your eyes and let the waters take you home.”

As we hear the voice of Carter reading the letter, we see on screen Edward reconciling with his estranged daughter and hugging his granddaughter for the first time.

In his Eulogy for Carter, Edward begins by admitting he didn’t know quite what to say on such an occasion because he always avoided funerals. (Those who live the way Edward lived for most of his life always live in denial of death.) He says, “I hope it doesn’t sound selfish of me, but the last months of Carter’s life were the best years of mine. He saved my life.”

It’s never too late to save someone’s life in some small way, or maybe even in some large way. How might we live, so that each day of our ordinary lives will be filled with God’s extraordinary love, compassion, and grace?  


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