I wrote this back in 2005, and it is so interesting how much things have changed. I’m married, new town, job, church, new everything. 2 kids…
Somebody once said that your childhood is over the moment you realize you’re going to die. That is so true. I remember feeling as a small child that old age (let alone death) was about as far away as the moon. I remember thinking I’d never get old, and that if I somehow did, well, by then they’d have figured out a way to keep people from dying. But the older I got, the more I felt almost transfixed by death. I didn’t want to think about it, but not thinking about it, or trying not to, made it even worse. I think it was mostly the fear of it that, in a way, stopped my growth cold (my spiritual growth, anyway), though I could probably come up with a lot of excuses why it took so long for me to come to Jesus.
It would be fairly easy, but it would also be a copout, because the only reason that matters is that I was afraid. Not the numbing fear one might feel in a life threatening situation (though it could be argued that facing eternity without God is more than life threatening), but more of the creeping horror a person slowly becomes aware of when they realize their mortality for the first time. I had finally come to the realization that my days were numbered, and that I had no idea what was next.
It began a lot earlier. Before I even had any idea what death was, I was still pretty much scared witless most of the time, and it wasn’t just one thing. No. I was afraid of lots of things as a child. Spiders scared me half to death, but so did the Tilt-a-whirl and clowns. I remember riding on a tilt-a-whirl one time at a carnival and my sister had them stop the ride in the middle because she thought I was dead. I felt that way, too—it was like having my guts pressed through my back. I was twelve when that happened and I haven’t been on a tilt-a-whirl since. One of my buddies told me later a kid had his head roll off into the sawdust at a county fair someplace while riding a crack-the-whip. I could believe it. Those things were like tilt-a-whirls on speed.
So far as clowns go, you’d always hear about people booking them for birthday parties “for the kids,” but I never knew a single kid who liked them. I’ve never wanted a balloon animal so much I’d risk my life to get it. And when I read It, by Stephen King, I felt vindicated. Clowns were scary, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so.
That book had the scariest villain ever—Pennywise, the dancing clown, self-described “eater of worlds, and of children.” I’ve read most of King’s books more than once, but not that one.
I think my fascination with the macabre wasn’t just because of King, though, or because of all the metal music I listened to. I believe a lot of it came from simply trying to get my mind around death. It scared me more than anything, yet I was profoundly interested in it. I had the normal child’s fascination with how things worked, and like any child, no question was asked more frequently than why? So when people started dying around me, that was the first thing I wanted to know.
When my father died, I just couldn’t understand it. He was pretty fit for his age at the time (57), and as a sixteen year old, it seemed like death was something for really old or really sick people. My father was neither. He’d been on heart medication for years, but it was supposed to have gotten things under control. Nevertheless, in May of 1984, he died from a heart attack. I took it personally. Like God was somehow finally getting involved in my life, and not in the way you always heard Christian people talking about it. I felt like he just sort of threw it at me to see what I’d do. What I did was find solace in the love of my friends, and in music. I was lucky. I was lucky, but I was also afraid. I didn’t know anything about heart attacks. Maybe I could have one. It seemed like better odds than winning the lottery.
The thought of death scared the crap out of me. Would it hurt? Probably, I thought. It had to. And what happened after? Was there a boatman waiting for you, or was that just for warriors? I’d heard people mention Sheol, and Purgatory, neither of which sounded like much fun. That is, if either of them existed at all. So I read more horror fiction, and I listened to a lot of metal music. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, sometimes Slayer. They all had these really interesting songs about death, about what it was, and about what followed it. Not that I was particularly interested in trying out Hell—but I thought I was in little danger of that. It seemed that only people like serial killers and child molesters went there.
I just remember playing a lot of basketball (if you can call H-O-R-S-E basketball) after my dad died, and listening to Springsteen’s Born in the USA over and over again. And Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind. The music and the time with my friends got me past the grief, and most of the fear. I hadn’t, after all, heard of many sixteen-year-olds having heart attacks. So after a time, I was able to get on with things.
Then one day in January of 1986, a couple of older ladies walking their dogs found a body on the hill my friends and I (everyone, really) used to hang out on—it was on the way to the basketball courts. There was the crumbled ruins of an old dairy with an enormous pepper tree in front of it up there, and we used to sit under it and drink, and talk, and occasionally fool around a little (well, not us, but some people did—none of us were fortunate enough to have girlfriends). The women found a young man lying on the large flat spot in front of the dairy with a rifle at his feet and a trail of blood running down the dirt into the grass nearly ten yards away. T hree of my friends and I (the fourth in our group had gone missing—he’d graduated early and we hadn’t seen much of him over the past few days) walked past the blood trail later that day after the body was gone and were cracking jokes about it. We thought it must’ve been a drug deal gone bad, or a murder (nothing like that had happened in Santee that any of us knew of). It was astounding that no one had cleaned up the blood, but there it was. I nearly dropped the basketball in it.
It wasn’t until the next day we found out the body had belonged to our friend, Ben. He’d been a great musician, and a good friend, and none of us had the slightest idea anything was wrong. There obviously had been, because he took a guitar case up to the dairy with a rifle in it and shot himself in the head.
Why hadn’t we, why hadn’t I, felt or sensed something? We should have. We were his friends, and wasn’t that what friends were for? Yet we hadn’t. And he was dead. What had happened to bring him to that point? What had he been feeling as he sat there? Had death come right away, right after the shot? Or did he have to lie there in the cold and bleed to death? We didn’t know. And where was he now, dead? We didn’t know that, either.
It wasn’t even a year after Ben that my mother died. She’d been battling cancer for years (since I was ten), and it had finally won the day. But the most remarkable thing happened to my mom before she died. I was coming back up to her room one day and I stopped outside the room because I heard her talking to someone—who turned out to be the father of a family friend, who was some kind of pastor back in the Bahamas. What I heard was my mother reciting what I would later learn was called the sinner’s prayer, and accepting Christ into her heart. I’d seen her read an old bible before, but considering the way things were going, had never thought she would get “religious.”
I remember that made me so angry at the time. It wasn’t going to save her. You heard people saying God could heal all the time, but he never did. And you heard all the time about faith healers being exposed as charlatans, and about thousands of pilgrims going to places like Lourdes looking for a miracle. They might as well kiss the Blarney Stone. She was still going to die, and it was God’s fault.
She’d spent the past year constantly afraid, and had never (so far as I knew) addressed what was coming. Not once did we discuss it. If she didn’t admit it, then it wasn’t going to happen. So this praying thing made no sense at all. What was the point? And when it only took four of us to carry her casket, I finally realized the finality of death. She obviously was no longer here—that casket felt empty. So where was she, then? Was she floating on a cloud somewhere? That seemed completely ridiculous.
So it seemed that death would either take me suddenly, or after a prolonged and painful (and ultimately futile) fight.
Consequently, I did what any good agnostic would do in that situation—I tried not to think about it. I addressed none of my questions and eventually they went away, or at least I was able to occupy my mind with other things.
A few years after that, I met a man named Tim Wakefield, who was a pastor, and he didn’t fit into any of my preconceived templates for Christian behavior. I met him through a friend, a guy I went to Grossmont College with for a time who was someone I closely identified with. He became a Christian and I couldn’t believe it. He’d been through most of the things I had—more, even, and it seemed odd that he would succumb to something like rhetoric. But he did, and shortly after that, he invited me to his church and I met Tim. I met him and I realized there were some things he might be able to help me understand. We began to talk about God occasionally. We began to be friends.
Then one day in March, he was riding his motorcycle to visit his father in Arizona. He slid on a patch of oily freeway and was killed. So that was it. It seemed obvious that death was completely arbitrary, and that no matter what I did or didn’t do, it could come for me without any warning at all. I could be walking out of a store and a piano could fall on my head—ridiculous, maybe, but that wouldn’t make me any less dead. And so when my friends and I went on our usual trip to Padres spring training a few days later, it was all I could think about. Death was the ultimate opportunist, and I could very well be his next target. It was that thought that was somehow able to trigger something in me, some thoughts, that nothing else had.
The first was that Death could come for me whenever it pleased. However it pleased. If it could come for a pastor, for someone that walked what he talked, then I was pretty much out of luck if I wasn’t ready. The best I could hope for was that it wouldn’t be painful, and given my run of luck, it probably would be.
The second was that I had absolutely no idea what would happen if it did. I didn’t know what was next, and I had only the smallest inkling of how to find out. I was fortunate enough to have God pretty much slap me on the back of the head and tell me, “All you have to do is ask me. I’ll tell you what’s next.”
So I asked. I admitted I couldn’t do it myself–none of it. I became a Christian in March of 2000, and then I began to get the answers I was looking for. Yes, the thought of death had scared me. Sometimes it still does, honestly, because while I want to go to Heaven, I don’t particularly want to die.
It occurred to me that of all the things that can happen to a person in life, of all the things the world holds over us like the sword of Damocles, the worst is the threat of taking away our life, or of taking the life of someone we care about. But knowing Jesus takes away that fear. Once you believe that Jesus died and rose again, once you put your trust in Him, that hanging sword is gone (Psalm 56:3-4). Because God always wants a sacrifice, and so we wouldn’t have to pay for our iniquity, so we wouldn’t have to die, so we would not have to be sacrificed, Jesus bore the weight of our sin and died in our stead, and was resurrected, that we might live (Romans 5).
Jesus will not abandon us to the grave (Psalm 16:10), and everyone who has trusted in Him, everyone who has called on His name and had their name “written in his book” will be delivered (Daniel 12).
A man I know named Tim Worden died yesterday, after battling the exact same cancer that killed my mother. Tim fought it to the very end, but in the end it still claimed his life. His earthly life, anyway. The last time I actually spoke to Tim, or heard him speak, he was talking to another friend after a church service. The sermon had been about David and Goliath, about facing the giants in our life and after the sermon, Tim went forward for prayer. My other friend went up to pray with him and soon after, a bunch of us were up there. My friend was upset and he was telling her it was going to be OK. He said this was the best time of his life and he meant it. He had Jesus in his life, and he was going to be with him. He was happy.
Tim had a death sentence hanging over his head for years, and it would have been carried out if he hadn’t found the Lord. But when he called on Jesus’ name, he defeated death. I didn’t know Tim well enough to call him a friend, but I’ll never forget his determination and his strength, or the zeal with which he pursued Jesus once he accepted him. He made the time he had left count.
But for me, the best part of knowing Tim was the outpouring of prayer it generated, prayer I was both able to witness, and take part in. At first, it was that he come to Jesus, and after that, it was to praise him for bringing Tim into his arms, and to thank Him for making me truly feel what it was like to be part of the body of Christ. Because of Tim, I was able to see, to FEEL the power of prayer. To feel the Holy Spirit. As another friend described it, that last night we all prayed for Tim was one of the most anointed nights he’d experienced. Me, too. I feel blessed I was there, and blessed to bear witness to Tim’s strength. He was barely able to walk down the aisle to the altar, but when he walked out, he was strong.
And I’ll be thankful for that night and all that happened, and for knowing Tim, as long as I live.
I’ve heard people say that the battle for all our souls won’t be won, that victory won’t be assured, until judgment day, until God calls home his children. I disagree. I think the battle was won in Gethsemane, when Jesus said, “not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus totally surrendered His will and so must we. He didn’t WANT to die, but he was willing to, because the cost if he hadn’t was so great. He did it because He would rather die himself than have us do it. He loves us that much. And so we must surrender our will to Him. It’s the only way we can draw near to Him, and drawing near to Him is the only way to be saved.
He didn’t have to die for us. He didn’t have to bear the weight of our sin. Yet he did, and consequently, we have the opportunity to live. But he won’t force us. Whether we live or die is ultimately our own choice. Our decision.
And cliche though it may be, the clock is running down on our time. We have no idea when it’s going to stop…