Counting the last days
Walter Bouman considers his dying—and joining the saints on the other side
And now there arise the great questions: Why did you live? Why did you suffer? We must answer these questions some way if we are to continue living—yes, even if we are only to continue dying (composer Gustav Mahler).
The surgeon stood beside my bed in the recovery room. He said he had removed a large growth attached to my abdomen. There was no longer any cancer in the colon. But it had spread to the liver and lymph system, and it was stage four, terminal. From the Latin word terminus, ‘‘end of the line.”
I remember thinking how painful it must be for this good and gentle man to have to say those words to a patient. Then I thought of Paul’s words: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-8).
I’ve often taught courses on death and dying. I studied the path-
breaking book by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (Fortress Press, 1972;available from www.amazon.com). I knew the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, grief, acceptance. But I haven’t experienced them. I have some regret that I won’t see my grade-school grandchildren grow to maturity. But mostly I’ve experienced peace.
Resting in the hospital, I had time to think. I wanted to preach once more to the seminary community, and that was arranged. I also knew I would begin with the words from Psalm 90:12: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
I’m counting. I’m counting. The surgeon said I have six to nine months. A month later, the oncologist said I have six to nine months. I asked him when to start counting, April 1 or May 1? ‘‘A quibble,” he replied.
I opted for no further treatment. God has given me a grace-filled and satisfying life. It seems ungrateful to ask for more. Instead I receive hospice care and tremendous, loving care from Jan, my wife. I have no pain but tire easily. Combing my hair is enough to require catching my breath. And I have minimal appetite.
I get much joy from the music on our classical radio station. My grandchildren asked me what I thought heaven would be like. Although I have no idea, I replied, “Great music, without station breaks.”
“But you like Bach and Beethoven,” they said. “What if someone likes Led Zeppelin?”
“Then they get a soundproof room,” I replied.
I think of the good things that come with having a date with death, like no more flossing. I experienced far more anguish when my beloved St. Louis Cardinals lost the World Series in four straight games! But even when the Cardinals lose, my greatest source of encouragement is the Christian story of God, into which I was baptized in July 1929. I have bet my living, and now I’m called to bet my dying, that Jesus—not death—will have the last word.
I was moved to a private room on the oncology floor for the last eight days of my hospital stay. The oncology nurse came in several times for longer sessions on my condition and possible treatments. Commenting that she was hearing much laughter and peaceful conversation in the room, the nurse asked, “What’s going on?”
I said, “I believe that Jesus, and not death, will have the last word.”
“What does that mean?” she asked.
And so I gave her my 10-minute version of Theology 101: Jesus’ disciples were astonished to discover that the crucified Jew whom they fled in fear was actually the Messiah of Israel and the world. He is identified as Messiah by his resurrection from the dead. The gospel is not an idea, for example, that God loves us, although that is true. The gospel is good news. It’s the announcement that something good and absolutely decisive for the universe has happened. The Christian good news is simply: Jesus is risen!
Jesus will have the last word
That is good news because it means that death no longer has power over him. Jesus, not death, will have the last word. But Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t personal vindication. He has become the firstfruits of all that sleep. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive. He will reign until he has put all things under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. And then God will be everything in everyone
(1 Corinthians 15:22-28).
This is a vision for the future, and it beckons us to follow it. Of course Jesus is also about the past, our past, the world’s past. There on the cross he takes sin and evil and death into God’s being and history, where it is overcome forever. But the gospel is first and foremost a vision for the future. Because Jesus is risen everything has changed radically. We are set free from serving the powers of death with our lives, fears, policies. We are set free from having to protect ourselves at whatever cost to others. We are set free from the dreadful necessity to grab all the gusto we can because we only go around once. We are set free from the compulsion to cling to every day and hour of life in this world.
This vision also applies to everyone. Paul says “all” repeatedly, and I take it that he means “all.” Theologian Robert Farrar Capon taught me years ago that Jesus didn’t come to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, improve the improvable. He came to raise the dead! The only final condition for eternal participation in Christ’s victory is that we be dead, 100 percent, gold-plated dead.
Paul exults in God’s universal forgiveness: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Romans 11:32). It’s God’s unconditional love that evokes his outburst of praise: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways” (Romans 11:33).
We really have trouble getting it. Writer Anne Lamott quotes the pastor of “The Church of 80% Sincerity: We are capable of unconditional love, but it has a shelf life of about eight to 10 seconds. We might say to our beloved, ‘Darling, I’ll love you unconditionally until the very end of dinner.’ ” It’s God’s eternal unconditional love that distinguishes God from us (Hosea 11:8-9), not God’s infinity or presumed immortality. God isn’t deathless but beyond death.
God’s universal salvation
Difficult as it is—because I always think of it as unfair—I’ve come to accept God’s universal salvation as the final consequence of Jesus’ resurrection. I think of all the best and worst, the innocent and the guilty, Holocaust victims and the evil perpetrators, those killed in all of our senseless wars and the misguided leaders who send them into battle. Christ will raise us all—and somehow bend us into shape so we become the human beings we were intended to be.
I continue to pray a lot, mostly for people who experience worse things than I do, like chronic back pain. In the days following my diagnosis, I prayed each night that God wouldn’t let me wake up in this world. But then my good friend and colleague Anna Madsen of Augustana College, Sioux Falls, S.D., sent me an e-mail stating: “Don’t you dare die until I get to Columbus.” When Anna talks, even God listens. So I stopped praying the prayer.
Instead I’ve turned to a prayer that I first learned in German as a child. I pray the beautiful hymn Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow:
Many years ago I read Ernst Kasemann’s book, Jesus Means Freedom (Fortress Press, 1972; out-of-print, may be available from www.alibris.com
). That has been at the heart of my religious experience. We are set free to celebrate each service of communion as the foretaste of the feast to come. This is the feast of victory for our God. Well, it’s only hors d’oeuvres on this side of the grave, but it is already a foretaste of the feast to come. This is what identifies us as Messiah’s people. In the meal, Christ gives us the gift of his offering of himself for the life of the world. There, he takes us up into his offering and shapes us to share in his mission. We are called to offer ourselves to the world, as he has offered himself to the world.
Free to love
We are free to love the church. Not the church where we all agree with each other, but the church that in our disagreements fills us with dismay, robs us of hope and often pursues agendas so contrary to what we think is Christ’s will that we want to despair. That’s the church we are free to love.
We are called to love the ELCA, which confesses that the right teaching of the gospel, and gospel-
administered sacraments alone constitutes what it means to be the church. Yet the ELCA threatens to tear itself apart over the issue of same-sex unions, an issue which isn’t the gospel that unites the church. That is the church which Jesus’ resurrection frees us to love.
We are free to imprint on our hearts and minds Paul’s words from Ephesians 4 1-3: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In the last chapter of Luke, Jesus tells the disciple community to await being “clothed with power from on high.” We don’t need to be “clothed with power from on high” to join a bridge club, root for the Ohio State University Buckeyes, golf with our friends or champion causes with other like-minded people.
But we need “power from on high” to be the church, that is, to be so grasped by Christ that we can “put up with each other,” as Daniel L. Olson, a professor of pastoral care at Wartburg Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, writes, “in a community that can sustain its unity in the midst of disagreement over emotionally charged issues, without demonizing or disregarding, excluding or humiliating each other.” Olson points out that our present situation gives the church a magnificent opportunity to be the church—to disagree profoundly over truly important matters without turning away from each other or turning against each other.
Jesus’ resurrection frees us to love the world. I think of that great cosmic and mysterious universe set in motion by the creative urge of the Father, given form through the creating word of the Son, given a life that is pointed toward a new heaven and a new earth by the aspirating Spirit. But we are free to love a more manageable world, our own small planet placed into our care as stewards of God’s gift. Such love of our world was never more in need.
I’ve resisted the temptation to say, ‘‘Stop the world because I’m getting off.” Instead I continue to care about the world, pray for it and urge all to be faithful stewards of our planet and to make the U.S. a more responsible member of the family of nations. The agenda is urgent. In a world where the gap between the rich and the poor increases daily, we need to oppose policies that condemn the poor of the world to lives of misery and early graves. We need to hold our government to war policies that adhere to the just war standards (Augsburg Confession, Article 16). We need to ask why U.S. policies have made us more fearful and feared, more arrogant and hated in the world.
Now I’m entering into the final baptism, ‘‘my beginning’s end”—the final dying with Jesus to await with curiosity the promise that God will be everything in everyone. I’m leaving the saints on this side of the grave to join the saints on the other side. Sainthood doesn’t mean that our morals or behaviors are somehow better than others. Sainthood, that is holiness, means being set apart for God’s reign.
I don’t know what heaven will be like. But my great expectation is that the Lord Jesus will be there to welcome me and that I will be fully and completely set apart for his everlasting reign.
It’s good to have time to tie up loose ends, to tell family and friends that I love them. In my prayers each day I commend myself to the unworthy and imperfect service I am able to render.
I look forward to the surprises that Jesus has in store.