I’m writing this article today from my mother’s house in northern California’s Redwood country where my wife, Bonnie and I have been for the last month. We have spent many happy days here in the past, but we made this trip with heavy hearts. Sadly, we came to spend a final few days with my mother whose liver cancer was at last getting the best of her. She passed away at the end of September, and it has fallen to me to settle her estate.
My mom and I were very close. Although she lived in California and I lived in Utah, I talked to her on the phone every Sunday for as long as I can remember. So quite naturally, I have been extremely moved by her passing. But fortunately, it has not all been sadness.
As a person of faith, she was not afraid of dying. This has been of great comfort to me not just as a son, but as a pastor. The great outpouring of love for her by friends and family has been truly heart-warming. It has been a blessing to know that hers was a life well lived and that she died in peace.
Not surprisingly, the Bible has a lot to say about death and dying. I have always thought that true faith not only helps a person live well, but it helps a person die well. The Bible is very upfront about the reality of death but also very clear that it is possible to die well. We can trace this truth back to the first book of the Bible.
One of the best-known Hebrew words in the Old Testament is the word shalom, which we associate with peace and well-being. It is perhaps significant that the very first use of shalom appears in the context of death. In Genesis 15:15 God promises Abraham that he will die in peace.
Knowing and learning how we may die “in peace” should be an important concern for us all. Yet our culture is obsessed with youth, wellness and fitness. Our entertainment industry bombards us with images of young, fresh faces. Celebrities give us example after example of how people will disfigure themselves with cosmetic surgery in a vain attempt to maintain a youthful appearance.
We learned in 2020 and 2021 just how much death and dying are anathema to us. I’m now embarrassed to say that even though I was double vaccinated and boosted that I (along with a whole lot of other people) went a little crazy in my response to COVID. We went along with mandates, lockdowns and using what we now recognize as ineffective masks to “flatten the curve.” My heart breaks when I think of all those people who were forced to die alone while my own mother was blessed to be supported by the visits of friends and family.
For what they are worth, here are a few of my own reflections on death and dying that have literally been brought home to me in the last couple months. Dealing with death is a learned behavior. The right time to be thinking about it and familiarizing ourselves with the process is while we are healthy. Doing so allows us to prepare spiritually and temporally for death.
Martin Luther taught that people of faith should not brood about the consequences of sin on our deathbeds. That is a trick of the devil. As death approaches, believers are to focus on forgiveness, eternal life, grace and salvation.
As someone wise once put it, the words “but God” may be the most hopeful words ever written. This is what the Bible can teach us about dying well and at peace: “But God raised him from the dead” (Acts 13:30). “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead; he will surely take me to himself” (Psalm 49:15). And finally, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5).
This is the hope that we share as people of faith. Of course a life well lived includes friends and family. But real shalom — real peace — the kind of peace that passes all understanding — comes by grace through faith that God loved us enough to take our sins upon himself. Jesus, through his work on the cross, did for us what we could never do for ourselves. As we put our trust and faith in him, he makes us right with God. This brings real peace.
Rick Ehrheart is pastor of Mountain of Faith Lutheran Church in Tooele.