John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
About that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Of course, these words are about Christ’s second coming, his coming again, and that’s something we know about as a theological possibility somewhere in the back of our minds but that we don’t usually live with as a real possibility. But how about looking at it from a different angle. As John Donne once asked
What if this present were the world’s last night?
And if it were, whether because of Christ’s coming again, because of some cataclysmic cosmic event, or even because of sudden death, how prepared are you? In particular, how prepared are you for your death?
It’s quite a brutal question, isn't it? But it's one that needs asking. Death, of course, is one of the traditional Advent subjects. But the trouble with lots of the Advent sermons on death that I've heard over the years is that they treat the subject rather like the second coming, they keep it at arm's length, or try to treat it in a dispassionate or intellectual way, certainly not as something that might affect me now. But I am well aware, just driving to work in my car, that it only needs one mistake on my part, or on someone else's part, and I could be dead. And how well prepared am I for death? So, in asking the question, I'm hoping to bring the subject of dying home to each one of us, and not just to those who may be even more aware of the potential closeness of death in the ordinary course of events than I am, despite having just clocked up another birthday taking me yet nearer to a seventh decade.
Quite a lot is written these days about the pastoral care of the dying, and also about bereavement. But it's nearly all from the perspective of the carer, and the dying person is usually the object of the care, not the subject of the book. And ‘as a dying man preaching to dying men’ - to use John Wesley's great phrase - I want to make the dying person the subject, not the object.
How do you and I prepare for death, and particularly for a holy death?
Four or five hundred years ago this question wouldn’t have been understood. Books about preparing yourself for death were all the rage, and the art of dying was a matter of great importance, partly, I suppose, because life was more fragile and death happened all around you. If you plunge into that sort of literature, you'll find yourself in a very strange land indeed. Death is the enemy; there are vivid pictures of the dance of death, and death the grim reaper. There’s a great fear of the wrath of God and of the judgement of God. And though we pretend not to be affected by such attitudes these days, and often prefer to see death as a meeting point rather than a judgement point, I guess that nevertheless there is some residue of that way of thinking in most of us - as well there should be, bearing in mind how strong the Bible is about judgement. Of course our God is a God of mercy and forgiveness but mercy and judgement go hand in hand; and the concept of justice which we espouse so readily when it works in our favour or against others – like wanting tyrants and murderers to get their comeuppance – takes on a whole new meaning if we see ourselves in the dock.
Perhaps we need to be thinking about some kind of middle position, about regaining a balance in our minds between the mercy and the justice of God. And one way to do this is to keep the words dying and living in the same sentence – even the same breath.
One of the great spiritual writers of the Anglican Church was Jeremy Taylor, a Bishop in the seventeenth century. During Cromwell’s rule he lived in seclusion in Wales, where he produced two marvellous books: The Rule and Exercise of Holy Living, and The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying. And we can probably describe his teaching in a single sentence, a sentence which we would all do well to take as a guideline:
The whole course of life is a school for dying well.
Or, as one of Taylor's younger contemporaries, Thomas Ken, put it in his well known hymn:
Redeem thy misspent time that's past,
And live this day as if thy last;
Improve thy talent with due care;
For the great day thyself prepare.
The quality of our Christian living now should be such that if this present were the world's last night, we would be ready. That’s what’s important. So the way we model ourselves on Christ, our constant self-examination and repentance, our continual cooperation with the grace of God in seeking holiness and righteousness of life, are critical today and every day.
That’s why we need to have the confession and absolution at the centre of our worship. That’s why we need to be cooperating continually with the grace of God in seeking holiness and righteousness of life. That’s why we need to be aiming for Christlikeness – the kind expressed in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Paul give thanks for the ‘grace which is has been given you’ so that we ‘are not lacking in any spiritual gift’. That’s why we receive the sacraments, say prayers and belong to the fellowship of Christians.
The 17th century gives us another insight into dying when it makes a connection between sleep and death. Sir Thomas Brown, in 1634, wrote the following lines:
Sleep is a death: O make me try
By sleeping, what it is to die:
And as gently lay my head
On my grave as on my bed.
And the poem about death I find most profound also comes from the same period, John Donne's holy sonnet Death be not proud which uses the same sort of imagery:
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow.
And this allows me to make a practical suggestion. No: not that we should copy John Donne and regularly lie in our coffins which we keep at home specifically for the purpose of preparing ourselves for death. But yes: that we should prepare ourselves every day. As I drift off into sleep, and the book falls out of my hand onto the floor, so my last conscious thought is usually this
Into your hands I commend my Spirit:
for you have redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.
It's a verse from Psalm 31, the verse with which Jesus on the cross gave himself back to the Father. Make that your last thought, your last prayer, every night, and you will find a growing trust in God, and a lessening fear of death.
For whether we view death as the great enemy, the great threat; or whether we fear the judgement; or whether we just see death as a natural part of our creatureliness, and as a meeting point of love with Love - which of us is actually prepared for that meeting with God which comes to us all in our dying?
But, let us:
· consider how whole course of life is a school for dying well
· live this day as if our last.
· make an act of trust in God nightly
· and remember that Christ sustains us and that God is faithful.
Then perhaps we will be more prepared for dying and for living, for meeting the Christ who came, who comes and who will come again – now, as well as at the hour of our death.