More than a Gentle End
“God will guard your going out.” – Psalm 121
Our Book of Worship has a section titled “Order for the Time of Dying.” What wishful thinking. We can’t impose order upon death. All we can do is wait. Or be surprised. Death never comes on time.
The “order” contains a prayer I love. “Let death be as gentle as nightfall.” No gasping for breath, no terrified eyes, no morphine stupor. Just soft, soft nightfall.
But a good death requires more than a gentle end. I pay regular visits to Del, who is dying of ALS. He is an intense man. His anger at the world’s injustice won’t let him ignore the injustice of his own disease.
But Del is not content to spend himself despairing. He dives into dying. He’s read almost everything he ever wanted to read. When he could no longer hold a book, he switched to television. Del is the only senior citizen I know who watched “The Wire” in two weeks. “What did sick people do before Netflix? Probably had their kids read Dickens to them.”
He’s thanked his wife ten thousand times. He thanks God that he can still speak. He’s said goodbye to a parade of friends. He called the ones who are afraid to visit. He listens to sirens, using his grave to feel the pain of city streets. He is a Christian, not a stoic.
He told me he remembers his mother humming “I Come to the Garden Alone” while he slept in a laundry basket beneath her ironing board. When we sing it at his funeral, I’ll see a small boy in 1940, napping on folded laundry, safe in his mother’s embrace. Del is already helping me grieve.
If his prayers are answered, Del will have died by the time we’re reading this. And I will have said the “nightfall” prayer again. I don’t know if God will grant either petition, but I know that Del’s death has been good. May it be so for all of us.
O God, guard our going out. Amen.
Matt Fitzgerald is the Senior Pastor of St. Pauls United Church of Christ in Chicago. He is the host of “Preachers on Preaching,” a weekly podcast sponsored by The Christian Century.