The road to serenity/joy/peace of mind is often difficult, sometimes even painful. I’ll never forget watching my wife work with the contractions involved in giving birth to our firstborn 34 years ago. They don’t call it labor for nothing.
If you accept that premise, you will have a better chance of understanding why I’m going to church today to receive ashes in the sign of the cross on my forehead. I don’t enjoy being reminded that I’m dust and to dust I will return, but I’ve learned that the way to peace of mind – real serenity – involves facing and dealing with the things that frighten us most.
Here’s a story. Kathe Wheeler was one of the shut-ins I used to bring communion to at the Altenheim nursing home. She told me that she only had 30 percent of her heart function left and had gone through many near-death experiences.
One day she told me about a dream she had. “Death came to me last night,” she said with a hint of a smile. “He looked just like the pictures – a skeleton wearing a hooded robe and carrying a scythe. He motioned to me with a boney finger that I should come with him. ‘No,’ I told him. ‘I’m not ready yet.’ Then he slowly turned and walked away.”
She paused for a moment to catch her breath as I sat trying to imagine how I’d feel if I had experienced a dream like that. “You know,” she added. “He looked kind of sad and disappointed as he turned to leave.”
I’ve been trying to digest that conversation for the last twenty years. One conclusion I have come to is that Kathe had gotten to know death on a personal basis. Evangelicals often talk about the need to accept Jesus as your personal savior, as opposed to a concept you believe in. To me, Kathe had gotten acquainted with death as if it were her next-door neighbor. She had accepted death as a PERSONAL reality.
She didn’t like death. On the one hand, she would have preferred that someone else were “living” next door, but on the other hand, she didn’t avoid interacting with this ever-present possibility and inevitable reality.
It wasn’t that she dwelled on death in a morbid way. What she had done was to face its reality, get to know it, and thereby kind of de-fang it. When she told death “I’m not ready yet,” Kathe revealed that it didn’t frighten her. It was as if nothing could frighten her anymore. She had made her peace with death, which enabled her to make her peace with life.
I understand why athletes use imaging techniques to picture themselves running for a touchdown or clearing the high-jump bar at 6 feet 7 inches. I understand why business owners on Madison Street repeat the mantra, “You have to think positive.” I understand why there are more people in church on Easter Sunday than on Good Friday
But I wonder. I wonder if that athlete might be more centered if he accepted the possibility that fumbles are as much a part of the game as are touchdowns. I wonder if a business owner might feel more equanimity and perspective if she fully embraced the possibility that after all her hard work, her startup might fail. I wonder if those who only come for the lilies and avoid the ashes are missing a major piece of what it takes to live serenely.
A hospice chaplain at Oak Park Hospital told me, “Death is not the problem. It is our response to death that is the problem.” Everyone knows that death and taxes are inevitable. I’ll bet a dollar to a donut that most of you have been off dealing with your taxes. I have to confess that so have I. Today, at least, I’m determined to be more like Kathe Wheeler. I’m going to get to know my unwelcome neighbor a little bit better.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.