Thursday, March 12, 2015

Will I see Jesus when I die? A Story in Search of a Sermon

Conversations about life and death tend to sound different when they take place between folks who are well than when they do between people who are sick. I’ve talked theology for countless hours with people who are healthy, but much less with those who are sick or are slowly dying. In those moments in which I have, I’ve noted that conversations about life, God, eternity, salvation tend to take on a different tone and immediacy when they happen with the terminally ill. They take on more weight. Our words seem to mean more. At the threshold between life and death, it appears to me that what we say matters to an extent unacknowledged when we are healthy.

By Канопус Киля (Own work) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
One Wednesday evening when I was on call I was paged to a patient's bedside. I walked into the room and was confronted by a younger woman, slowly yet surely dying of AIDS and heart disease. The patient wanted a chaplain to talk to her about everything the chaplain knew about what the Bible says about life, dying, death, salvation. I sat at her bedside and with her Bible in her hand and my Bible in mine and we began a grand tour through Scripture. We read together, taking moments to pause when she had a question or needed a moment to cry. Together we explored the Word of God, and I do think it brought her soul some solace. Yet she had one pressing question, repeated over and over and over again, “when I die, will I see Jesus?”

I tried to strategically avoid giving her a direct answer, but the patient was incessant. I tried to get her to put into words why she so desperately wanted to know, but she saw right through that. She wanted to know what I believe. She wanted some sort of blessed assurance that death will not be some sort of entrance into an empty void, but rather will transition her into new life with God. As she approached her death she wanted to know that she will see with her eyes Jesus, welcoming her forward. She wanted Jesus and yearned to know that Jesus wants her.

Needless to say, I felt uncomfortable being put on the spot like this, because I’m not always sure what I believe and admitting this to the patient would put me in a place of vulnerability that I did not want to go towards. Yet I felt that in the face of her fearless honesty and questioning that I had to arise to the occasion and speak truthfully. She was looking to me for insight. My words mattered. I had to tell her the truth.

Will I see Jesus when I die? In my heart of hearts, I told her, in the deepest place of my belief, I have faith that the answer is "Yes." I may doubt, and I may question, but I hold as the central conviction of my identity, the crux of my hope, that there is nothing, not even death, which will separate me from the love of God in Jesus Christ for me. Sight perhaps will have a different meaning in the life to come after death, but in the resurrection I do believe that we will be with Jesus and see God face to face. She looked at me with eyes serene, and said, "Ok. Thank you." And I shivered.

I’ve had many conversations concerning eternity with the healthy. But it was only in talking with a woman who stares into the coming abyss that I was able to put into words what I actually believe.

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2 comments:

Juan C. Torres said...

I met a dying woman at the hospital once. She asked the same question. She was really worried. My theology then did not allow me to say, Absolutely!

That experienced forever changed me. It helped me see that my "gospel" was anything but good news.

I'm sure it's just a matter of time before I'm next to someone dying. I'm glad I have good news to share now.

Nathan Hitchcock said...

Beyond the metaphysical difficulties of the woman's question, what I love is this: she wants to see Jesus. Who but a saint would want to see Jesus? And the Bible makes abundantly clear that anyone who is eager to see Jesus is about to be treated to something special.

Thanks for this encouraging post.