Oct 032018 7 Responses

What Matters the Day You Die

As a teenage boy considering career decisions, you don’t think about it much. When I thought of the pastorate, my focus was preaching. I knew that other things would come along with it, but in the early years of training, I never considered how much of my life would be spent in hospitals, hospices, and funeral homes.

While it’s not every week, there are many weeks which are dominated by dying and death. I’ve long said it’s the great joy of the pastorate to be welcomed into a room after a new life is born, but it’s the great honor of the pastorate to be welcomed into a life as it comes to an end.

This continuous interaction with the circle of life and everything that happens in-between gives a pastor an interesting perspective on life. In the days of living, it’s easy to pretend that money matters, belief isn’t important, and there aren’t lasting consequences to poor choices. But in the days of dying, we know better. We can’t pretend regrets don’t exist. We can’t deny that some choices are better than others. We can’t ignore that everyone approaches death with faith in something even if that faith is hoping that there is nothing which happens after death.

The truth is that some things matter more than others on the day you die.

Surprising Things That Matter

1. Your amends. Mistakes matter. I’ve long said it’s a whole lot easier to stay out of trouble than get out of trouble. Yet because we are human, we can’t live a mistake-free life. We should do the best we can to minimize both the number and effect of our mistakes, but no one is perfect. That’s why your amends matter even more than your mistakes. To admit our wrongs and attempt to make them right is necessary. Consider wrongs or mistakes like open doors. You know inside that room is a mess. But to make an amend is to put the room back in the best way possible (it’s not always possible to put it back exactly like it was) and then to shut the door. The closed door is a symbol that the situation has been resolved. Pain may still exist, but you’ve done everything you can to close that chapter. How many open doors do you have? How many past hurts are unresolved?

2. Your secrets. Maybe the greatest surprise of the pastorate has been the number of people, specifically men, who have secrets which come out after the funeral. On multiple occasions, I’ve been at a person’s home talking to the family about a funeral for their loved one when an adult child comes across some paperwork. They ask their mom about the loan and the mom has no idea what they are talking about. Rather than doing what couples do and make joint decisions, the husband had gotten a loan for a boat or business deal without telling the wife. Finding out after his death is a deep betrayal. It causes her and others to wonder what else he had concealed or lied about it. Secrets rarely stay secret. To keep things to the grave often results in family members finding out after you are gone. Rarely is a secret so damaging that it can’t be revealed in a way that ultimately leads to greater health than what is experienced when it is suddenly found out by people you love.

3. Your grudges. Everyone should die with their hands open. We shouldn’t cling to anything on this earth because nothing can be taken with us. That includes grudges. When we continue to hold onto grudges even as we let go of life, it has a negative consequence for us and others. Some of the saddest deaths I have experienced involved people who were unwilling to forgive others. The problem with failing to forgive others is that it is a sign we have not been able to receive forgiveness for ourselves. To die unforgiven is a painful way to go. But grudges also have a negative impact on others–not the others for whom we hold a grudge, but for those who love us. When we fail to forgive, we heap an added grief on those who mourn our passing. Find a way to let go. (See: How to Forgive When You Can’t Forget)

4. Your words. Actions matter more, but we can’t deny the power of words. Specifically, the words we use to communicate our love for spouses, children, family, and friends greatly impact our last days. Far too often, I stand before a family as I perform a funeral service and the eyes of adult children look to me wondering, “Did he/she really love me?” They don’t know. Sometimes they are rightly suspicious because the relationship was severed. But at other times, the only reason they have doubt is because their parent failed to use words to communicate their love. The love existed, but it wasn’t communicated. Love that goes unsaid is love that goes unfelt. We must communicate how we feel toward others. We can’t assume. We can’t hope they know. We must tell them. For some, this is very difficult, but they must push through the difficulty. Your words don’t have to be perfect. Sometimes just the attempt to communicate is enough as long as the person feels your heart. Yet to dodge the words because of your discomfort is to risk your loved ones forever doubting how you felt. In the end, words matter.

5. Your future. We think about death as an end, but it’s also a beginning. One of the most unspoken realities of the pastorate is the fact that there are some drastic differences in how some people die. When faith is present, grief is real but it’s different. In the absence of faith, there is often a weight which is difficult to explain. It’s easy to ignore faith on an average day. We can live in denial of our frailty and ignore the possibility of life beyond death. Yet as our mortality is before us, the importance of faith is understood. When a person and their family trusts that there is more to experience than just this life, death has a sad beauty to it. When a person is hoping beyond hope that this life is all that there is because they aren’t prepared for anything else, death has a strong element of dread and fear. In the end, your future matters.

Any Moment

If there is anything the pastorate makes clear it’s that any life can dramatically change at any moment. While this fact has the possibility of terrorizing us, instead it should motivate us to a few specific actions. First, we should prepare for tomorrow. Faith matters and we should choose to whom or what we are willing to commit our lives. Prepared for our future, we should live wisely today. Refuse to have any secrets. We should make wise choices and be transparent to those who mean the most to us. When you make mistakes, admit them and make them right. Be quick to seek forgiveness and be quick to give it as well. Finally, find the courage to communicate your love. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but your attempts must be real. When you think you have clearly communicated your feelings, do it again and again.

7 Responses to What Matters the Day You Die
  1. Regina Reply

    I agree whole heartedly with every word! This is as though someone went into my head and abstracted my mind. If only everyone could view life and endings this way, it would be a great world!

  2. Don Dickey Reply

    Good Morning Kevin, as I set here in the quite of the morning by myself reflecting back on the life of my good friend Jerry Barling I can not help but reflect somewhat on my life also; the bad things I have done, the sad things and of course the good things, as you mentioned Wednesday asking forgiveness for the bad, reminiscing over the sad and rejoicing over the good can give a man the right perspective on life. I have taken your advice and personally called each of my children just to talk and to communicate to them how much I love them. As we roll into our golden years we begin to really see the importance of family and faith; you and Ed and your staff have been a real inspiration to me. Thank you for your leadership.

  3. Bill Bradshaw Reply

    Kevin, I look forward to reading your material every time. As you know my best friend (besides my wife, Karen) Chris Meurer died on 9/24/18 suddenly of a heart attack. We had been bringing Chris to Community for the last couple of months and he really liked the Church and knew quite a few people that attend Community. I just wanted to say thank you for your kindness and offer if we needed anything. I will see you this Sunday if you are there and let you know that your acts of kindness to my wife Karen at Razorback Pizza and then again to both of us at Church meant so much to both of us. Thank you for sending me the book Happily!
    God bless you and your family my friend!

  4. Melissa Reply

    “Love that goes unsaid is love that goes unfelt” wow! This needs to be on t-shirts, billboards, bumper sticker, and most of all, our lips. Enjoyed reading this.

  5. Chris Ross Reply

    Outstanding article! Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Please enter your name, email and a comment.