The Grace of Dying Well

The Grace of Dying Well

January 20, 2017 - 11:22
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A grateful son receives his father’s final and most important life lesson.

Floyd Flemming, left, with his son, the author, Dean. Photo courtesy of Dean Flemming

It was the phone call no one wants to receive. The words I heard hit me like a sucker punch: “Your father has suffered a stroke.”

To that point, my dad had enjoyed an unusually active, vibrant life into his late eighties. He embraced each day with an energy beyond his years and a contagious joy. He seemed indestructible. Dad had served tirelessly and without complaint as caregiver during the extended illnesses of both my mother and stepmother. Now suddenly, he was the one who was vulnerable, his future uncertain.

Hospitalization and tests quickly followed. Then a barrage of dizzying, increasingly unwelcome reports. Spots on the brain image. Possible tumor. Biopsy. Cancer but probably treatable. No, a highly aggressive, stage-four tumor. The prognosis: months, perhaps weeks.

Lord, I’m not prepared for this! I prayed. He was not only my father but my closest friend, confidant, mentor, and spiritual example.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but God, using my father as His teaching assistant, had just enrolled me in a crash course. The title: Lessons in How to Die.

I remembered that John Wesley famously said of the early Methodists, “Our people die well!” I had always affirmed the concept, but it was not until I journeyed with my father through his final weeks that I truly began to understand what Wesley meant by dying well.

The closing act in my dad’s earthly life profoundly shaped my own perspective on dying—and living. I offer these reflections on my father’s story, in hope that they might speak a needed word in a culture that works hard to avoid the reality of death.

A long obedience

As the Boeing 737 carried me from my home in Kansas City to Florida, where Dad had retired, I was still trying to absorb the news I had just received. The final reports exposed a much more serious brain tumor than the doctors previously had talked about. The prognosis wasn’t good. Not at all. Yet even as my emotions whirled and eddied, God sustained me with a deep, inner peace.

I wondered if being with my dad might prove to be awkward, but he was determined not to let that happen. We spent the weekend laughing, crying, praying, reminiscing, and speaking words of substance to one another. At one point, he confided, “I love life, and my family brings me so much joy. I don’t want to leave you. But if I don’t recover from this, I’m okay with that. I continue to trust in God’s care now, just as I always have.”

“As I always have.” My dad showed me that dying well is a natural extension of living well. I thought of the title of Eugene Peterson’s classic book on discipleship, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity, 2000). That “long obedience” embraces how God’s people face death. The apostle Paul demonstrated that attitude to the Philippians, even as he languished in prison, staring at a capital charge. He declared, “I eagerly expect and hope . . . that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20).

My father’s sense of peace in the face of impending death flowed out of a deep reservoir of trust in Christ, the same trust that had characterized his entire life. “There’s nothing I have to make right,” Dad assured me, “no unresolved conflicts, no regrets.”

I asked him how, after a lifetime of leadership in the church, as both a pastor and a district superintendent, he was still able to say that. I knew well that, over the years, there were multiple occasions when people misunderstood his decisions or questioned his motives. With tears in his eyes, he reflected, “I tried throughout my ministry simply to love every person as Jesus loved them.”

I returned home with those words ringing in my ears. When my life nears its end, will I be able to say the same?

The power of influence

Over the next two months, I taught my college classes during the week and made frequent trips to Florida on weekends. In an act of unselfish love, my sister-in-law left everything to care for my dad full time. During those weeks he was truly blessed to be spared significant pain and to retain his sharp intellect. We engaged in long conversations, relived trips taken together, reflected on God’s ever-present grace.

At the same time, I witnessed the impact of “dying well” on others. A nurse at the hospital where he was diagnosed expressed her wonder at his positive, joyful spirit, and I was able to tell her why that was the case. Later, the hospice personnel who ultimately provided home care went out of their way to let me know how my father’s contagious hope and self-giving attitude had ministered to them.

One weekend, Dad insisted that he wanted to make a final outing—to visit his friends at a nearby coffee shop. During his years of retirement, that restaurant became his “mission field.” Over time, he intersected the lives of the regular patrons and employees. He called them by name, listened to their stories, and prayed for some of them specifically every day. And as the Spirit prompted, he told them about the enormous love that God had for them.

On a Monday morning, my brother and I took him to the coffee shop. To my amazement, we were greeted by about 15 patrons who had gathered to say their farewells. Dad mustered his strength and conversed with them for nearly an hour. The group included some crusty retirees who likely did not spend much time inside a church building. But a number in the group made a point to tell me how his caring spirit had touched them, how much they would miss him. My father sought out a young man among the patrons, who, through Dad’s influence, had come to faith in Jesus. “I’m passing the torch on to you,” Dad told him. “Now, this is your mission field.”

Beyond his immediate circle, God used my father’s final chapter to shape individuals he would never know. Throughout that difficult semester, I tried to include my college students in our family’s journey. I narrated stories of Dad’s life and of his dying. I confessed my deep need of their prayers. Unexpectedly, students began to spontaneously gather around me in class to pray for me and my family. They showed up at my office to lift me up in prayer and encourage me. But they also assured me, through a flurry of comments and notes, that the example of this man they had never met had left a profound imprint on their lives.

Dying is gain?

I learned from my father that dying well can involve attitudes that swim against the stream of North American culture. When Dad first learned of the seriousness of his tumor and was given treatment options, he chose to decline chemotherapy or other aggressive treatments. He had watched my stepmother suffer greatly under the side effects of her therapy and that was not a path he wanted to take. When I asked him about his decision, he assured me that he valued the quality of his remaining days more than their quantity.

Obviously, this is a highly personal decision, which might vary according to the specific circumstances of anyone diagnosed with cancer. But my dad’s primary concern was not extending his physical life as long as medically possible. During his final weeks, we talked freely about end-of-life care, finances, and funerals. Dad was not afraid to face the end of his days, or to prepare for it. He embraced the process of dying as a natural stage of his journey in Christ.

Facing his own possible death at the hand of Caesar, Paul wrote to the Philippians: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21, emphasis added). For Paul, death was “gain”—not because it offered a convenient escape from his earthly troubles, but because it provided a gateway to a more direct and intimate experience of Christ (see Philippians 1:23).

But this perspective doesn’t seem normal—at least not everywhere. Popular values push us to go to almost any length in order to prolong our biological lives. This mentality feeds on a parade of stunning advancements in medical technologies that are regularly trumpeted in the media. An array of alternative treatments boldly promise to improve our health and extend our lives as well.

It’s little wonder that many people have convinced themselves they can “outgun” death—or at least significantly influence how and when it happens. At the same time, Americans spend more than $13.5 billion annually on cosmetic surgery, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, largely to give the appearance that aging and death aren’t inevitable.

“For many, death is simply presented as the last great opportunity to exert an autonomous consumer choice, rather than an occasion in which Christ might be magnified in our bodies,” writes Stephen Fowl in his study, Philippians (Eerdmans, 2005).

This preoccupation with extending biological life masks a fear of death in our culture. “Dying” is a subject that most of us are uncomfortable talking about—even thinking about. My dad, however, modeled for me a positive awareness of death. Like Paul, he saw both living and dying as opportunities to glorify Christ. Perhaps more local congregations should consider making “dying well” a vital component of their discipleship training for the people of God.

Final words

Last words matter. They have the potential to echo well beyond their immediate setting. My father graced me with a series of “final words” which continue to percolate in my spirit. Such words came the last time I was physically present with him.

After a weekend together, I had to catch a 5:30 a.m. flight home. By this time, his awareness of what was around him had declined dramatically. But to my surprise, Dad was already fully awake and seemed anxious to speak to me. I held his hand and prayed for him. “I’ll be back to spend Thanksgiving with you, Dad.” I said. “Yes,” he replied, “the Lord willing.” But he didn’t let go of my hand. His penetrating eyes fastened onto mine. “Dean, you mean all the world to me,” he added. I still hear those words.

Later that week, I spoke to my father by Skype. Before I said good-bye, his faltering voice queried, “Is there anything I can do for you? Do you need anything?” The attitude that characterized his whole life tenaciously carried through to the end. Within a week, he was with the Lord.

At my dad’s request, his funeral ended with a recording of one of his sermons, preached when he was alert and strong. His voice rang out through the sanctuary as he anticipated one day joining in the heavenly coronation anthem: “All hail the power of Jesus’ name, let angels prostrate fall. To him all majesty ascribe, and crown him Lord of all.”

“Friends,” he proclaimed, “it will be worth it all!”

Among those listening was a man we’ll call Jerry, a retiree Dad had met at the coffee shop. His face bore the lines of a deeply troubled life. When my dad first met him, Jerry wore an armadillo shell of self-protection. Over time, however, Dad’s compassion melted his defenses, and Jerry began to expose some of his inner pain and fears. Dad carried a deep burden for this man throughout their friendship.

At the funeral, Jerry wept as he told me how much he loved my father. I embraced him and assured him that Dad loved him as well and that more than anything he wanted Jerry to experience the transforming love of God. I am still praying that Dad’s final words at his own funeral will help to make that hope a reality.

Recently I was struck by a journalist’s reflection on a national radio broadcast. He mused, in effect, “Our culture abounds with people who want to tell us how to live. But we have very few models of how to face death.”

My dad gave me such an example. He approached dying with grace, dignity, and trust. Through the years, my father showed me a great deal about how to live. But perhaps the most important lesson he taught me was how to die.?

Dean Flemming is professor of New Testament and Missions at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas. Previously, he served as a global missionary with the Church of the Nazarene.

Holiness Today
November/December 2016