Sleep to Die For

Consistent, restorative sleep has eluded me for over 20 years.  Therefore, an image so often talked about in the New Testament – falling asleep in Christ – has come as an unexpected comfort.

“Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace.”

Victor Hugo

“That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all-natural graces, sleep.”

Aldous Huxley

grandma driving“I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandma.

Not yelling and screaming, like the people in her car.”

Anonymous

 

I love to sleep but for the last 20 years consistent, sound sleep has remained tantalizingly out of reach. So desperate for sleep at times I have found myself looking on with envy at homeless folks asleep on benches. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, I immediately discussed sleep with my oncologist.  I assumed that cancer worries along with cancer treatment would be the end of sleep for good.

Sleeplessness in any degree is one of humanity’s great annoyances. Internet searches (not good sleep hygiene to do at night) are endless in describing and suggesting ways to recover our bodies’ routine and therapeutic need for the sandman’s nightly visits. Why he refuses to come and satisfy some of us is anybody’s guess. But for sure we cannot do well emotionally or physically without sleep.  Twenty years of insomnia has left me wanting to strangle the sandman.  Going for stretches without sustaining sleep has at times been as emotionally painful as my struggle with metastatic cancer.

Worrying about endings

A few people with metastatic cancer might not entertain thoughts about how dying might go for them.  I am not one of them.  Like the confession of the late Billy Graham, I too am not afraid to die as I have confidence in Christ receiving me, but I do worry sometimes about how I may die. I am like most people who would vote to die unsuspectingly at an incredibly old age at the end of a productive, meaningful life while SLEEPING!

To Fall Asleep in Christ

I recently landed on a book, Dying Well, by John Wyatt.  The author, a British medical consultant and devout Christian, has witnessed many people in the last stage of their lives and offers insightful, encouraging, and very practical suggestions for believers facing death from illness or old age. This book is for anybody who is eventually going to die. Yes, we all should push the pause button of our busy lives to think how we would like our endings to go before the end is close.

Wyatt’s chapter describing what it means to “fall to sleep in Christ” was particularly comforting.  To “fall asleep in Christ” is the term used in the epistles for the believers’ death.  Jesus in the gospels and the apostle Paul in his letters describe the death of a believer as residing in a state of sleep awaiting their new eternal life. The early Christians understood something about this image of death. It is one of the reasons they had the courage and hope to withstand all manners of persecution and death.  At death, the believer is, as in sleep, unconscious and unresponsive but none the less a person fully alive, being held safely by the love and power of Christ.

I have known the biblical expression for believers’ death for decades but never has the term meant so much to me as it does now; nor has it provided such hope and reassurance as it does now.  Falling asleep in Christ to be woken up to the most glorious reality of all is my great hope and desire.   I love sleep, I long for it and when I awake having had a good night of sleeping, I am exhilarated.  So now as the pesky death and dying thoughts resurface so does the gentleness of the sleep metaphor. Is this pie in the sky thinking to make the reality of dying easier to swallow?  No and yes!   No, it is not the pie in the sky.  The truths of scripture and God’s love for me did not originate with me and will not end with me.  And yes, life after death has been the great Christian hope for people from all over the world for centuries.  As Paul said, “if only in this life we have hope in Christ we of all people are to be most pitied.”   (I Cor 15:19) According to John Wyatt, we can deduct from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 that “Jesus experienced the full reality of death so that we might fall asleep,” never having to know abandonment from God’s loving presence. Hallelujah!  My imagination has taken a turn from the dreaded to the blessed! Falling asleep in Christ means resting in peace to be woken up by the lover of our souls at the culmination of history.

“Lucy woke out of the deepest sleep you can imagine, with the feeling that the voice she liked best in the world had been calling her name.”

Chronicles of Narnia , C.S. Lewis

DEATH VERSES TO FALL ASLEEP BY:

MATTHEW 9:24

JOHN 11:11

ACTS 7:59-60

JOHN 11:25-26

I THESSALONIANS 4:13-14

ISAIAH 26:19

PSALM 17:15

PSALM 16:9-11

PSALM 139:17-18

REVELATION 22: 3-4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Death Cafes’ and Me

Death Cafes” are springing up in cities throughout the world to address the subject of death and how-to live with death’s inevitably.

Apparently, the movement was started to give people a “safe place” to talk about death without being accused of morbidity. Billed as a philosophical inquiry on mortality, people looking for a grief support group will be disappointed. “Eat cake, drink tea and discuss death”, is the benign motto. The decor includes mugs, teacups and posters with creepy skulls, skeletons, and ravens painted on them. I admit that I’m put off by the skull mugs in the Death Cafes. death mug

But these venues and discussion groups deserve more than half a point. The vast majority of Americans live in the mythical state of immortality. ‘Mythical immortality’ (my term) is the belief that other people die, I don’t. (See, ‘I Like the New Metastatic Me’) When we do think about death it is in the context of avoiding it. Anne Patchett writes:

“The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it is exercise, checking our cholesterol or having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality……Despite our best intentions, it (death) is still, for the most part, random. And it is absolutely coming.” 1


Death cafes, though they deal with an inevitability ignored by most, do not capture rightly the travesty of death or the Christian hope of triumph over it.


The point of Death Cafes is to make death less fearful in an age of anxiety. I get it.  But the death mug approach to the subject does not capture the travesty of death. I say travesty because the Bible makes it clear that death is an enemy that is finally destroyed with the coming of the new heavens and earth at the culmination of time. And that is where the Christian hope comes in. The story is not over with our deaths. There is the hope that Christ ushers us into his glorious presence where every tear is wiped away and grand reunions are still to come. So maybe what I could benefit from would be a café whose moniker is “death does not have the last word”. A safe place where my faith tradition is shared with others so that I hear stories about people who have died well within the confidence of being on the threshold of an eternal reality. Granted my death café sounds a bit exclusive as it would possibly not be very attractive to secularists or folks from other faith traditions; but at the end of the day, with facing my own mortality I want to hear a café filled with conversations about hope, faith, courage, love and forgiveness. I want to hear and talk about Jesus. I want to live life in the moment with increasing gratitude. Hearing stories about people who lived well up to the moment of their deaths is my cup of tea and I will happily eat some cake while doing so.

 

  1.  Ann Patchett, “Scared Senseless,” The New York Times Magazine, October 20, 2002.

The Universe, God and cancer

VISTA’s look at the Helix NebulaThe heavens declare the glory of God……

Psalm 19:1a

Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum theory, is most famous for his uncertainty principle. He once succinctly underscored the experience of many scientists who have tried to fit faith, scientific observation, and reason together. He said:

“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

My Late Arrival to the Natural Sciences

I have had intense curiosity about human nature most of my adult life. As a mental health clinician for many years, it only stands to reason that I should want to understand the psyche. But my husband is perplexed by my very, very late-developed, almost childlike, curiosity for the natural world.

First it was biology:

• how and why have dogs evolved to love us, or
• what purpose a may fly has that never eats, only mates and dies within 24 hours.

Then it was classical (Newtonian) physics and mechanics:

• how a bridge is suspended, or
• how hydraulic oil can multiply force.

Since diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer my obsession with the cosmos has taken center stage. I binge watch any science of the universe series I come across. I read just enough to make me an expert. I think about astrophysics. I talk in small numbers: 1 x 10-34 (the time between true creation and the Big Bang), and large numbers: the diameter of the universe (45,600,000,000 light-years – maybe – since it depends in part on where the observer is located. Call me, I’ll explain it to you.)

I have discovered, as the late Emily Levine said of herself,

“I have the ability to perfectly understand all science……. except, of course, the actual science, which is math.”

Hyperbole? Of course. I know little but there is no denying my mind soars when I think about string theory, dark matter and energy, space-time continuum. My curiosity about the cosmos, however elementary and void of a grand scientific intellect, is nonetheless, real joy.

But Why Now?

“But, why now?”, asks my husband as he sits mostly still through my retelling of each episode of “One Strange Rock.”

I would think the answer is obvious: facing my mortality brings the big life questions into deeper reflection and investigation. Is there a creator? Is God really there for me in a life to come? “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied,” writes Paul in a letter to Corinthian Christians.

I have lived most of my Christian life focusing on being his follower in the here and now. I have seen the evidence of God’s existence in the forgiveness I have received and experienced through the Christ who sacrificed himself for me. I have been the recipient of love and continue to be the recipient of love from others. I have felt the prayers and gracious kindness of so many that gratefulness has been more acutely experienced than ever before. I have seen and heard of lives transformed throughout the world by the Gospel, mine included.

It’s all there but I’m anticipating venturing into unknown territory. Thankfully Christ came, died and rose from the dead, and in doing so leads us out of death into a new kind of life. But the reality of living this Christian life is that I live it in community; dying is facing God alone. That can be a terrifying thought. If it isn’t, it should be. So, by looking at creation, particularly infinite creation (cosmos), I’m looking at the character, in part, of the Creator. And I am comforted by what I’m seeing.

Watching the Trailer

But my husband was still not completely convinced. “Dona, most people, maybe even all people, in your situation do not spend their time trying to understand Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. (See footnote below.) That is certain.”

David asked me to write about my obsession, believing the “Clarity of Ink” would bring more insight. And, he was right. I discovered my new interest in science is not just for reassurance (God are you out there?) but also for anticipation.

hargbhorseheadflame-final-image

Yes, God loves us beyond our comprehension but the one who loves us is also holy beyond our comprehension, powerful beyond our comprehension, infinitely mysterious and awesome beyond our comprehension. These thoughts are terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time. Entertaining my curiosity about God and the cosmos is building up the exhilaration of meeting the creator of the cosmos. My recent efforts to understand what I can about the Big Bang, quantum theory, and space-time is akin to a desire to watch the trailer for a highly anticipated movie; a taste of the wine from the vintage bottle.

The Creator is pleased with our curiosity. The abundant life that Christ said is ours as we believe in him is in process. What is joyous here should be exponentially more satisfying and thrilling in heaven.

I am learning and seeking answers that the cosmologist heavy weights are discovering. And my longing to know more and to be capable of knowing more will be increasingly fulfilled as I someday delight in a glorious awe-inspiring eternal discovery field trip.

I don’t suspect that in heaven I will spontaneously know all things. I hope not. I’m counting on joining the throngs who are forever learning more and more of the infinite mysteries and wonders of the Trinitarian God. Meanwhile, I will indulge my curiosity as far as it will take me in the here and now; trusting that it’s only the paltry beginning of something unimaginably beautiful and wonderful to come.


Footnote: In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, also known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, is any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, known as complementary variables, such as position x and momentum p, can be known simultaneously. (Easy-peasey!)