We humans tend to cling very tightly to life. But today, we look at the end of life, particularly through the perspective of Paul.
The story is told of an old man, lying in the bed in the back bedroom, surrounded by his wife, daughter, and his four granddaughters. His breath was coming slowly, almost in sighs, and the time between the sighs was stretching to longer and longer periods.
Finally, when the silence had stretched to an unbearable length, the youngest granddaughter threw herself on the bed and cried, “Oh, Grandpa, Grandpa! Don’t leave us,” and then she began to cry. Her grandfather slowly moved his hand to pat her arm, then took a deep breath and said, “Let me go. It’s peaceful there.” 
Many of us are much like the youngest granddaughter, clinging to life as hard as we can. As we get older, some of us grow to be more like the old man, welcoming death as an end to the struggles and pains of this life. Some pray that they will be released into death.
While we tend to avoid talking about death, we all die in the end. Mortality rates remain at 100 percent, and nobody among us is getting any younger, no matter what plastic surgeons can accomplish.
One of the greatest movements of the Spirit in our lives is this: to prepare us for the end of our lives, without fear. The Spirit has done this work in Paul, and he wants his friends in Philippi to know it, and to be at peace with him.
Truth be told, we are much better at talking about life than death. Notice that on the front of the bulletin, I put an image of a butterfly, not a headstone or a skull, because I have the same problem. Much better to be greeted by an image of resurrection than a skeleton of Halloween!
Last weekend was the celebration of the Day of the Dead. Comprising All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day, it celebrates those who have died before us. Popular images of death are used like skulls and skeletons, all combined with colorful flowers, candles parades, and music, often up-beat. While the images are stark, the purpose is high celebration with our departed loved ones. It is a re-enlivening of their presence with us in quite a party. One such celebration I attended concluded with everyone dancing in the aisles to “Dancing In the Street.” Such joy and energy! It brought tears to my eyes!
So here is our question for the day: How do we think about death? Jesus talked about death as “going to the Father.” As Jesus prepared for the last supper with his disciples, Jesus was reminded that he was going to the Father (John 13:1). John also gives us glorious poetic, liturgical language in Revelation, where he talks about God as the One who is, who was and who is to come. The God who was holds all of our past. The God who is holds us in loving arms right now. And the God who is to come is the One who waits for us on the other side of life as we know it. Whether in this life or the next, we meet the same God of love, a loving parent.
Let’s be honest, though. There is fear in death. Life on the other side is completely unknown, and the transition is traumatic. There are people who have had near-death experiences and come back to say that it is goodness, light and beauty. Some have lost their fear of death and yearn for a return to that place of peace. But they are rare who have this experience. The rest of us, when we think about death, we think about pain, separation from those we love, loss of everything we know. In fear, we mostly avoid thinking about it at all.
Jesus knew this kind of fear too. He spoke out of the terrible pain of the transition from one life to the next, when he cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There are women in childbirth, giving a child the transition into this life, who say much worse things! And if babies had words, I wonder what they would say as they are pushed and squeezed through the birth canal and thrust into white light and blaring noise – well, they just might scream! I wonder how many people enter the next life with a scream, not unlike an infant’s.
I hated going to the doctor for my flu shot every year. Mom never told us when it was going to happen. One day after school she would just load us up into the car and take us to the doctor’s office where our hearts raced and we tried to avoid what was next, with tears and hiding. And if we saw nurse Alice call our names, we knew we were on Santa’s naughty list. She was terrible at giving shots and had no bedside manner, to boot! But on the way home, it was so much easier! Yes, my arm was sore, but I knew how to live with that and I knew it was temporary. It was so much easier, once I was on the other side!
But converting our death-fear into life-courage is not easy. We are surrounded by a life- and youth-worshiping culture. This is no recent development. Herodotus in the 5th century BCE talked about a fountain of youth. There are tales of Alexander the Great entering “the land of darkness” to find this fountain of youth. The royal charter for the expedition of Ponce de León in the 16th century sent him to look for the land of Binini, where the fountain of youth was an item of lore. Even Harry Potter’s nemesis was after the cure for death. Everywhere you see advertisements for tricks to looking younger. It would seem that our only approach to death is avoidance!
How do we think about death? Really, this may be the key. Our thought life. Can we change our thoughts in order to free ourselves from the fear of death? When we think about things the same way all the time, we begin to believe our thoughts even if they are not true. We get so many messages from our surroundings that life here is all there is, so get all you can before you die and lose everything. What do we do to protect our souls from these messages?
Paul had certainly developed a different way of thinking about death. For Paul, death is not about losing anything. It is about gaining Christ. Paul’s life had meaning because of his relationship with God. He had moments of ecstasy he described as being taken up into the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2). For Paul, death is more life because it is more of God!
He writes the letter to the Philippians from jail, facing his possible death. Yet it is here that he gives us some of his most positive, yearning feelings about death. For me living is Christ and dying is gain. He loved his work for Christ’s kingdom in this life. And he loved Christ, too, and wanted to share life with him.
Paul may be one of those people who had a “near-death” experience – on the road to Tarsus, or during one of his shipwrecks or other adventures. He talks like them. He clearly knew, down to his toes, that death was only a passage from this life to the next. He wanted everyone he met to understand that there is no fear in death. For death leads to life. Because he didn’t fear death, he could do amazing, bold things to teach and heal and draw people together into little kingdom of God communities all over the Roman empire! And so could they!
So it is time we change our thinking about death. How? Well, I don’t recommend contriving a near-death experience for yourself. And there are not many role models for the idea that “dying is gain.” But let me suggest two ways to begin, taught by the apostles and other Jesus-followers throughout all time.
First, saturate yourself with the gospel of life. Remind yourself daily, hourly in the course of your life that God is life and is friending you every step of your day. Just Paul’s simple phrase here would be easy to put to memory, and use it morning and evening – to start and end your day: For me living is Christ and dying is gain.
It does take the discipline of remembering to do this. The disciples went to the Temple daily for the prayers. For the same reason, priests and monks established prayer hours to mark the day. They gathered every three hours around the clock for prayer, though not all communities gather for Matins (midnight) or Lauds (3 a.m.). Our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship recommends a simpler schedule: Morning, Midday, Evening and Night Prayers. We include most of the elements of morning prayer in our Sunday worship together. And, this summer, we began the Sunday practice of Night Prayer. It is easy to do them at home as well. If you want to pray with a community, there are online communities who pray the hours and have prayer helps for you to join. Or, you could get a prayer book and follow the traditional prayers yourself. Or, more simply, just set your phone to remind you to pray at 9, noon, 6 and 9 again. And if all you pray is the Lord’s Prayer, or repeat for yourself Paul’s words, For me living is Christ and dying is gain, it is enough. It is enough to begin to change the way you think, to move your practice into your heart.
The second way I know of to change our thinking is for the more contemplative types. The practice of meditation is known in Christianity and many other traditions, to teach us the skill of letting go of our self-interest in order to be at one with the God of the universe. The first method moves from the outside in. It places words in our minds in order to change our hearts. Meditation moves the other direction. It opens the heart first, in order to let the presence of God be at home.
Through meditation, we can learn to experience the God for whom Paul yearned. Like praying the hours, it takes time and regular practice. But it isn’t about using words. Instead it is about silencing all words in order to be present with God who is the living One.
The truth of the good news is that no matter what it feels like, God is with us, holding us on both sides of the transition, and even through the last sometimes painful breath. There is nowhere we can go when God is not holding us. This is the gospel!
Imagine living each day liberated from the fear of death! Imagine how it might change your values, perspectives and actions. To trust that no good thing is lost, but that all goodness will be taken up and collected in God – think of how that frees you to do good without reservation.
Brian McLaren ends his chapter of reflecting on death with this guided meditation. Many of us remember the experience as children of “waiting your turn.” Maybe it was waiting your turn to ride a pony at the county fair,… or waiting your turn to ride a sled down a hill in winter snow. Imagine the feeling of having had your turn on this Earth and having enjoyed it thoroughly. Now, you are ready to step aside to let someone else have their turn. In that way, even dying can be an act of love and generosity: vacating space to make room for others, especially generations as yet unborn, just as others vacated their space so you could have your turn in this life. Perhaps the act of letting others have their turn will be one of our most mature and generous actions, a fitting end to our adventure in this life. At that moment, it will be our turn to graduate into a new adventure, beyond all imagining.
As we walk this road, we not only remember the past, we also anticipate the future, which is described as a great banquet around God’s table of joy. When you pass from this life, do not be afraid. You will not pass into death. You will pass through death into a greater aliveness still— the banquet of God. Trust God, and live. 
 Jeff Wedge, Struggles, Death, and Christ at www.store.sermonsuite.com/content.php?i=26038
 McLaren, Brian D., We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation, New York, Jericho Books, (p. 252).