You rarely read of Jesus resting. More often than not he is on the move; preaching, teaching, healing, walking, sailing, eating … but rarely resting. So it comes as a surprise that one day after spending the morning in discussions with the Scribes and the Pharisees in the temple that we read he went out to the Mt. of Olives and there he sat down to rest and to be away from the crowds for a while. Now, the disciples who had followed him from a distance came to him, and being alone, they privately asked him a question that for some time had been heavy on their minds. “Lord, tell us,” they said, “when will come the end of the age?” Or in the original Greek, “Lord, tell us of the telos” (Matthew 24:3). I am not at all surprised by their inquiry. It is often when we are resting, either at the end of a long hard day or at the end of a long and busy life that we concern ourselves with such end of life issues or ask ourselves such teleological questions.
I know that to be true because I am an octogenarian minister who is drawing near to the end of his own time. I find it natural for me now to contemplate those end-of-life issues that didn’t seem particularly relevant to me just a few heartbeats ago! And my wife also has come to realize that even though she has spent years as an attorney specializing in estate planning, she too has become more sensitive to those end-of-life issues facing the aged now that she too is retired. Often when parishioners would attempt to discuss their end-of-life fears with me, I staved off their anxieties with confident allusions of theological convictions of the life to come. I knew that I wasn’t helping them resolve their dilemmas, but I didn’t know what else to do. Lawyers also face the dilemma of dealing with the questions clients ask but which, if carefully listened to, lead one to deeper issues that surface later on. For most clients, end-of-life issues are difficult to verbalize.
So, we write this now to help those who are anxious about some very real end-of-life issues and need some help categorizing them. When the disciples asked Jesus about the “telos” he didn’t tell them when it would be, but he did suggest that they be prepared. “Therefore you also must be ready” (Matthew 24:44). It is in that light that we suggest the following tasks in order to help us work through the end-of-life issues that confront us as we prepare ourselves for the unknown which is to come.
1) Write your own obituary. If you don’t, someone else will. Family members all too often have differing ideas as to what is important in a loved one’s life. I have written my own obituary and placed it under my computer screen where it will be easily accessible. My family knows where it is and they know that it will save them from trying to determine what I felt was important in my life. Having it immediately accessible will allow the newspaper to publish the announcement on their obituary page without undue delay.
2) Have a copy of your will readily accessible. It would be wise to visit with your attorney in order to update your present will and then keep a copy in your safe deposit box at the bank. However a copy of your will at home would be a convenience appreciated by all the members of your family. Let me at this point make one suggestion: do not let the division of your estate be declaration of your anger, pettiness or lack of forgiveness. Rather, let it be a testimony of your love and concern for those with whom you have shared this mortal life. Our thinking has always been that, in time, you will be remembered through the declarations you have made in your will.
3) We feel that having an executor of your estate is an extreme advantage and that it tends to mitigate any chance of disagreement among family members.
4) Clearly state your desire as to whether you want to be cremated or prepared for burial in a casket or if you want your body to be donated for medical purposes. You may also want to make this decision plain with the director of the mortuary that will be in charge of your funeral plans. If you choose cremation, that choice will determine the events of the next few days. Many funeral homes today have done away with viewing by allowing mourners to move through and sign a memory book instead of actually viewing the deceased. I gave a lecture at Grand Rounds at the Mayo Clinic years ago on the assigned subject: “When is the moment of death?” In my conclusion, I stated that death occurs at a precise moment in time. It was also my observation that there was little sense in extending that length of time by gazing lovingly at a corpse in a casket.
5) Determine whether you want a “memorial service” or a “witness to the resurrection” which is an order for the public worship of God. Oftentimes, a memorial service tends to memorialize the deceased with many participants telling anecdotal accounts of one they loved. A witness to the resurrection is a formal service outlined in the Directory for Worship and focuses upon the doctrine of the resurrection. This is a decision that should be discussed with your minister.
6) Write out your favorite Scripture. Think of a special text in Scripture that has guided your life or that has served as a mantra for your own personal meditation. Allow the minister to share it with others during the sermon. After a lifetime in the pulpit, it took me many years before I was challenged to select a ‘favorite’ text. Dr. L. Nelson Bell (Billy Graham’s father-in-law) asked me one Sunday as we stood at the narthex door after a worship service, ‘What is your favorite text?’ I responded that I really didn’t have just one text. Later that week as we sat in my study at the church, he went into long detail as to why it was important to have a ‘personal’ text. At the end of our conversation he autographed a copy of one of his books with the text inscribed (Proverbs 3:5-6). I have since chosen my personal text and I have included it in the plans I have made for my burial service.
7) Facing end-of-life issues is an appropriate time to consider forgiving anyone with whom you have had a broken relationship. There is no need to carry that baggage into the next life.
8) Contemplating one’s own demise is a good time to visit with your minister and discuss any fears you are facing. This is not a time to be alone or to think alone. It is a time to share your thoughts with your pastor who will pray with you and comfort you and console you and give you strength as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
9) Bless your loved ones! Let your last thoughts be thoughts of blessing your loved ones. Anoint them with a blessing from Scripture such as “May you live to see your children’s children” (Psalm 128:6) or one of the more traditional blessings as in Numbers 6:24-26 (The Lord bless you and keep you … .) so that the last words of your life may be words of love and blessing.
These are just a few suggestions to assist those who are facing end-of-life issues and who are having a difficult time organizing their thoughts due to the depression that ensues during such deliberations. Ministers and lawyers are on the front line in rendering assistance to those who are struggling with these issues. It is here that we would remind our colleagues that Jesus spoke with compassion to his disciples as he encouraged them to be ready for the telos. It is that same compassion which we need to share with those who come to us for guidance.
Donald D. McCall is a retired teaching elder and Barbara Blazek McCall is a retired ruling elder. They live in Madison, Wisconsin.