Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The good death

I just found out that Al Lehman died on Monday. It’s been a long journey, this death.

Al and Lois have been part of North Valley Friends since before its founding.  I remember when Hal and I were newly married and began attending Springbrook Friends, one of the meetings that merged to form North Valley. Al was teacher of the adult Sunday school class. Newly graduated from college, as well as newly married, I was a bit of a rebel at the time, highly critical of anything to do with church. But I loved that class. More to the point, I loved Al and his gentle way of opening the Scriptures and of encouraging us to engage with them and with each other.

In the following years, each time Hal and I would return from Bolivia for our furlough year in Oregon, Al and Lois were a stabilizing factor for us in the church. They were like parents in the faith and never seemed to change, were always part of the life and health of the community we came home to.

I was with the elders visiting Al and Lois in their home on Sunday afternoon. Al never woke up during that time, and his labored breathing formed a sort of background music to our visit. We sat with Lois and Bev, sang some old hymns, with Hal’s harmonica accompaniment—songs like “Blessed Assurance,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder.” We then all talked about what Al had meant to us, and the strong testimony of a consistent, faithful, gentle life unfolded.

Lois shared that the day before God had given her an unexpected gift. Al woke up and was conscious for about an hour. During that time they again expressed their love to each other. Lois was smiling as she told us, “I didn’t think I get another chance to tell him I loved him.” Bev shared about how her father never wanted his last months to be like this, did not want to be so dependent on family for every need, but that as his condition gradually worsened, he just seemed to accept that this was how it was to be. He walked gently and submissively through the whole experience.

We prayed for Al and the family, sat around for a short while longer and left, not realizing this was his last day with us.

I’m remembering reading about the spiritual discipline of the “good death,” a practice in years gone by, not spoken of much anymore. For the life of me (interesting phrase), I can’t find the source of my reading. I’ve googled it and find thousands of references to a “good death,” all contemporary. Today the phrase pertains more to the medical profession than to Christianity, and is linked with practices such as hospice care. It basically means a death with as little physical and spiritual pain as possible. That’s good. Al and the family benefitted from hospice care during the last several months.

But the “good death” as a spiritual discipline has another sense entirely. Rather than something the dying person receives at the hand of others, it is a gift that person gives to others. It refers to letting one’s death be as full of Jesus and of the fruits of the Spirit as one’s life was. It means letting the way the person handles death become a ministry in itself, a blessing to the community. It results in a deep joy that mingles with sorrow as the person finally slips over the edge and into Life.

Of course, for that to even be possible, a person would have to have lived a consistently Spirit-filled life.  Over a long period of time.  Al Lehman was such a person, and while we will all miss him, I smile as I imagine him now in the presence of the One he loved. And I thank him for giving us the gift of a good death.

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