He who believe in Him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
One of my favorite movies is “Vacation” starring Chevy Chase. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Aunt Edna, this rude old woman who tags along on the Griswald family’s vacation across America dies. They put her on the patio of “cousin Normie’s” house and cover her with a blanket and an umbrella because it’s raining. In a hurry to move along on the vacation, Clark (Chevy Chase’s character) rushes to leave. Ellen (Clark’s wife, who is related to Aunt Edna) insists that he “say something.” Clark gathers the family around and offers a most irreverent prayer, “Oh God, ease our suffering in this, our moment of great despair. Yea, admit this good and decent woman into Thine arms and the flock in Thine heavenly area up there. And Moab he laidest down behind the land of the Canaanites. And yea, though the Hindus speak of karma—I implore You, give her a break.” (Vacation Script – transcript from the screenplay and/or Chevy Chase movie from National Lampoon (script-o-rama.com))
This scene plays through my mind every so often when I go to the hospital to minister to someone who is dying who I don’t know. The scene plays out often enough that it merits mention in this unit on a painless, blameless Christian end to our lives. Because this happens actually quite often. I receive a call from a hospital asking “for a Greek priest” to visit someone’s yiayia who is dying. I will of course go to the hospital and minister to the patient and the family because Christian love dictates so. Many times, by this point, the patient will be unresponsive. And the family will say something like “do that thing you do so that yiayia will go to heaven.” As if I have some kind of magic power to send someone to heaven. They will insist that I give yiayia Holy Communion, as if that is some kind of magic elixir that will make up for the fact that yiayia hasn’t been in church for years, maybe even decades. In order to receive Holy Communion, there are many “requirements” if you will, the first of which is faith in Jesus Christ. On a practical level, one must voluntarily agree to receive Holy Communion—it is not imposed on someone. And they must be able to consume the Communion, that is they need to be able to swallow. (One fascinating thing that has often happened with people who have dementia is that they won’t recognize a person or remember a name, but when they hear a hymn being sung, they will do “something” that indicates they understand on some level what is going on. I’ve seen people who have had strokes and can no longer talk sing a hymn with me and then become silent again. Some great advice I received when I was a new priest was “always sing when you visit someone, especially someone with cognitive impairment, it unlocks part of their brain and takes them back to younger years.” (This advice is good for people who aren’t priests, too.)
I have had numerous instances throughout my ministry where I went to the hospital to visit someone who stopped coming to church years before, usually because they were angry with someone; or I visit someone who never came to church. I remember visiting one such man many years ago and saying to him “Is there anything you would like to talk about regarding your faith?” The man answered me “How are you, Father?” I answered him “We’re not here to talk about me, we’re here to talk about you.” He continued, “How are your wife and your son? Are you happy in this community?” I interrupted and said “Sir, I’m here because you are dying, probably tonight, and I’m here to see if there is anything you want to talk about regarding your faith, if you are scared, if you are ready to meet the Lord, if there is anything you want to talk about before you pass away.” He said, “I’m good Father.” To which I said “You haven’t been in church in years. I’m not asking you to have this conversation with me, I’m begging you to have it.” He replied, “I’m all good.” I was so sad when I walked away from his room.
Situations like the one with yiayia or this man happen all the time. People give no thought to faith and at the end, either remain indifferent or cry out in desperation for me to do something to make up for all the years of indifference. Someone actually said to me one time, “You understand Father, I’ve been busy my whole life, I was always working, so I never came to church, you understand, right?” To which I thought, “It’s not me that sits on the judgment seat, you don’t have to convince me.”
One thing we should all understand, is that God will decide who enters into the Kingdom of heaven and who does not. We (especially me) don’t have the power to declare someone is going to heaven or someone is not going. That decision rests with the Lord and with Him alone. It is very sad to me, however, when people pass away without much sense of the Lord, or desire to know Him, or have spent no time learning about Him, worshiping Him, or telling others about Him. I don’t know the heart of people who don’t ever worship, but I would imagine that those who never worship are probably not spending a whole lot of time praying, reading the Bible, repenting or encouraging others to do the same.
The saddest deaths are these instances of desperation or indifference. When I think of the worst possible way to die, I don’t think of a disfiguring accident or a painful illness. I think the worst way to die is without faith, and without having given thought to the faith.
Thou hast dealt well with Thy servant, O Lord, according to Thy word. Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in Thy commandments. Before I was afflicted I went astray; but no I keep Thy word. Thou art good and doest good; teach me Thy statutes. The godless besmear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep Thy precepts; their heart is gross like fat, but I delight in Thy law. It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn Thy statutes. The law of Thy mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. Psalm 119:65-72
The worst way to die is to die without faith. As we go through our lives, collecting things and building a legacy, let us not forget that we need faith. Because at the end of life, faith is all that will matter. It is the only thing we can take with us.