A Pastor Facing Death
by Bill Davis | 25 October 2019 |
What’s it like to face death?
As a younger person I didn’t think about death very deeply. In my early years of ministry, as I performed funerals, I would talk about death and how it wasn’t something to be afraid of. In trying to give comfort to people, I would always go back to the idea that death ain’t no big deal. Death of course is a great enemy, but I was trying to reassure people that death shouldn’t scare us, we shouldn’t worry about it—after all it’s only a brief nap and Jesus comes.
But then it happened to me. I remember the doctor hanging his head and saying, “I’m sorry, Pastor Davis, there’s little we can do.”
Now it was my turn to face mortality. I was the one who would have to deal with what death meant for me, my wife, my children, and the many people who cared for me and whom I cared deeply about.
From Courage to Emptiness
At first I was brave. I remembered a Tim McGraw song about a man living like he were dying:
“I went skydiving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.”
And he said,
“Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying.”
Yes, I did have a bucket list—there were things I wanted to do.
First, there were some people I needed to apologize to, relationships that needed to be made up. I did some of that, and making peace gave me peace of mind. Confession is good for the soul.
But there was still an emptiness that occupied my mind. I tried to fill it with activity. I had a terrible urge to travel. I busied myself with visits to family and friends, going places I had never been before, and going back to places that meant a lot to me.
There came dark days, too, times of doubt and worry. What would happen to my wife? There were bills to pay. There was a house and cars and bank accounts, all of which I’d always taken care of. Little by little I began to teach Yrma what she needed to know. I got in touch with my brother and asked him to be the executor of my will.
The more of these things I did to prepare for death, the more darkness filled my heart. This was it! I was standing on the cliff about to fall off into the abyss. Fear and doubt replaced calm assurance.
Early on, I’d read the book of Job, and I wanted to be like him. I was a minister, after all. I was to be a man of faith. Relating to Job’s experience at first felt good, and helped me get through some dark times.
But often, instead of feeling like Job, I felt more like Elijah. When things were bad, Elijah hid in a cave and asked God to simply take his life. Depression and desperation controlled my thoughts and my words.
Up until then, I hadn’t had pain with my disease. But then came a disabling neuropathy, numbness in my feet which made it difficult to walk. I had trouble with balance, and fell down a few times. I started to use a cane. Even that was OK—I just decided that I would be fashionable about it.
Then I became ill with a flu that sent me to bed for three days, and afterwards I couldn’t walk at all. I used an electric wheelchair to get around. I was losing weight at a tremendous rate, and with the weight loss also came a loss of muscle. My legs could no longer hold me up, my arms were so weak that I couldn’t lift myself out of bed. My core couldn’t sustain me in an upright position. If I started to fall, I couldn’t stop myself: I would fall flat against the floor or the street, wherever I happened to be. The worst part was that I couldn’t get back up once I fell.
I was anointed on three different occasions, asking God either for healing or the sweet release of death. But I had neither healing nor the sweet release of death. I felt as if God didn’t care. I began to doubt not God’s existence, but God’s care for me personally. I don’t know what’s worse: to conclude that God just isn’t there, or that yes, God is there, but doesn’t care. The feelings of self-loathing combined with doubt about God left me angry.
My personality changed. Gone was the happy-go-lucky, fun-loving person I had been. I became very angry. Angry with myself. Angry with God. My anger started to destroy my life and my relationships. I withdrew from other people. Instead of being loving and caring with my wife, I was rude and mean. I knew it was wrong but I couldn’t help myself. It was as if resentment had filled my heart and mind. The pain was unbearable at times, and I would lash out at her instead of at the illness.
Another recipient of my rage was myself. Negative self-talk was common and I really did hate my body because it was weak! I lived in a dark and dismal universe of my own creation. Death would be a welcome relief. Though I don’t think I would ever have done it, I had thoughts about suicide.
For two years I was in and out of the hospital with near-death events. Time after time the doctors brought me back from the brink of death. Often it was due to a low immune system from my condition. Other times it was malnutrition caused by malabsorption in the intestine, caused by repeated infections.
During one of my hospital visits, I was introduced to the concept of self-acceptance. As I read about self-hate and the need to accept myself as worthy and valuable in spite of disability, I started to see myself and others in a new light. My attitude changed, first toward myself, and slowly toward others.
A Life-Saving Therapy
Yet even as I changed my attitude, my body continued to destroy itself so rapidly that I ended up in the hospital again with, the doctors said, two days to live.
Total parenteral nutrition (TPN) is a form of feeding that allows nutrition, vitamins and minerals to bypass the intestines and go straight into the bloodstream. For almost a year gastroenterologists had been suggesting it. However, this process leaves one open to infections of a very serious nature, and neither my immunologists nor infectious disease specialists wanted to sign off on my receiving it.
But at 108 pounds (I’m 6’3” tall) and dropping fast, I had no other choice. If I did not receive TPN I would be dead in a couple of days. After discussing the pros and cons, and being made aware of the dangerous infections that I might contract, I gave my consent. That decision is paying off. I have gained 40 pounds and I am feeling much better.
And yet I still face death every day. The slightest infection to the bloodstream would cause my death in hours, not days.
How to Face Death?
This article is supposed to be about how a pastor, one who preached many sermons to comfort others, faces death himself. I wish I could tell you a wonderful miracle story about how God miraculously touched my body and made me whole. But God has chosen a different way. For now, God has chosen to save my life through the ingenious inventions of medical science I feel blessed by the ability that God has given women and men to develop medical miracles such as TPN and other scientific solutions to our medical problems.
So often we expect God to work in biblical ways, to heal by the laying on of hands, and to demand miracles by faith. Don’t get me wrong—I believe in miracles. I am a walking miracle myself. I have received temporary relief through prayer and anointing.
But even in those occasions where God has touched my life by the faith of others and their prayers for me, and my own desperate cries for deliverance, I have been learning to accept the words spoken to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God knows what is best for me and what is needed for my own spiritual, mental, and emotional development. I don’t pretend to have answers. I can only share what’s happening in my own life.
So let me answer the question: “How do you face death?”
First, I accept that death is a reality that cannot be avoided. Some people want to live forever right here and now, working so hard to prolong their earthly life through diet and exercise, through meditation and yoga, that they seem to be on an endless quest to stay alive.
For me, death is the result of living in a world where things are not as they’re supposed to be. Iniquity has caused destruction and death to be an everyday occurrence. In fact, it is normal. We fight against it, we try to legislate against it, we even try to eat, drink and exercise ourselves out of the reality that sooner or later life on this earth will end.
Before you say that I have become fatalistic, I want to make one thing very clear: I have a dream for the future here, not just a future in the earth made new or heaven. I still have earthly plans and hopes and dreams. I believe that as followers of Jesus we should care about the quality of life here and now. I believe we are called to be caretakers of our bodies and our planet, and especially of one another.
But no matter how much we do, death will continue until it is “swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Acceptance has made death easier to face because I know that I cannot beat it—but I also know that in the end it cannot beat me. So there is room for faith, hope and love in my life.
Second, I try to live each day as a miracle. Jesus said that we should consider the lilies of the field, and I’ve tried that. The natural world goes on in spite of the pain, the suffering, and the seeming injustice that is thrust upon it. Hemingway entitled one of his books The Sun Also Rises. I like that: what is important is that no matter what every day brings, the sun rises. In my life, every sunrise gives hope and every sunset gives a reason for rejoicing!
Third, I seek to live my life as it is with purpose. Every day I get up and face the future. I seek to interact with life around me. I look at the world through the eyes of journalists, commentators, preachers, teachers, and prophets. I’m engaged with this life and with the people around me. Through staying positive I find it easier to face the challenges of each day. .
Finally, I don’t let death interrupt life on a daily basis. As Ira Stanphill’s gospel song says, “But I know who holds tomorrow, And I know who holds my hand.” That helps me to remember that I am not alone, hopeless, or forsaken. I have a friend in the business of bringing life out of death. I know that God loves me and “Perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).
I face death every day in a very real way. I am one infection away from the grave. But because of who God is and because of our friendship, I keep reminding myself that I have a future. With faith, hope and love I try to make each day worth living for myself and others.
Bill Davis was a pastor and administrator in the Nevada Utah Conference 2013-2018. He’s earned a D.Min. as well as a Ph.D. in Business Administration with a focus on organizational leadership. He is married to Yrma, and has four grandchildren. He has been on long term disability since 2018, suffering from a severe form of hypogammaglobulinemia, an autoimmune disease thought to be genetic.