Life, Death and Some Things Inbetween

As a Christian I feared death more than anything. One would think with the hope of heaven in my heart and mind, I would find comfort in closing my eyes for the final time. After all, isn’t the thought of heaven a much better alternative than life here on this earth? Not for me. Let me explain.

I am now of the position that one of the foundational reasons people buy into religion on any level is fear of the unknown and the promise of something better beyond this life. My conversion experience at seven years of age is a case in point. My home church in Houston was hosting a good old-fashioned Southern Baptist revival. The preacher was giving it his all that night, warning us of the dangers of hell and the terrible experience that the Bible promises it will be for those who did not accept the Lord as their Savior. So that night I went home and told my dad that I didn’t want to go to hell. He told me I didn’t have to and that all I had to do was ask Jesus into my heart (as the saying goes). And so I did.

Fear led me to the crossroads of decision. Hope led me to make the only choice really presented to me that night.

I remember around the age of 26, sitting on the floor of my apartment and watching an episode of ER. In the scene a young man lay dying on the hospital bed with his family standing around him. It was in that moment that I imagined my life ending. I recall closing my eyes and thinking what it would be like not to wake up. In that moment of realization at my own mortality, I was overwhelmed by anxiety and paralyzing fear. It was the first time I truly allowed doubt to take hold in my life.

How did I know for certain what the Bible said was true? Could I believe it’s claims? What about other religions and faiths? How can we all be right? What if I am wrong?

These were the very basic questions that I had been taught as a teenager and young adult. At the time I was a youth pastor at Saddleback Church, teaching hundreds of young people each week the same answers to these questions I had learned. But those rote answers were no longer enough for me.

In my search for answers, I would find differing views and opinions to my basic questions which would lead me to even more questions. At a youth pastor seminar one time the speaker said, “A faith crisis for a pastor is a career crisis”. That hit home with me because youth ministry was all I knew as a way of life and as a career. So in response to this reality, I buried my doubts. I reaffirmed my faith and became an even more aggressive evangelist. Much like the quote I wrote on the SCP Facebook page recently:

I must have certainty! So for me to be sure the gospel will redeem me, I have to believe that you need it too. Hence I cannot be satisfied thinking you might not need it. If I admit that something else might do the trick for you, I have to suspect that something else might work better for me too.

However, my fears never left me. I prayed for peace and never had it. As I got older my anxiety over death increased and I lost many nights sleep. I would not sleep for fear of not waking up. It wasn’t every night, but more and more as time went on. One of my greatest fears was dying and not being able to see my loved ones, particularly my children, anymore. I remember on more than one occasion telling God in prayer that dying and going to heaven would be hell without my kids.

Church people will talk about the hope of heaven and a better life that awaits those that believe. I could never understand how my life could be better than the one I have here on earth. I still feel that way today. Maybe I would feel differently if I didn’t live where I live or have a job or was homeless. Maybe so, I don’t know. But having faced some fairly challenging life experiences over the past few years, I can say that these things didn’t draw me closer to God. It’s not that I blame God for my tough times as some seem to think. It’s actually just the opposite. I know God had nothing to do with any of the bad stuff in my life.

I no longer live in fear of death nor do I hope for something better in the hereafter. My motivation is to live each day to its fullest and enjoy my little slice of heaven in the here and now. That’s really all I can do.

We Have What We Need

No matter what happened to us in the past, right now we can take responsibility for working compassionately with our habits, our thoughts and emotions. We can take the emphasis off who hurt us and put it on disentangling ourselves. If someone shoots an arrow into my chest, I can let the arrow fester while I scream at my attacker, or I can remove the arrow as quickly as possible. In this very lifetime, I have what it takes to change the movie of my life so that the same things don’t keep happening to me. ~ Pema Chodron (“Taking the Leap”)

I love this teaching. This is the realization that we are stronger than we often think and we do not have to look outside of ourselves for strength to get through whatever is in our life at the moment.