People don’t tend to knock when they come into my office. Maybe it’s my location near the bookstore, maybe it’s the nature of the space, but people don’t tend to knock.
So I wasn’t really surprised when I turned around from my telephone conversation to see an elderly woman looking at my collection of tea. She had simply walked in without knocking.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“I hope so,” she replied.
Can I help you? In some contexts that’s a question of commerce. Can I help you find something that you would like to purchase? Sometimes, it’s a question of dismissal. You have intruded into my space, can I now politely get rid of you?
But in a campus ministry office, indeed, in the context of any concern for ministry, for the Good News, this must be a question of invitation.
“Can I help you?” I asked. “I hope so” she replied. And I thought, “I hope so too.”
Her question was serious. Her question was pastoral. It was about a friend, and I knew it really was about a friend, not just a cover for her own question.
Her friend was, like her, elderly. But she was also sick, she was dying. Indeed, she had already had a near-death experience.
And that was what scared her friend. No shining light, no angels, no sound, no joy, just darkness and silence. In her moment close to death she met darkness and silence. And now this woman of faith was frightened of death. She didn’t want to go into that darkness, into that silence.
Could I help this woman in my office find a way to help her friend? I hoped so.
Turning to Scripture
We began with the Scriptures. Her friend met darkness and silence? Well that is exactly what the Bible suggests that she will meet. “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence,” writes the psalmist (115:17). That is what you meet when you go into the sleep of death.
Maybe the problem is that her friend’s imagination has been so taken up with the our culture’s stories of light and angels in others’ near-death experiences that she was frightened because her experience didn’t match those stories. Maybe she had fallen prey to that romanticized view of heavenly existence that had been the church’s heresy for so long.
So we talked about resurrection. We talked about 1 Thessalonians 4 and the dead rising first. We talked about a triumphal eschatological “meeting” with the Lord in order to accompany him, as the New Jerusalem comes down as a bride out of heaven to the earth. We talked about a new creation, redeemed bodies.
All good stuff. All true. All custom-made to provide a deeper hope in the face of death than any of the sentimental, pious, and dualistic alternatives.
The elderly woman was excited. She was taking notes. Yes, maybe this would help. Maybe her friend needed to imagine things differently.
Holding Out a Hand
And yet, I knew all along that these were all ideas. Good ideas, even true ideas, but ideas nonetheless. Could ideas give this woman’s dying friend comfort? Somehow I knew that they couldn’t. At least not on their own.
So we came back to the fear. What is she afraid of? She’s afraid of the dark. She’s afraid of that silence and that loneliness of the dark. Well, what do we do when children are afraid of the dark? Tell them not to be silly? Tell them that there are no monsters under their bed? No. That won’t comfort a child afraid of the dark.
Some parents buy their kids a night light so they won’t actually have to deal with the dark. Sylvia and I have never gone that route. There is darkness. And it can be scary, but artificially illuminating that darkness is, well . . . artificial.
What do we do with our kids when they are afraid of the dark? We climb into bed with them or we invite them into our bed. Are you afraid of the dark? Then come and let me hold you, let me cuddle you. You will still have to face the dark, and we will have to be silent if we are to embrace sleep, but you will not have to face the darkness and the silence alone. Come into the dark, but come with my arms surrounding you, my breath beside your face, my heart beating close to yours. There, my darling, now go gently into your sleep tonight.
The difference between my kids being cuddled to sleep and a friend being cuddled unto death is that while my children will wake up alone in their beds, that friend will wake up still cuddled—in the healing arms of Jesus.
And this is what the woman in my office needed to hear. She needed to hear that she was called to embrace her friend unto death. She needed to know that her love for her frightened friend was an invitation for her to hold her friend as she enters into the darkness and the silence of her death.
An incredibly high calling. A wonderful honor and privilege.
I then prayed for the woman who walked into my office without knocking. I prayed that she would receive this ministry of cuddling in the dark, cuddling unto death, with joy and peace.