Day 21: Visit a Dying Friend

The heart of today’s mission is a difficult one . . and one I never would have really thought about until my father was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

But first, from a point of humility, I have never been faithful to visit sick or terminally ill friends.  It is probably one of the hardest ministries to do, at least for me, and I would guess for others, too, by the scarcity of friends who regularly stopped by my father’s house when he was dying.

One of the biggest regrets I have in life is not visiting a friend I had in college as he was dying of a rare muscular disease.  It wasn’t that I actively chose not to see him.  It was that I simply never fought to.  I think you have to fight to see someone whose dying.  You have to put to death something inside yourself that is very strong that demands that you stay around the living.  It is a very deep part of my sin nature.  It clings to me and its fingers promise life if I will but stay away from the dead.

Sin has brought into this world death, and with death, fear.  We are afraid to die.  If we know Jesus, we no longer have to be afraid to die, because we are a part of His forever family and He will bring us safely from the physical realm in which we live now to the spiritual realm where He dwells.

But can I confess something to you?  I am still at times afraid of dying.  And I don’t want to be around dying people, who remind me that death is real.

Yet one of the things that most drove me away from Christianity (or at least that I used as an excuse) was the number of friends my father had made, even mentored, who visited maybe once, maybe on the day he died, maybe not at all.  When I thought about it, I bubbled wrath from the inside out, nearly foaming at the mouth with rage, for far too long after his death.

But the reality is, I have been that very person.  I failed to see my friend James even once when he was dying.  I never saw him in the hospital.  I never told him how marvelous I really thought he was.

A few days before he died, he wrote me an email.  I remember that he said “heart weak”.

Somehow I thought that if I stayed away, I wouldn’t have to hurt.  I wouldn’t have to live in a world where people die and, most importantly to me then, I wouldn’t get a disease and die.

But now that I am a Christian, I see the real.  The real is, there is hurt everywhere.  If you love anyone, you risk losing them.  It doesn’t have to be to a terminal illness.  People die every day without any warning.

I’m not sure you can love without risking.  I know that God certainly doesn’t.  If He did, He would have given up on us when we chose sin over Him in the Garden of Eden.

Families dealing with a terminally ill grandparent, parent, or child don’t want you to disappear from the face of the earth in their time of need.  Instead, we long for help.  We might not be able to tell you what kind of help we want–the idea of even thinking about what kind of help would be useful can be overwhelming to a burdened and/or fatigued brain.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t want help.  It means you might have to guess what help we need and give it.

Branded on my mind is a friend of my father’s who visited him every single week.  He came and talked to him, listened to him, sat with him.  The friend who came had been a coworker with my father a few years before, but lost most contact so far as I knew once he took a new job.  I still don’t know how he found out that my dad was sick.  All I know is, he showed up one week, and he didn’t stop showing up until my father died.  Every week, there was Dan, at our front door, ready to be there for my dad.

It wasn’t any easy thing Dan had to do.  My father couldn’t talk intelligibly for several weeks before his death, but he thought he could.  He had a scary slur to his voice, and he looked ghastly because he’d lost so much weight.  It wasn’t easy to listen to him talk, or to try to understand what he was saying, or pretend you did.  Communication went into a black hole with my father and, though he tried to gesture to explain, often it was hopeless to know what he was saying.  On top of this, for several months before his death, he had an onset of serious dementia, and he was unrecognizable to who he had been.  He had the mind of a child most of the time.  And on top of this, when he drank his meals he would choke and sneeze the liquid meal replacement fluid across the table and sometimes beyond.  It was a heart-breaking thing to watch.

I have no idea how lonely it must have been for my father.  Just like I wasn’t there for James, I wasn’t there for my father, either.  It was so hard for me to connect, and I didn’t have the love of God in me.  I was swallowed whole by fear and escapism.

But Dan was there.  He came every week; talked to my father, listened to him, sat with him.

It’s a lot easier, at least for me, to give money to people who help those in need rather than to help those in need myself.  That absolutely does not mean it’s not important to give.  Paul taught that we can participate in the mission work of other believers by our giving.

But giving is not all God’s expecting of you if you know Him.  Jesus did not give His money to us and then go back into Heaven.  He personally lived among us, and He died for us.  It was His blood, His sweat, and His tears at Calvary.

Visiting a dying friend is a hard ministry.  But it’s one I want to have in my life.  Jesus didn’t reject me when I cost Him everything He had.  Why do I think I can reject a friend or family member in need when visiting them costs me a bit of what I have?

We don’t want to visit people who are dying because it causes us–I think it forces us–to reflect on our fragility and mortality.  No one wants to believe they could be the cancer patient who’s vomiting and vomiting from chemotherapy.  No one wants to believe they could be the old man who’s forget his name and how to button his pants.  No one wants to believe they could be the twenty-year-old staggering from a muscular disease.

But we all could be.  And whether we visit or not doesn’t change that reality.  What does change is our status in Heaven.  On earth, you can be famous for shooting a basketball, making it on the Forbes list, or starring in a movie.  But in Heaven, people will be famous for how many times they visited Jesus.

The one who the angels ask for autographs will be the one who visited their Jesus.

“Whoa!  You got to see Jesus how many times in the hospital?” they’ll say.

Or, “Aren’t you the one who went to see Jesus every week when He was in that nursing home?”

Or, “I know you!  You’re the one who brought Jesus flowers.”

Or, “Hey!  Aren’t you the Christian who went to see Jesus in that cancer center when no one else did?”

But that won’t be anything like when your friend starts coming towards you, bringing Jesus Himself to meet you.

Visit a dying friend.

“I was sick, and you visited Me”

(Jesus, quoted in Matthew 25:36b, NASB)