October 10, 2018

Mentioning the Unmentionable

Death is a very real word and a very real reality. For followers of the One who defeated death, it is the next logical step in our eternal trust walk with triune God.

Just last week I had the honor of sitting with a close relative who was dying. At age 95 she was coming to the end of a rich and full life with an uncommon amount of grace. Her vision had long-since been depleted due to macular degeneration. A once-svelte body had become increasingly dysfunctional through the ravages of age. But her heart was tender and her spirit was bright. As I sat by her bed on what would become the last Friday afternoon of her life, she asked me to dial the numbers of friends and relatives and hold her Jitterbug phone close to her ear so she could talk one last time with people she cherished and say a final “goodbye.”

I’m a pastor. I’ve been with people who were dying—many times. I’ve been around people and their foibles a lot. What shouldn’t have surprised me like it did was the inability of the people she called to deal with her beautiful gesture of outreach. They didn’t know how to respond to someone they would likely never speak with again. Such is the stigma actual death still enjoys in our “advanced” contemporary culture. After some small talk, the conversations would go something like this:

“Well (insert uncomfortable pause of varying lengths), thanks so much for the call.
You’re sounding great!”
(She just told you she was DNR, lying in a hospice bed, with only days to live.)
“Um (another pause) so, I guess I’ll see you soon then….”
(No…no, I’m pretty sure you won’t. That was kind of the point.)

Most of us don’t know how to deal with death. Even followers of the resurrected Christ say things like, “I hear she ‘passed’.” That’s what you say when someone gets the results of an exam—not at the end of a life.

Death is a very real word and a very real reality. For those whose religion is based on other philosophical systems, death might just be the cessation of this accidental molecular anomaly we call “life.” But for followers of the One who defeated death, it is the next logical step in our eternal trust walk with triune God.

Why am I writing this in a worship blog in October? Because the church has a solution to our discomfort with disassociation from ongoing life on terra firma: All Saints’ Day.

On All Saints’ Day (or, for most of us, the Sunday closest to it) we can boldly mention the (culturally) unmentionable, remembering all whose lives have been made holy because “of the unmerited work of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (The Worship Sourcebook, 2nd edition, p. 754).

What a world. On the one hand, our entertainment of choice is often filled with death and destruction. We pay good money to see lots of people we don’t know die. On the other hand, we don’t know how to respond when someone close to us calls to say their final goodbye. Happily, this world has a Savior who has triumphed over death, that Savior has a mission, and that mission has a church. So, when we gather as a church, let’s mention the unmentionable—call it by its name, and proclaim Christ’s victory on the first Sunday in November and every other Sunday. And if someone calls you to say goodbye, thank them for their life and their love and celebrate with them that this life we know is just the foretaste.

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia! William W. How

Note: we will continue this conversation around aging, death, and dying in the June 2019 issue of Reformed Worship. If you aren’t already a subscriber or have a digital library membership consider signing up now so you don’t miss out.

Rev. Dr. Paul Detterman is an author, composer, and conference speaker who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of River Forest, Illinois, and a blogger at He is a former associate for worship on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church (USA).