There was nothing unusual, in the early 1970s, about a student hearing one of his professors preach during chapel.
But one sermon — “How Would You Like to Die?” — impressed the seminarian who would later become United Methodist Bishop Timothy Whitaker of Florida. Theologian Claude H. Thompson had terminal cancer and, a few months later, his funeral was held in the same chapel at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
“What hit me was that he calmly preached on that subject — even while facing his own death,” said Whitaker, reached by telephone. “It hit me that that, if death is one of the great mysteries of life, then that needs to be something that the church openly discusses. …
“Yes, we live in a culture that is reluctant to talk about death. But I decided that it’s important for us to hear from our elders who are facing this issue, head on.”
Thus, soon after doctors informed him that his own cancer is terminal, Whitaker wrote a lengthy online meditation, “Learning to Die.” The 74-year-old bishop is retired and receiving hospice care, while living in Keller, a small town near the Virginia coast.
“Being a pastor, I considered it a privilege and also an education to linger beside many deathbeds. I have tried to never forget that, unless I die abruptly in an accident or with a heart attack or stroke, sooner or later the subject of death will feel very personal to me,” he wrote. Now, “in the time that remains for me I have one more thing to learn in life, which is to die. … I had always hoped that I would be aware of the imminence of my death so that I could face it consciously, and I am grateful that I have the knowledge that I am going to die soon.”
Certainly, Whitaker noted, the Orthodox theologian Father Thomas Hopko was correct when he quipped, while facing a terminal disease: “This dying is very interesting.”
Dying is also complicated — raising myriad theological questions about eternity, salvation and the mysteries of the life to come, he noted. The Bible, from cover to cover, is packed with relevant stories, passages and images. The same is true of the writings of early church leaders who preached eternal hope, even when suffering persecution and martyrdom. Over and over, the saints proclaimed their belief in the resurrection of Jesus.
Whitaker noted that Methodists can ponder this quote from their pioneer John Wesley: “But what is the essential part of heaven? Undoubtedly it is to see God, to know God, to love God. We shall then know both His nature, and His works of creation and providence, and of redemption. Even in paradise, in the intermediate state between death and resurrection, we shall learn more concerning these in an hour, than we could in an age, during our stay in the body.”
But what about the big questions that modern believers may struggle to ask? What about their fears of living with a terminal disease and the complicated questions surrounding death itself
Early Methodists believed that preparing for death was simply part of life, and outsiders noted that “Methodists die well,” said Whitaker, in the telephone interview. The problem in churches today is that dying is often viewed as “a counseling issue,” or merely a “therapeutic challenge” for busy clergy.
For centuries, Christians developed rites linked to what they called the “good death,” or even the “happy death,” he noted. While millions now shudder at the thought of dying alone in a hospital, clergy should teach — especially in the age of hospice — how believers can plan to die surrounded by family and their fellow believers.
Yet many clergy are reluctant to discuss these subjects from the pulpit or in educational events addressing modern realities alongside centuries of rituals and prayers.
“I can understand this reluctance, because they’re going to have many parishioners who will be alarmed or upset by any open discussions of these topics that our culture wants to ignore,” said Whitaker.
“But the church is supposed to help us prepare for death. And this isn’t just about someone receiving a terrible diagnosis. Death is something that can strike at any moment. … The church can’t be silent, in the face of death.”