I wonder how many times I heard that sentence in church growing-up. Today when we say Evangelical we generally think of non or inter-denominational churches, and there are a ton of them. But when I was a kid there weren’t many independent churches, and the closest thing to an Evangelical was a body of churches that usually referred to themselves as Pentecostal. (That’s "Pennycostal" when you’re 10 though.) There was, and is, an actual denomination called the "Pentecostal Church," but the Assemblies and Church of God among others also referred to themselves as a Pentecostal "type" of church, basically meaning that they all believed in the "gifts of the spirit" such as healing and speaking in tongues and so forth. The Baptists were very much out of the same mold minus the gifts thing.
Pentecostals were very big on asking people if they were ready to die. "Where would you go? Are you right with Jesus? Will you make it into Heaven? Do you have that blessed assurance?" Pentecostal church meetings always were a bit of a cliché-fest I’m afraid. Personally, I felt like I was born ready. I always felt that death would be a homecoming of sorts long before anybody told me so. I simply didn’t, and still don’t, fear death at all. But when I was younger there was a part of this equation I was missing.
Now you would think that the Pentecostals, the people who have pushed this "Where would you go tonight if you died?" business the longest, would be the most fearful of death and all the fiery trappings of Hell that go along with that message. Not so. The Catholics are so afraid of death that they invented Purgatory just in case they needed one last chance to get their act together.
The fact is that most people fear death more than words can say. They don’t even want to talk about it. They don’t need any reminders that they’re going to die one day. Most people don’t want to know when their time is coming. They’d sooner be surprised by a conk on the head from a falling meteorite and never know what hit them. But there are some who do in fact know when their time is up and are given a specific time table in which to "get their affairs in order." I find these people ultimately die the best deaths. They’ve made their peace with God and the world. I wonder if this is God’s way of telling us that there is no Purgatory and that those who would have needed a second chance there are getting it now by way of the knowledge that their deaths are imminent?
My dad used to tell a story about a man named Carl who worked on the railroad in East St. Louis during the first half of the 20th century. It was one of those stories about the fragility of life. The story goes that one day Carl was doing some kind of work on a the hitch of a train car. Train yards are usually very noisy environments and he couldn’t hear that the rest of the train behind him was backing up to connect with the car he was working on. It connected right through his mid-section. Amazingly he was still alive and conscious. A doctor was called. He said that there was nothing he could do. The man would soon bleed to death. And when they unhitched the car from the train it would only serve to quicken the man’s death since the gaping hole left behind would cause much of his insides to come pouring out along with more blood, and he would die almost instantly.
They called Carl’s wife and told her the situation, and that she had better get down there quick with the children if they wanted to say goodbye. And this she did. Of course they called his church pastor as well. The preacher said a prayer and Carl’s family kissed him farewell. The man in charge of the train yard asked him if he was ready. Carl said, "Go ahead," and they unhitched the car. He fell down and died. I guess Carl was ready.
Two weeks ago I was with a group of people, some were friends, other I didn’t know, trying to get a big house ready for a wedding as well as for the homecoming of the bride’s father. Kevin was in his last stage of cancer and it took a ventilator to keep him alive. But he wasn’t ready to die just yet. He wanted to see his daughter get married first. The following Saturday he did just that.
It was a happy event. It was a sad event. That night at the reception, everybody’s cell phones started ringing with the message that Kevin’s dad, in his 80s and in a nursing home, died unexpectedly. And Kevin had made arrangements to be taken off life support the next day himself. He got to see his daughter get married first, but also knew he and his dad were suddenly going to be dying a day apart. Despite his having been ready to go, it didn’t stop his little girl from having the saddest honeymoon of all-time with her father and grandfather both dying within 24-hours of the wedding.
Kevin was Catholic, but he didn’t need any Purgatory. He was ready. What does it really mean to be ready? Is there ever any really getting right with God? I doubt it very much. It’s mostly about getting right with our enemies. If we forgive others, God forgives us. Christianity is 90% forgiveness. No amount of prayers or kissing our loved ones goodbye will make us ready to meet our Maker. But can you love your enemy as much as you love yourself? Can you go through life without bitterness toward those who have harmed you and wish them the best? God doesn’t care much about all your accomplishments in business, art, sports, or anything else in life. There’s only one area he demands any real achievement in. It’s all about forgiveness.