NOTE: Over the past several weeks there have been at least two highly publicized deaths among celebrities. Beyond that, several in my own ministry circles have passed. A few years ago I released a book called Death is a Doorway because I had my own issues with the grave. I thought it would be appropriate to post a section of that book here in light of recent events.
Death never takes the wise man by surprise; he is always ready to go.
- Jean de La Fontaine
For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity.
- William Penn
In the interest of full disclosure I find it important to share with you that I have not always welcomed the doorway. Even now I do not want to die. It is my desire to live a long life. Moreover, I do not like the prospect that my death may be accompanied by severe suffering, disability, deterioration or the loss of my mental faculties. Witnessing the strength of others in the midst of such difficulties is a great encouragement, but I would never say I want such a thing. No, I would prefer to live as long as “Old Tom Parr.”
Parr reportedly lived to the age of 152. He was said to have been born in Shrewsbury, England, in 1483, at a time and in a region where most of his contemporaries seldom lived beyond their thirties. He lived a somewhat normal life joining the army in 1500 but did not marry until the age of eighty. His children by his first wife died in infancy, but Tom against all odds, and moral constraints, fathered an illegitimate child at the age of one hundred. Fortunately, Tom’s love life did not end there as he remarried reportedly at the age of 122. His demise came thirty years later in the presence of royalty when Tom Parr was asked to attend a celebration in the court of Charles the First. However, he was given stronger drink than he had ever had and ate foods that were exotic to him, thus he died in four days. The king asked Parr what his secret was and he explained that he was a vegetarian, refrained from strong drink, never used tobacco and repented of his affair at the age of 100.
Naturally, there has been some doubt cast on the legitimacy of the claims that Parr truly lived to the age of 152. Nevertheless, the story is intriguing. Why? Because, as I articulated in the preceding chapter, the world seeks every outlet to avoid the reality of death. Tom Parr seemed to fair better than most, and we all tend to desire longevity. What fault is there in that? I say that I want to be like Tom Parr in that I want to get all I can out of this life. Contrary to Tom Parr, I want to do as much as I can to serve the God of the doorway while I’m on earth.
Despite having been a pastor, evangelist and Christian apologist, I have not welcomed the idea of death. It has sickened, horrified and repulsed me. Nevertheless, I have come to realize that this is a problem. Moreover, it is a problem that stems from a misconception of the doorway.
The welcome doorway is not dark, mysterious or frightening. I imagine it to look like the kind of door you might find placed behind a picket fence and well kept flower bed at the entrance to a beautiful cottage, complete with a mat that would appropriately read, “Welcome.” Far from anything to fear, passing through such a doorway would be like coming home. Pleasing to the ears, is it not? Some strange people I know have such a view.
When I pastored Cornerstone Baptist Church in McMinnville, Tennessee, I had a good friend named Ron. Ron was the kind of man that didn’t require much. He was happy with his sweet wife, wonderful kids and church family. Though he had a nice house, you get the idea that he would be content in just about any circumstance. Recollection of how the conversation arose alludes me, but I distinctly remember Ron making a comment that I have never forgotten, “Death doesn’t bother me one bit.” Wow! Now there is a comment from a man with a clean conscience. A mutual friend of ours, Brian, concurred that he felt the same way. Who were these people? How could they feel this way? It is precisely because they view the doorway with the “welcome” mat to be the one awaiting them. And why should they be bothered? Their faith demands otherwise and they accept it.
The problem is that most Christians have intellectually digested ideas like Heaven and eternal life, but they have not realized them. Ron and Brian have. They took their Savior at his word when he said,
Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father‘s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.
Strange, is the best way to view such an idea in the 21st century. In this age of skepticism even the faithful have compartmentalized their beliefs in the supernatural separately from their beliefs in reality. No doubt you and I have been guilty of the same. Think about someone you really loved who has died. Were you sad? That’s fine, you are justified in being sad. Still, have you ever thought seriously about the source of such sadness? I am sad when I travel away from my wife and daughter, but the sadness is produced by the knowledge that I will not see them for several days, not the idea that I will not see them again at all. If your sadness is derived from the latter belief, it will be utterly devastating, because it is not natural to God’s plan for you.
Indeed, I have heard many dear ladies at the grave of their husband, wrestle with the concept of their penetrating despair in the face of their understanding that God would not place more on them than they could bear. Yet, when we maintain a mistaken view of death, namely that it is final, then we take more on ourselves than we can bear. We place ourselves before that mistaken concept of a dank, dark dungeon gate rather than the welcome door. I learned this from Alvin.
Alvin is one of my closest friends. He and Una, his wife, were in charge of the children’s ministry when I was a child and then again at the church of my first pastorate. He’s now in his seventies but oddly is one of the happiest people I know. If the welcome door is a happy place with flowers and sunshine, he has further decorated it with antique cars, lawn furniture and all the other things that bring him happiness. He has lived his life embracing it with childlike delight and is less concerned with death than most of us are with losing weight.
On one occasion, he said that if he awoke to find his wife had passed away in the night, he would be sad for an hour and then rejoice that she was in Heaven. I remember him flatly saying with complete assurance, “Why worry about it? I’m gonna see her again.” His concept of the doorway is just that, a doorway. He knows, not believes, knows that upon passing through the doorway, he will find a new world wherein he and Una will be reunited. When this is one’s concept of death, some of the sting is lost. At least, this is the language Paul uses when he says,
“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and the mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, ‘DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?’”
It has been my discovery that many who have the welcome door in view tend not to be overwhelmingly concerned about their funeral, burial, eulogy or anything else pertaining to their postmortem earthly activities. Upon seeing the price tags attached to some bottom shelf caskets, my wife declared that she would be just as happy if she was placed in a pinewood box and buried in the backyard. Insurance is even available for caskets today, complete with a regular monthly payment. It literally pays to have a proper view of the doorway.
As I write this, America is experiencing what I have dubbed “the summer of death.” It is 2009. The season has not even concluded and already Michael Jackson, Billy Mays, Farrah Fawcett, Steve McNair, Ted Kennedy, David Carradine and others have all passed in a relatively short period of time. If the amount of money spent on the reporting of their funerals, media coverage, memorial shows, tributes, books and commemorative merchandise could be funneled down into a single dollar amount I just wonder if it would not be enough to alleviate the current economic crisis in which America finds herself. Yet, if the world had the welcome door in view, common sense would mandate that such expenses as are paid on the dead would be better spent elsewhere.
Don’t let me leave you with the impression that the welcome door implies a desire on my part to be in fact dead. Nor is that the desire of the individuals I mentioned above, as far as I can tell. On the other hand, a proper view of the doorway enables us to welcome death. By that I mean, death truly has “lost its sting.” Paul demands,
For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better. . .
This now takes on the scent of reality rather than the air of dusty pages. Welcoming the doorway of death, far from entailing some kind of death wish, means living a life in which death is another great event for which to live in anticipation no differently than we do owning our first car, finding a mate, buying a house or having children. When this view is taken, we realize the meaning and wonderful expectation of great things that we have even after those other achievements have come and gone. Thus, believers who anticipate the welcome door are able to accomplish things for God that others who feel they have become useless never may.
No one should seek death before their time, but the biblical account of Stephen is incredibly moving. In the book of Acts, Luke tells the story of the first recorded martyr to die in the name of Christ.
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen. But they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly induced men to say, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God. And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came up to him and dragged him away and brought him before the Council.
When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!' Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them!' Having said this, he fell asleep.
Preaching the message of salvation which ran like a crimson thread through the Old Testament and culminated in the life and death of Christ, Stephen stood in the face of the opposition to the cross and endured the brunt of physical and emotional turmoil that comes with taking a stand. As he addressed them, the murderers that would end his life circulated the lie that he was a blasphemer and planned the stoning that would seize the breath from the preacher’s lungs and cast him through the doorway against his will. Nevertheless, scripture describes Stephen as having the “face of an angel” in spite of his persecution, and explains that at his death he was not focused on the visible images of an angry mob. He was gazing at the face of Jesus whom the Bible says stood at the right hand of the Father.
Could this be possible if Stephen viewed death as anything other than a welcome door? Jesus was literally standing just inside the doorway of the grave as it stood open before the evangelist, welcoming him home as a brother would his own. This image is beautiful. It is encouraging. It is an undeniable portrait of the doorway we have been discussing.
Some have surmised that Stephen must have been a young man, others have demanded that his age at the moment of martyrdom is irrelevant. The point which we must not forget is that Stephen was not afraid of death. Concerns of living a long life full of romance, bounty and sociological fulfillment were foreign to the man. Seemingly, there is a stark contrast between this passionate soul’s life and that of Tom Parr.
Who are you emulating? Old Tom allegedly lived to the age of 152. Stephen may have died 130 years younger, but whose life counted for more? Tom’s demise came at the end of a week of indulgence in which he dined with kings and followed the old hedonist adage, “eat, drink and be merry!” Quite the opposite, Stephen was brutally slaughtered at the hands of fools, but then sat down at the table of the King of all kings. I have desired the years of old Tom Parr, and in all honesty, I hope I will achieve that silly wish, but when my time comes, I desire a face that shines “like the face of an angel” because the doorway in view will be the “welcome door.” I hope the same for you.
"All My Tears"
Jars of Clay
When I go, don't cry for me
In my Father's arms I'll be
The wounds this world left on my soul
Will all be healed and I'll be whole.
Sun and moon will be replaced
With the light of Jesus' face
And I will not be ashamed
For my Savior knows my name.
It don't matter where you bury me,
I'll be home and I'll be free.
It don't matter where I lay,
All my tears be washed away.
Gold and silver blind the eye
Temporary riches lie
Come and eat from heaven's store,
Come and drink, and thirst no more
It don't matter where you bury me
I'll be home and I'll be free
It don't matter where I lay
All my tears be washed away
So, weep not for me my friends,
When my time below does end
For my life belongs to Him
Who will raise the dead again.
It don't matter where you bury me,
I'll be home and I'll be free.
It don't matter where I lay,
All my tears be washed away.
 Shapiro, Norman R. The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. University of Illinois press. P. 187 - Famous translation of “The sage is not by death surprised.”
 Franklin, Benjamin & Penn, William. Franklin's Way to Wealth and Penn's Maxims. Dover Publications. P. 115.
 Thomas Parr NNDb.com. From: http://www.nndb.com/people/609/000096321/ Accessed on 2 March, 2010. Internet.
 John 14:1-4
 1 Corinthians 15:52-55
 This is not to say that one should feel negatively about planning an appropriate memorial service for their departed loved one. Such a service is important for Christians as a celebration of a life lived for Christ and a way to bring comfort to the family. The point is that as believers we should not create the idea that death is final.
 Philippians 1:20-23
 Acts 6:5-7:60
 As far as we know, Stephen was the first martyr for Christianity. There may have been others who died for Christ prior to the account of Stephen, but we have no record of them.