In the Face of Death

We could call this The Death Podcast. Wayne continues his conversation with Dave Coleman, his co-writer on So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore. Dave has not only faced his own mortality in a brutal battle with cancer years ago, but as a hospice chaplain he has helped many others face their own death. According to Dave most so-called Christians arrive at death's door in fear, rather than in peace and he explores some reasons why. Confronting our mortality is not a cause for fear or despair, but anticipation of a transition that will take us into the fullness of life as God always meant for us to know it.

Podcast Links:
Previous Podcasts with Dave Coleman: Meet Jake Colsen (3/24/06), Why Religion Doesn't Work (4/17/08), and Why Religion Doesn't Work II (4/25/08)
Contact Dave Coleman
My Descent into Death by Howard Storm
Update on the Orphanage in Kenya


  1. The Meet Jake Colsen podcast with Dave has remained my favorite episode. The content was just so important to me when it was first aired due to the season I was walking through. I haven’t listened to last weeks podcast with Dave yet, but I found this one to be another one of those important conversations. To get the all too familiar fear of death stuff sorted out in our lives might be one of the most valuable things when it comes to actually living well in this world.

    Valuable stuff about life guys. Funny how The Death Podcast is all about living.

  2. This link is to a 5 part interview with John O’Donohue. He spent 19 years as a Catholic priest before he left it. One of the greatest privileges he says he had as a priest was help other cross over the other shore. Episode #4 and # 5 are on the subjects of aging and death. I have yet to find anyone who speaks more beautifully about it all then he. If you only listen to the last 16 minutes of #5 I think you will be blessed and challenged to see it all maybe through different eyes with a different attitude.

  3. When I was a young student nurse I cared for a teenager just diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. He was catholic and asked to speak to a priest. I was happy to oblige being a Christian with no denominational loyalty. The hospital was catholic so the hospital chaplain was a priest. The priest arrived and spent what I thought to be an inordinately short period with this patient given the latter young man’s distress. When I asked the priest how the young man was doing he told me that I wouldn’t have any more trouble from the young man – he would be brave, keep smiling, and take it on the chin or words to that effect (this was years ago). I was stunned and saddened by this response. I am not criticizing Catholics or chaplains, but with such past experiences I appreciate hearing this podcast. Hospice chaplaincy is a vital but sometimes neglected ministry and I appreciate listening to someone who has done it thoughtfully. Thanks for the link Kent. Any of us can find ourselves having to support the dying or bereaved.

  4. Another very thought provoking conversation. I appreciate the willingness (courage) to confront a subject that is so uncomfortable for a lot of people. As Father is walking me through a number of things (in what feels like a l-o-o-o-ng season) : ) I think I’m beginning to see that His character is so different than I had been led to believe. Your conversations, Wayne (whether it’s with Brad, Dave or other guests) have been very helpful and encouraging. Thanks.

  5. You know what would be a great complement to the end of this podcast— the bit where Wayne talked about being at peace with life and not driven to “succeed” etc.. ? Bring on the podcast people that are like most of us “commoners”— people with absolutely no professional religious background of any kind, just ordinary working stiffs with families to support, bills to pay, trying to figure out how to sort out this Journey in the midst of the tension of making ends meet on a week to week (if not day to day) basis. I think Kent from St. Louis had a bit of that, but the podcasts with him didn’t really focus on his daily living so much as the family issues and how God was changing him there (which was great, BTW). I’d love to hear about ordinary people in their prime working years who have found a way into this peace and what that looks like in their everyday life. How does that affect their career? Do they bother trying to get that promotion? Do they sell the home and cars that are driving them to have to work so long and hard and how does that conversation with God unfold? Or does it? I’m not looking for a template. More like… I dunno… war stories of a sort. “I remember this time when I lost my job due to my own foolishness and had no prospects of a new one but I felt God leading me to…. ” I hope this doesn’t sound too critical, Wayne, but as great as it is to hear people like Dave Coleman and John Beaumont and Kevin Smith, they all come from the same religious professional background and I find it hard to relate to their issues.

    I guess what I’m asking is, Wayne, do you know any schlubs like me?

  6. Glen, I’m not sure if this podcast happened due to my suggestion a few weeks back to Wayne, for a possible podcast on this topic and I mentioned Dave as one he might do it with, but I mentioned it as a possible conversation that I know have found in my own (fairly young) life to be a most important one to have between myself with myself and with God. It’s been a very freeing experience to face the reality of my coming end of days here on this planet in this body, and my lack of control over when that might come upon me.

    What I have personally come to find out is, the running from it, or fearing of it that our culture shapes into us, is at the very heart of why it is rare to see someone die well. And I would suggest that this very reality is also what keeps us from living well…living free.

    My past 7 years have never felt more free, and dealing with the fear my “sound/responsible” life had been construct from, I believe to be one of the main factors that set in motion this new found reality. A reality I had never tasted in my first 42 years of life.

    The daily experience you mention above….. “just ordinary working stiffs with families to support, bills to pay, trying to figure out how to sort out this Journey in the midst of the tension of making ends meet on a week to week (if not day to day) basis”….that’s pretty much me. And the difference in my experience over the past 7 years that I mentioned has all happened in the midst of us having typical financial challenges, challenges with our daughters of 22, 18 and 16 years of age and all that goes with that, and changes be forced upon me in my line of work even though I am self-employed, and relational challenges in relating to others and all the mess we can all at times bring to those situations. If freedom can’t come to us in the midst of messy life….this whole life in God stuff is a joke. I’m here to confess…it’s not a joke.

    I asked Wayne to do a podcast on this topic/reality of aging and dying because it is something no human has ever avoided. We all have to face it at some point with loved ones and with ourselves. And through my season of facing it and wrestling with it, all I can say is that many wonderful things happened as I began to embrace it and come to terms with the reality that I have no idea when it will come upon myself or any of the ones I love. Death is a traveling companion and none of us know when it will come. Glen, one of the questions you asked was, how does this affect career? Here is a beautiful way it effected mine. It effected my career in the same way it effected every thing else in my life. When I am with someone, I live constantly aware of this reality; when this person departs from me, I may never see them again. That reality leaves me making the most of my time with them. I do not want to take the encounters with others in my life for granted. I WANT TO BE PRESENT…FULLY PRESENT right there with them. And I don’t want to spend the time caught up in mindless trivialities that so dominate the conscience of this culture. This life is one short unrepeatable life. It’s a beautiful gift and the people I encounter are beautiful people…even if they are all covered up in the mess created by fear and shame.

    And this is my future hope if my dying is a drawn out experience that is natural aging…or any other manifestation that gives me some days or weeks or months of thinking about it and waiting for it. My hope that this new way of being in the world that I have stumbled into, is that the living well will assist me in dying well and maybe even stir in me a bit of excitement, having accepted that it isn’t going to be held off, an excitement for the new journey that I will be setting out on.

    • Good thoughts, Kent. Now you need to take one of those cheap Southwest Airlines flights out to L.A. and turn this into a podcast with Wayne.

      For my part, I have the opposite (morbid) experience. I am not at all in fear of death. I am in fear of life. I am tired of the endless trivialities you mention and find myself dreading the routine. I suppose I do feel a certain freedom in this, but it’s not enjoyable. It’s a weary, who cares, screw it freedom. What does it matter if I have a successful career or clean toilets? Whether I live under a highway or in a 6 bedroom McMansion on a scenic river?

      If the description Wayne read from Howard Storm’s book is anywhere close to the way it really is after death, I am looking forward to it.

  7. Oh, and I forgot to mention a most important part. This season of facing this reality that we cannot control, took the fear and weight it once carried, out of it. All the former activities of trying to cheat it or acting like I could control it somehow to ward it off, only exacerbated it’s weight, while embracing it turned out to be an act that began to dismantle the power it had held over me and had left me behaving in distressing ways.

  8. I didn’t live with anything close to what some might think when they think of living with a fear of death. Glen, I get the sense that what you described you feel like is in some ways maybe more how it played out in my life also. I think the fear was all tied up in the ball that was life. I was exhausted and frustrated by most of it. Relationships and all the other stuff. I came to find out that basically everything in my life, and going at it hard, I was doing simply out of a fear of what would happen if I stopped doing it all or couldn’t do it anymore. It was a really sick and twisted paradigm to attempt to live from and view this life from.

    I personally set out on a journey to discover what of all the things I was doing were actually necessary and what of them were not. I came to find out that my whole life was so out of sync with the natural rhythm I have come to believe we were created for. So I began to drop things off…things in my head…and things the things in my head kept leading me to do.

    Fear, however it is manifested is a horrible prism through which to view life..or death.

  9. I worked as a hospital chaplain and I too was amazed at the fear levels all around. Not just the person who is dying but their adult children. I was amazed at how uncomfortable most of the chaplains and staff were with being bedside as people died. After a few months of doing this work the nurses on the floor would call the chaplain office and ask for “the lady with the nice dresses who’s not afraid of people dying” to come to a room where the patient was expected to pass soon. Which was me. I suppose a lifetime of lots of death and dying experiences opened me up to be of use. One story in particular was a man in his 90’s terrified because he did not know where he was going when he died. That’s what the nurses said he was saying. When I got there he was still and not speaking. He did hold my hand and so I prayed. Told him the story of the thief next to Jesus, who did not do one thing right and he was promised today you will be with me in paradise. He released my hand and died 20 minutes later.
    What’s that phrase you guys used in the book. About trust levels being proportional to knowing how deeply loved you are. Why are we surprised that the “church” is terrified of dying, they don’t know the truth about how loved they are. “So there is no trust where there’s no relationship?” right Jake? right John?

  10. It’s a poem that until this morning, I was unfamiliar. It was posted this morning on Facebook by a Quaker Minister. A man I have come to know as one of those wise ‘ol souls. I will post his words first which he used to set it up, and then a link to the poem titled When Death Comes…by Mary Oliver

    “It’s hard to decide which Mary Oliver poem is my favorite—there are so many! But this one’s a strong candidate.

    Every wisdom tradition I know urges us to cultivate active awareness of our mortality—because keeping that simple reality before our eyes enhances our appreciation of life, even when things get tough. It also increases the odds that we will come to some new resolve about how we want to live.

    For example, how might things change if more of us regarded every person as “a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth”? Closer to home, what might happen for me and others if I myself held everyone I met in such respectful regard?

    As you read this poem, ask yourself a simple question and take some time to ponder it: “How, then, shall I live?”~~~ Parker Palmer

  11. Glen, thanks for your suggestion about having “common” folks on the podcast. I would want to add, though that the people we have on the podcast are normal people like all of us. Just because some of them have written books or have past ministry experience, doesn’t mean that they haven’t lived life like everyone else. We stay away from prima donas, unless they become one after they were with us. And many of our guests are not and have never been religious professionals. That said, it takes a certain kind of person to connect well via a podcast. Many I’ve asked just don’t want to, and others who have asked just don’t have the presence of mind and heart to communicate well with others via a microphone. It is a bit of a gift. That said, I am constantly looking for ways to more engage the audience in future podcasts, with a comment/question line, or even some round table dialogs via Skype that we can record. I haven’t had any time of late to explore these options, but will be in the near future…

  12. Like others on this blog I’ve had my brush with the grim reaper and barely escaped the grip, but I fell asleep during the near death experience part so I missed it. I agree with the idea that Christians of all people should be relatively excited about going through the transition from this life into a much superior future (i.e. the 1 John 3:2 line). However, I’m not sure how to reconcile the the 1 John 4:8 line with situations like a family that I know of whose young daughter has leukemia and their newborn son has a lung condition and this past weekend these children’s dad was in a serious motor vehicle accident and may not live until the end of this week. It seems as if there are those rare situations where all theory goes out the window. Thoughts anyone?

  13. Jim, I think none of us can know how we will respond when we come face to face with it or those we love. But I do pretty much know this. If our thinking is all messed up about it, and we are living as if we can control it, and if there isn’t a real deep well when it comes to our sense of the abiding presence of someone/something much larger than us walking along side us…..more than likely we will come undone during such difficult times.

    I believe though, that it is possible for us to live in such a way, having our inner world undergoing a transfiguring that is progressive in nature, freedom unto freedom (and that includes our mind) to where when storms comes…or that while things that can be shaken are being shaken….we can maintain a presence that isn’t shaken, or at least if it is shaken with the initial tough news, we can find that place of peace once again in the storm. I’ve come to believe that it is our greatest witness to others and to ourselves to the reality of the presence of the Divine in our lives.

    • I would add to Kent’s comments that if we are not already undergoing that kind of stripping away, we don’t even realize how much we rely on people, things, circumstances, abilities, talents etc… to provide us with our well being. At some point, it seems to me, that God starts to strip away that false confidence until we are resting on him and him alone.

  14. Well said Glen. More commoners! …not that Wayne or Brad aren’t common enough, and not that former ministers’ opinions aren’t valuable, but to hear simple testimony of how God is working among simple people is thoroughly encouraging.

    By the way, anyone in Kent or Sussex (UK) wanna meet up, I’m around for another 5 wks. (ive in China).
    Might go to Germany at some point too. Frankfurt / Wiesbaden area, Berlin, Loebau (Oberlausitz)
    melde dich mal!

  15. Glen, I found out that all of my life was defined by false belonging. Even the God part of it.

    • Explain, please. “False belonging”… “even the God part…”

  16. False belonging is all that run into and grab hold of trying to find meaning and peace that is outside our true primal belonging inside the circle of Father Son and Spirit. When that is out of whack all our external longing gets malformed and we spend our lives trying to scrape meaning and affirmation and happiness from others and from stuff. It’s a destructive enterprise.

    When we come home to ourselves and learn to be at peace in that solitude…our inner world…the kingdom within….then all our outward activity isn’t of the needy kind…it’s of the giving kind. It all redefines what healthy relationship is and what healthy individuality is.

    The false belonging in terms of the God part I mentioned all has to do with the malforming effects religion has on us. It leaves us attempting to scrape meaning and affirmation from a god that does not exist. It’s made up from within the dark fallen mind. And it too is completely self centered and self serving.

    • Kent, I “fear” that God may have just spoken through you a very timely and spot-on word to me.

      For the record, I hate timely and spot-on words.

  17. I wouldn’t worry too much, Wayne, about how us simple schlubs may sound on a podcast. Maybe you can set up your handy recorder the next time that you have a group discussion out on the road and then just extract from the recording the best bits. Let the tape roll, as they say, and then just leave in the good stuff. (I know, I know, easy for me to say when I’m not the one doing the editing, but you may find that it’s less work to cut and edit a free-ranging conversation than to sit down and try to coax “microphone magic” out of a studio guest).

  18. Kent, thanks for your comments. I’m really not sure that messed up thinking vs correct thinking makes a big difference when you get hit with something that is overwhelming to you (different threshold for each person). I presume that a suboptimal mind set doesn’t really pose a problem to God (i.e. example of the atheist’s near death experience that Wayne read). This is just my opinion.

    I really liked your statement “it is our greatest witness to others and to ourselves to the reality of the presence of the Divine in our lives”, which is an even better “witness” than handing out tracts. I suppose that this presence can shine through even if we become unraveled under the stress. In fact I sometimes wonder if being unraveled in times of high stress shows that we are “real people”, and God can make His presence known in spite of our less than ideal behavior, even if we don’t feel it. I’m just guessing on this one.

    Still my heart remains totally broken and confused over the tragic story of the family that I mentioned in my earlier comment. In these situations, I wonder how or if prayer works?

  19. Glen, we’re going to have a tough time communicating here because I don’t see the world as “schlubs” and “nonschlubs”. I think we’re all just people and those you consider nonschlubs have the same experiences you do, the same fears and struggles. Perhaps that’s the disconnect here. You see them as different people than you see yourself.

    And believe me putting a microphone in many of the conversations I have would change them significantly, both by those who would be intimidated by it and those who would posture before it. As I said we’ll be doing some things to help other voices be heard here, but I don’t seek out people for the podcast. As I wonder about God prods be at times for some conversations to be recorded and at other times he doesn’t. I live inside that nudging and don’t want to go all “affirmative action” here for schlubs or nonschlubs.

    That said, I do appreciate the fact that you’ve pointed out how you’re feeling here and what you’d like to hear more of… We’ll see how God answers it.

  20. Jim, I think Kent’s terminology of “thinking” is probably not the best one. It’s a way of living inside a relationship that he’s describing. What’s wonderful about that is that it doesn’t shift even in overwhelming circumstances. He is with us, even when we’re feeling undone, overwhelmed, pushed to our limits. I don’t think what Kent’s saying has any less applicability in those brutal moments of life. It just gives us someone to be with as they unfold. And I agree that being real in them is what that is all about. Living with God doesn’t put us above the fray. It puts him inside of it with us. And that makes all the difference. As with the family you mention, I don’t have to understand any more how all this could happen to one person or whether or not prayer works. I just want to find a way to crawl into him and watch what he does to unfold his glory, in this age and in the next one…

  21. Jim, I think we can chalk it up to the challenges we face with terminology and our use of words. I can use a word that means something to me and yet the word conjures up something completely different in the mind of another. I have come to believe that the mind altering alters all. To me it speaks to the renewing of our minds out of these mistaken notions that have claimed them and control them until set free.

    So often our mindset about God and how we have come to believe he should act or respond or what we should expect from him is built on images and caricatures that we have learned (as Dave Coleman says) sitting on our painted chairs in Sunday School…and then we grow up and the challenges grow as we grow and yet we often remain stuck in those images and ideas about God we learned from way back. They are too small…and often completely false. Then so often we are left expecting certain things to happen and we stay stuck there and completely miss the presence and what it is doing in the here and now.

    We so often, I know at least I did, become “fix it” people because Christianity leads us to believe God is a “fix it” person. And that leaves us feeling helpless and frustrated and directionless so often and feeling like victims of our circumstances and the circumstances of others. Maybe we shouldn’t look at carrying each other through torn places as the “only thing we can do”…as if it’s second or third or fourth best. Maybe that IS the beauty of love lived out in torn places.

  22. Thanks for your insights guys. For me, I’m reverting back to the old proverb: if life throws you a bunch of lemons, … bring out the tequila.

    • Hey Jim, all I can throw out there is my own experience which is simply to hang on with whatever faith you have right now. Just taking the next breath can be a challenge. Papa understands it all and he can take whatever you care to dish out.

  23. Wayne and Dave,
    This was a very timely and helpful podcast….
    My mom passed away on May 12th. It was a long fought battle that we both struggled through until her weary body (and spirit) could no longer take it. I’m glad I was able to be her caregiver, but, as her daughter, it was very difficult seeing her suffer so much and steadily decline over the last several years. Nothing I “learned” after 30 yrs in the institution prepared me for this “caregiver” role. I just lived day to day from my gut, crying out to God for help, all the while sharing “He Loves Me” with my Mom, who grew up in a very “religious” home, but still lacked the assurance she was loved unconditionally. She also lacked that much-needed emotional connection and love from her parents, who were always busy “doing church work”… (sigh). I ended up spending many (precious) moments just crawling up next to my mom, holding her, and whispering in her ear, “The Father loves you, Jesus loves you…your family all love you, I love you, you are so loved, Mom….”
    My sister and I attempted Hospice care at home for a week, and then we moved our mom to a Hospice home for her final (two) days. 
    She was absolutely my best friend!  I miss her so much…there’s a huge void now.

    Thanks again for broaching this subject!

    Judy in Chapel Hill, NC

  24. This might have some helpful meaning in all of this. Some believe that the Bible teaches that when we die, we just sleep. It isn’t “soul sleep” necessarily, as we don’t have a soul, as much as we are a soul. This body decays, whether in a grave, in the ocean. or whereever we happened to die. That body is gone. But something remains, something God knows and cares for greatly.

    It is a very good and deep sleep, I imagine, thus time goes by immediately.

    At the end of this age, what many translations mean by a poorly used word choice “eternal”, apparently all will arise, and we will be given bodies of somekind, but ones fit for the new heavens and earth. But not the one that decayed or was devoured.

    Maybe it will look like the old one. Who knows. I really don’t see that as a point of worry.

    At that point, or maybe time, God will continue to do perfectly and lovingly whatever he has to do to care for his creation, and to fit his plans. Anyone have a better suggestion of better hands to be in than in his?

    Sure fits biblically better, it seems to me, than “going to be with Jesus” when we die, and then coming back again somehow for the big evaluation. A verse or two that seem to possibly support that don’t so well at the second reading.

    Again, sleep is timeless, as we already know.

  25. Judy, I’m so sorry to hear of your mom’s passing. The separation we experience in this world when loved ones transition out before we do is one of the cruelest results of death. I pray you’ll continue to know God’s comfort in your grief until all your memories of your mom are turned into joy. Bless you for helping care for your mom in her physical struggle. We’ve been through it with Sara’s parents and know what a sacrifice it can be, and yet how rewarding as well. Blessings on you.

  26. “…until all your memories of your mom are turned into joy.” Thank you so much, Wayne!

  27. Judy, I think that’s what real grief does. For awhile ever remembrance of our loved one brings the pain of their loss. In God’s comfort those memories eventually turn to great joy. It takes awhile, however. Years some times. But it’s a process worth embracing. I’m sure your mom was a delightful woman… Blessings.

    • She was, Wayne … and I’m embracing the process. Thank you for encouraging me…. Judy

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