Death defines us and reveals what we really live for day-to-day. Most people think very little about their death unless they are forced to face it very directly. This was brought home to me by two front page stories in our suburban Daily Herald newspaper on Tuesday, August 15.
The first story that caught my attention was about Carol Bugh, the wife of Rob Bugh, the senior pastor of Wheaton Bible Church. Rob has been a friend from almost the day he arrived in Wheaton. We have shared a number of meals and I preached for him several years ago at Wheaton Bible Church. Not too long after the Rob arrived in Wheaton my wife and I shared a dinner with a group of pastor friends and their wives and thus we also met Carol that evening. We have followed very prayerfully her struggle, over the last ten months, with a rare melanoma. On Friday, August 11, Carol passed away. The story of her struggle and her faith in Christ is well told in the Daily Herald front-page story.
Here is how Pastor Bugh described his wife’s struggle with cancer and death: “Cancer is horrible. We hate it. My wife had a horrible experience, and she died a brutal death. On the other hand, we believe God is sovereign. He doesn’t delight in this. God permits what he hates in order to accomplish what he loves. It’s part of his plan.” In a conversation the day before she died Rob related to the reporter that Carol had expressed a deep disappointment about leaving her family behind. Rob notes that he assured her “We’re going to be OK. Life on the other side, in the presence of Jesus, was going to be incredible.”
In the same edition of the Daily Herald there is another front page story about a man named Ralph Russo, age 55. Mr. Russo has ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. His slow digression towards death is movingly told by a staff writer. It is the kind of heart-breaking story that will move anyone who reads it. Russo takes an approach to his trials that I would call a happy Stoical response to his tragedy. Here is how he puts it: “All my life, certainly all my career, I helped people manage their crises. It’s the same thing, except this time, it’s my crisis and I’ll deal with it the way I have every other time. Take it one day at a time. Make the most of it. End of story.” Russo adds, “I’m not trying to be anyone’s hero, but I do want to set a good example for people around me not to ever give up.” And later this admirable and courageous man states that though he does get frustrated he ". . . never gets angry. Honest to God, I never say, ‘Why me?’ Not once.”
When Russo reflected upon his own impending death he revealed a side of his noble struggle that reveals the huge difference between Carol and Rob Bugh’s faith and Ralph Russo’s own approach to dying. Whereas the Bughs spoke of incredible joys in the presence of Jesus Russo simply said, “I’m not afraid to die. We’re all going to die. I look at it as closing my eyes and going to sleep.”
For me these two approaches reveal the distinct difference between a Christian facing death and a happy and wonderful Stoic like Russo. The Bugh’s experienced disappointment and doubt, as real Christians will. But Carol Bugh had a hope that pointed her forward to something beyond the grave that was far better than this life. Russo looks at this life as all there is so he aims to live it well and then go to sleep and that’s the end of it all. Sometimes Christians speak about the horrible death that awaits non-Christians. I think many non-Christians in America are noble Stoics and can live and die in a pretty good way, showing both courage and a certain admirable character quality. But the sad fact is that one minute after each of us dies we will all know that there is more to death than “closing your eyes and going to sleep.” This is a noble way to cope with our demise but it has no hope for the world to come.
We must work harder than ever at showing moderns why this kind of faith, about both life and death, will neither fill life to the full nor prepare us for what is to follow this life. I want to live and die the way Carol Bugh did, looking to Jesus as my only hope in life and in death.