“Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it will go next, so it is with the Spirit. We do not know on whom [the Spirit] will next bestow this life from heaven.”
—John 3:8 (The Living Bible)
Fred didn’t have very long to live; that’s why he had called me to see him. I’m his pastor.
"So, Reverend," he asked, "when you visit someone who's dying, and they ask you where we go when we die, what do you tell them?” I smile inside at this way of asking a vulnerable question as if it’s for someone else. I’m not sure, but I wonder if that fear of seeming uncertain is a sign of Fred’s past as a Baptist deacon. Those of us from fundamentalist backgrounds often still carry an inner voice condemning us for lack of faith.
I answer as honestly as I can: “I tell them I have no idea.”
Fred was shocked, but it’s the truth. I don’t know what happens when we die. It’s not like I haven’t thought about it; I’ve lost of lot of people I love. I’ve lost friends of all ages to suicide, drugs, and cancer. I’ve lost friends, lovers, family. I imagine most people think ministers are at peace with death, but I’m not. For someone in a profession that frequently accompanies the dying, I've never reconciled myself to death. That’s why I have to be honest: “I have no idea.”
After his initial shock at my blunt answer subsides, Fred grows still and says with a deep sigh, “I don’t know either.” He then tells me of his many years traveling the country artificially inseminating bulls. Frankly, I hear more about bull semen than I care to admit. Then Fred says, “I know scientifically where life begins—when sperm meets egg—but how do two cells touching generate life? Where does that spark of life come from?”
I respond so fast I’m not even aware what I’m saying; “Fred, if we don’t know where the spark of life comes from, can we know for sure where it goes?” He smiles and says, “So there is hope, then.”
Fred died the next day.
Whenever I recall this moment, I’m reminded again how, together, Fred and I found hope—but not in our answers; we found hope in being honest about we honestly didn’t know.
Spark of Life, wherever you come from, wherever you go, may we not be afraid of our unknowing. May we be open to our vulnerable places of doubt, so that even in the presence of death, we will know the presence of life, and find hope in all we can never know.