OK, let’s ditch all that Lambeth stuff and talk about something happier. How about death and dying? Now that’s a subject right at the center of our faith, but one that we generally try to avoid at all costs. Why is that?
On the one hand most Christians seem to have a basic understanding that life is not ended at death but changed, and that in Christ that change is one of new life and wholeness of being. On the other hand, it seems to me that most of us have a very hard time letting go of loved ones who are nearing their time of death. Extreme efforts are made to apply every possible medical option to keep a body from dying, and “hope” is never relinquished that our loved ones will recover and become well again.
Modern medicine has enabled us to live longer healthier lives, and it is not always possible to tell when one is nearing the end. All of that is good. But keeping someone from dying is not the same thing as making them well, and I wonder about what is going on. If our lives are sacred gifts of love from God, why cannot our deaths be the same? A recent New York Times article discussed the growing practice of “slow medicine” for those who are nearing their natural end. We’ve had a lot of practice with that in the hospice movement, which treats those dying of terminal diseases with the loving dignity they deserve. Now something like it is also being practiced with the elderly for whom extraordinary measures are more than unlikely to produce restoration to health and only prolong their period of increasing dependency on chemicals, machines and high levels of support from aides of all sorts. It is not a matter of casting them into some sort of dump of uncaring. It is just the opposite. It is a matter of surrounding them with love, the best of palliative care, rejoicing in the many blessings of their lives and fully living with them to the very gate of heaven.
Henri Nouwen (Bread for the Journey) suggests that the dying can do something to help as they prepare themselves with grateful hearts, grateful to God and their families and friends, to make their deaths gifts for others. What about the bereaved who are literally left behind? Can they also help to make the deaths of their loved ones to be moments of grateful thanksgiving to God full of all the dignity we can offer?
Well meaning but unrealistic expectations of renewed youth and vigor in which to enjoy restored relationships of years gone by too often lead to greater pain and suffering for both the dying and the living. So how do we, as pastors and ministers of God’s redeeming love unto eternal life deal with that? That’s a question.