I know it’s Advent but I have had a weird series of events that has me thinking about our mortality and preparing for end of life. Advent is the season for preparations so it’s not that far of a reach. Our church had back to back funerals this week. I write note cards to all of our members who are approaching their one year anniversary of the death of a loved one and it seems like I have written a higher number of notes of late. I have been doing some sermon planning for later in January/February and it is a series on Heaven so I’ve been reading a lot about the afterlife. And then one night this week Arbor Acres sponsored a viewing for Board members of a Frontline special called “Being Mortal” based on the book by by author Atul Gawande. It was a fascinating look from a surgeon’s perspective regarding how to talk with patients about when it is time to make some honest choices regarding continuing treatments or recognizing that maybe it’s time to stop and consider quality of life when an illness is terminal. This was followed up by a conversation with a palliative care doctor from Baptist/Hospice.
All of those events have been swirling around in my head and are culminating in this theological dilemma. As I listened to people from the medical profession talk about the struggle to have conversations with people regarding end of life decisions, it occurred to me that this growing problem just might be related to the growing secularization of our society. Apparently medical schools are now including education (albeit small amounts) to help doctors talk to their patients about dying, a significant shift in their training since often times medical professionals assume the posture of “fighting” the disease for as long as possible and feel like they have failed when someone succumbs to illness.
The theological dilemma bubbling up within me is the wonderment of whether thsi growing need for medical professionals to figure out how to have convesaitons that us clergy have had for centuries. But we are having less and less of them becaseu more and more people are leaving the chruch and leaving their relationship with their pastor. It reminded me of how it feels like we have pushed onto teachers some expectations and responilbiites that parents used to be responsible for. Could it be that as more and more people lack a personal relationship with a pastor in the lives of their family that they do not have someone to talk about these very theological topics when illness strikes their bodies or their family? Historically, as clergy provided pastoral care for persons who become sick we would look for opportunities to talk about our mortality and help a person work through at least some of the emotional work of preparing for possible death. But as more and more people try to do their spiritual life on their own, this may be a huge gap that is starting to become apparent.
I confess I have never thought about this pending dynamic. Even if you are not a person of faith, when you are facing your own mortality, it is a theological conversation. Everyone wonders about what will happen after death. Everyone wonders about the process of dying. Everyone worries about their family after they are gone. But not everyone has the peace that people of faith can tap into both in their own journey through life and death but peace that their family will grieve the loss with assurance that their loved one is ok.
I don’t have answers but it’s interesting to think about how we can find ways to stand in the gap that I believe is only going to grow. How can we, as people of faith, help support service providers, Hospice workers, medical professionals, and others that are frontline with terminal patients and model a comfort level talking about life and death with one another?
How can we help people live their life even into its last days with dignity, peace and the ability to articulate what their hopes are for dying well? It starts with your own family. Having those conversations that recognize we are a part of the life cycle God created that includes birth, living and death. What does dying well look like to you? Can you put that in writing or at least talk about it with someone close to you. Sounds weird but it’s so important to do. Don’t keep putting it off another day until it’s too late.
In the meantime, for those of you having conversations with people who are anti-church and anti organized religion, it might be an interesting point of conversation to raise that when these kind of tough conversations or questions need to be explored, having a faith community to help you navigate these predictable but uncomfortable waters is a gift. If you are part of a faith community but have not engaged any personal relationship – whether with your pastor or fellow members of your church family, maybe you should invest some time so that you can be blessed by being a part of life in community.
The season of Advent is about helping prepare for the Christ Child. The whole point of the Christ Child coming in the first place is so to help fulfill the promise of eternal life. In some ways, the preparation for our own death as people of faith in Jesus Christ begins now with the birth of our Savior. Oh that we would be burdened to share the Good News of this Baby Savior so that we, the Church, and we, my clergy colleagues can stand in the gap for all of those who find themselves avoiding church. And that all of us can embrace our life and eventual death in a way that is filled with grace.