The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Closing in on death

Honesty, presence aid in letting go of life to behold glorious other one

A young woman walked into the church where Richard Lischer was serving. With an aggressive sort of confidence, this guest asked him what the church had to offer her. He quickly recited the more impressive features of the facility and program life.

Then, as Lischer describes in his newest book, Stations of the Heart (Knopf, 2013), the woman made a startling comment. "Well, that's nice, but I'm looking for someone to help me die. Do you think your church is up to that? And what about you?" she probed further. "Is that something you could do?" The young pastor was momentarily befuddled.

There is no entity better equipped to help a person learn how to die than the church. As it turns out, not many congregations perform too well in this regard. Instead of helping people build a practical faith that will assist them in dealing graciously with different aspects of dying, faith communities often talk around the subject. They give people Bible verses to memorize for occasions when anxiety over the dying process runs wild. It's a strategy not unlike a physician who writes a just-in-case Xanax prescription for that patient who may need tension relief someday.

The kind of practical faith of which I am speaking involves more than knowing a few life-giving passages of Scripture. It happens to be a variety of faith one cannot fashion in an instant, much less in the final days of life. Forming a workable faith of substance takes a lifetime of nurture and discipline, or at least as many seasons as one is granted between the day of baptism and that last exhalation of breath.

Telltale signs emerge, even among lifelong believers, when that God-given "peace that surpasses all human understanding" is absent within. The offspring of a dying parent may whisper to the visiting hospice nurse, "Don't tell him you are from hospice. That will upset him. He'll freak out or just plain give up." Sometimes family members function like misguided cheerleaders, encouraging dad to overcome what they want to believe is temporary adversity — all this in spite of a clear word from medical personnel that he is actively dying.

I regularly visit with people who refuse to speak the word cancer, or who cannot come to terms with a range of other maladies. I knew a man who was too scared of death to visit his life mate in the hospital. He felt her disease running roughshod over his dreams. To peek in on the realities of her death would crush his optimism.

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February issue


Embracing diversity