The scene is one every pastor or chaplain would recognize. Somber, hushed voices and tearful glances greet you as you enter the room. Pale lighting shrouds a single bed. The occupant’s halting breath and ashen appearance remind you why you have been called. Gradually, the family members leave, as you approach the bed for what you know might be a final one-on-one conversation with the dying.
What do you say? What should you say? Should you have a purposeful conversation? Or should you just listen? Recall memories, dreams, loves?
Such questions were the subject of Sunday’s cnn.com religion blog. Written by Massachusetts hospice chaplain Kerry Egan, the article told of the author’s personal experiences with dying patients.
She relates how most of the dying she visits simply desire to talk about their families—“the love they felt, and the love they gave … love they did not receive, or the love they did not know to offer.” She explains that such conversations about family is “how we talk about God” and the meaning of our lives.
“We don’t live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories,” she writes. “We live our lives in our families: the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends. This is where we create our lives, this is where we find our meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.”
The implication seemed clear. The subject matter of most of these final conversations are and should be not on primarily faith or God himself or the eternal state or other such “theology,” but about family, friends, and life experiences. If such conversations lead to these other theological topics, so be it. But those are not what truly matters in the end.
She explains, “We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully.”
I found myself asking at the end of the article, Is that all? Is that our primary responsibility as pastors and ministers as we guide people into the unsearchable reaches of eternity? Hold their hands. Talk wistfully about family, experiences, hurts, successes, children, and the like. And then just hope they’ve considered theological matters through these lenses.
One thing unites all of Egan’s proposed topics for these end-of-life conversations—they all focus on recollections and remembrances from the past life. Should not, though, the final hours be much more forward-looking than backward?
Nothing is wrong with nostalgic reminiscences in such times per se. But if we believe what we say we believe about the certainty of the eternal state, heaven and hell, and salvation by Christ alone, then these talks about love and life, family and friends should always lead, however awkward they may be, to weightier topics.
But, here, perhaps is where I and Egan divide. The religion of modern liberal Protestantism believes the “weightier topics” to be issues of this world. Ultimate meaning is found in us, our relationships, our personal fulfillment, and yes, our families. Yet, in biblical Christianity, these things find their ultimate meaning through relationship with the eternal God and Christ, in light of the aforementioned eternal theological truths. Otherwise, our life experiences amount to nothing more than, as the author of Ecclesiastes would say, ephemeral and temporary vanities.
Those of us who have witnessed the slow passing of a saint can attest to this God-centered focus. Yes, their distant eyes glance back at those temporal and even meaningful experiences of space and time—whether hurtful and happy, tragic and triumphant. Yet, their gaze constantly returns to their Savior with whom they will spend eternity.
Such a focus is also attested in Scripture. My dissertation studied the form and structure of Old Testament accounts relating the death of major characters.
Among the many truths revealed by the survey of these stories was just how forward-looking the Old Testament saints were as they faced their own earthly demise. As they set their respective houses in order, they were in no way self-centered, or even all that self-reflective (save perhaps Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes).
Instead, they each exhibited a definite God-centeredness and eternal perspective. Thus, as Abraham approaches death, he finds a wife for Isaac, ensuring that God’s covenant promises pass to the next generation and find ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, the promised “Blessing to the nations.” Jacob prophesies and provides final blessings to his children, looking forward to what God would do through the tribes of Israel to bring salvation through the “Lion” of Judah. Aaron bequeaths his high priestly frock to his son, safeguarding this prophetic office until the true Great High Priest might arrive. David ensures Solomon’s succession and offers concluding theological instructions, reminding his son of God’s covenant promises of an eternal throne and Son through his line.
Pastors, as you counsel those on the cusp of eternity, do not forget to help the dying see and consider the “weightier things.”
A native of Austell, Ga., Bryan Cribb came to Anderson University following a five-year tenure at Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, Ga. Dr. Cribb holds a BA in political science and a BS in mathematics from Furman University in Greenville, S.C. After being called into the ministry, he received his master of divinity in biblical and theological studies and his doctor of philosophy from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. His primary emphasis in PhD work was Old Testament theology, with minor areas of study in New Testament theology and Old Testament languages.
Dr. Cribb is married to Elizabeth, and they have three sons—Daniel Luther, Josiah John, and Nathanael Bryan. Elizabeth is an RN and a stay-at-home mom, who also holds a master of divinity degree from Southern Seminary.