In 2009, I worked for a summer as a chaplain at a level-one trauma hospital in New Jersey. It was part of my seminary training, and though I had little personal experience with death, I was eager to embrace my new ministry. I pictured myself sitting beside the dying, saying beautiful prayers and sharing spiritual wisdom. Where I expected to get this wisdom, I have no idea!
I remember one patient in particular. I found him in a hospital room on the oncology floor. It was late into the evening. A nurse had paged me because he was becoming more and more agitated, unable to calm down or sleep, convinced he was having a heart attack every few hours. I didn’t know what to do any more than the nurses did. So I did the only thing I could: I sat down beside his bed and listened. I listened as he told me that, when his family visited, they only argued. He hadn’t even held the hand of his wife for weeks. He felt alone, angry and afraid.
I wanted to give him some profound, comforting response. But the words lodged in my throat and would not come. What happened next transformed my understanding of ministry with the dying. For the next hour, I held his hand while he slept. Praying silently beside his bed, I held the hand that had not been held for a long time. I held his hand, and suddenly, he became calm. Peace washed over him, just as Jesus promised: “I will not leave you orphaned. ... Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27).
That’s all he wanted: That’s all anyone in that hospital wanted. Just for someone to be there and care. I didn’t have to say a word.
Death. It’s something most of us prefer not to think about. It’s the one thing we ultimately cannot control, and that scares us.
A loved one gets sick. A local youth dies in a car accident. A funeral needs planning. A malignant tumor is discovered in the pancreas.
With death come urgent questions: Why does a good God allow us to die, often so painfully? What happens after we die? What will heaven be like? How do we talk with a loved one who is dying? How do we go on living in the presence of grief and mortality? What does it mean for God to die?
I do not pretend to have the answers to all these questions; my stint as a hospital chaplain taught me that much. But I do believe in the value of prayerfully wrestling with them together, hand in hand.
This Lent, we have a chance to walk with Christ to the cross, as he confronts his own death.
I realize, for some of us, this is the last thing we’d like to be doing right now. And, of course, given his prayerful tears in the garden of Gethsemane, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t at the top of Jesus’ list either. I get it: It’d be nice to skip over Lent and land squarely on the joy of Easter.
But to do that, we’d have to leave patients like the one I encountered on the oncology floor stranded and alone. For him, and for any of us who know the sting of death, Easter isn’t possible without Lent.
The only way to the other side of this storm is to go through it. But we do not have to go through it alone. On our foreheads, we receive the sign of an empty cross in ashes and oil, marked as God’s own — a promise that we will make it to the other side (whether of grief, or of pain, or of death itself).
To aid us on this journey, Westminster Presbyterian Church is launching a sermon and forum series that will offer fresh, life-giving perspectives on death and dying — and what comes after.
The series will begin on Ash Wednesday (March 1) at 6 p.m. with a shared meal, Communion and the imposition of ashes. Each following Wednesday we will gather for a meal and an exploration of the Book of Psalms. On Sundays, at 9:30 a.m., I’ll attempt to speak during worship to the questions raised above. Afterwards, we will offer classes on hospice care and stages of dying, how to talk with the dying, organ donation, funeral planning and the history of heaven.
All are invited.