Engaging Death as Practice: Two Re-Frames That Mattered

Let’s allow the word “practice” to entice us with its double meaning: a profession, as in the practice of medicine or psychotherapy; and practicing for learning, as in piano practice or spiritual practice. In both ways, I submit, pastors engage death as their practice.

We begin with the first meaning — pastor in a professional practice that specializes. If, let’s say, Alicia practices law and Alice, a therapist, practices psychotherapy, then Helen, a pastor, specializes in death and dying. Death and dying are her specialty, her practice.

With that point named I can hear the quick rebuttal, “Why, don’t you know, Mahan, that pastoral ministry is one of the last generalist professions?” I have made the same observation. It’s true that we are more general practitioners than specialists with broad competence expected in multiple roles: preaching, teaching, designing and directing rituals, leading and managing, caring and counseling, writing and speaking, and offering leadership in the wider church and community.

Nonetheless I want to make a case for engaging death as our specialty. The presence of death is always close by. If the shaman Don Juan challenges Carlos Castaneda to heed death’s wisdom as a companion just over the left shoulder, then for pastors the presence of death is more in front of our nose, not to be missed. Most people can keep at bay the reality of death, denying its inevitability most of the time, out of sight, out of mind. Not so with pastors.

For us death is present. While we scamper from appointment to appointment there is on the edge of our consciousness a member experiencing a profound loss — the loss of a loved one, job, health, marriage, home, hope, status, memory, or even a worldview crumbling from the weight of irrelevance. There’s so much diminishment in the air we breathe. Death stalks the halls of hospitals we regularly visit. In nursing homes you see its presence in the gaunt, vacant eyes you pass by, faces registering gratitude for the briefest recognition. In the homes of grieving members there’s unspeakable grief in memories noted and photographs exchanged, reminding everyone of what was but is no more. In every service of worship, whether funerals, weddings, or weekly gatherings, some are always there with moistened eyes, feeling the pain of a particular loss welling up from deep within. The security and privacy of a church sanctuary provides the sacred space for felt grief to surface. My point: for the pastor death is close, ever near.

I name as well the special role of pastoral presence throughout the dying and death journey of a parishioner: present during the dying whether extended or short term; present during the days around the death, including the preparation and leadership of corporate rituals; and present during the after-care of continued grieving. Other professionals — physicians, nurses, chaplains, funeral directors, financial planners, therapists — have their unique roles but the pastor is, or can be, the over-seer of this lengthy process. Pastors, given the constituency of the congregation they serve, will have many or few deaths of members in a given year. In my first congregation, a church of young families, I led about two or three funerals a year. In my last congregation, there were as many as fifteen funerals each year.

But regardless of the number of funerals, the death and dying that pastors confront far exceeds the circumstances surrounding physical deaths. Grieving is so much larger. If you were to stop reading for a moment, you could quickly recall recent conversations with parishioners about some loss they are experiencing. Most pastoral care is grief work in some manner. Death and dying, in its multiple forms, is our specialty. It’s our forte.

I will amplify one example of this larger dying, usually not understood as grief ministry. I began as pastor in the post-World War II era when progress, growth, and advancement seemed everyone’s potential. Economic growth and rising national prominence in the world were assumed. Larger Protestant denominations shared in this expectation of progress with numerical growth being the gauge of a successful ministry. With marketing savvy the church became another attractive commodity of choice. During my forty-two years as an ordained leader of the church I have experienced the gradual breakdown of this prominence, privilege, and exceptionalism. I have watched our churches move from main-line to side-line. And along with the loss of external status has come for many the internal loss of meaningful beliefs and church programs that no longer nurture them. These losses are also deaths that demand pastoral attention. As I presented in another reflection on a re-frame that mattered, in our time most pastors are hospice chaplains caring for the dying in its many forms and mid-wives assisting in the birthing of the new.

I rest my case. Death and dying define a specialty practice. And this practice must be done with effectiveness. Like no other pastoral function, the skilled care offered around losses will either deepen or distance the relationship between pastor and people. Faithfulness in this specialty is not forgotten; unfaithfulness is not forgiven. No one told me this during my formation years, or if it was said, I wasn’t listening. I learned it on the job, an awareness that became a re-frame that mattered.

. . .

The second re-frame is more personal. As I turned into my fifties, entering my last decade or so of being pastor, another shift occurred. As a pastor being so often near death experiences they began to be for me my near-death experiences. As I allowed it, I could hear each one whisper, “You too will die! So will your loved ones and friends. So will your vocation. So will your energy, health and mobility. It’s only a matter of time.” I’m reminded of what I have been told about monks whispering to each other, memento more (remember death).

This may sound bleak, if not morbid; for sure it’s sobering. Note my disclaimer, “if I allowed it.” Most of the time I didn’t allow this awareness to linger, but when I did — and when you do — it can be paradoxically life-giving. You know this truth: to survive a near-death experience enhances the preciousness of life. You have watched this miracle in others. In every religious tradition it’s a practice: contemplating intentionally your death that in turn ignites the joy in the gift of being alive, breathing in, breathing out. Could it be that this is one of the fringe benefits of our work — the consistent near-death reminders of our dying?

The weighty theological word “eschatology” (acknowledging the “end times”) can help us. Let’s pull it off the shelf, dust if off and seize its life-giving benefits. What if we lived with the end in sight? For instance, imagine yourself at the end of your pastoral leadership with your current congregation — let’s say, three or five or ten years in the future. With that ending or death before you, ask what does this congregation most need from me (or not need) and what do I want to give (or not give) during this time?

When I turned sixty I imagined myself serving my congregation a few more years until retirement. I asked these questions: what was most needed from me, and what gifts would I enjoy giving before resigning. It turned out that these were my most enjoyable years, no doubt in part because my eschatology brought clarity.

Now at my current age of eighty-two my sense of eschatology still asks the same questions: what is most needed that matches the gifts I have to offer. What’s clearer?

. . .

My last illustration is the challenge of living with our end in sight, namely, our ending, our dying. What’s the picture? Likely you see yourself, as I do, in a bed at home or in a hospital. Though research tells us that most of us will not be conscious let’s assume we are conscious, very present, feeling only moderate pain. I’m guessing that you and I have a similar fantasy: loved ones around the bed amid blessing, tears, and laughter. At this moment, this truth crystallizes: love is what really matters — profoundly painful in its absence, deeply joyful in its presence.

No wonder, in light of our many near-death experiences, you and I offer at every funeral some form of “love is what really matters.” We express in some way how our taste of love is a part of a larger divine Love that never ends and from which nothing in life and death, now or later, can separate us. Maybe it’s easier for us, having journeyed with others so often through “the valley of death,” to hear and even heed on occasion the summons to live from that part of us — Love — that never dies.

So I say, why not maximize the vocational advantage given to us — regularly engaging, as practice, the mystery of death and dying, including our own. I do not minimize the truth that as pastors we are generalists fulfilling a broad range of expectations. But I’m proposing a correction. We are generalists with a specialty. Death is our practice: as a unique role of care to the dying and death of congregants, and as a spiritual practice of personal transformation. These are twin re-frames that mattered.

 

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