Engaging Death as Practice: Two Re-Frames That Mattered

February 1, 2017

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.

 


Hospice Chaplain / Midwife: A Re-Frame That Mattered

July 13, 2015

Friends, I have revised my website and blog to reflect this time in my life. As a way of leaving this vocation that always exceeded by grasp while filling me with purpose, I’m going back and picking up some tools (re-frames) that I found useful in the gardening we do. These “re-frames” mattered to me in my years of pastoral ministry. I’m passing them along with the hope that some will serve you as well.

. . .

Pete named it: “I feel like a hospice chaplain and a midwife.

In our circle of pastors we were responding to the question: “Your current ministry feels like or looks like a … what?” Pete’s response stayed with me. I played with it, trying on the images, experimenting with seeing pastoral ministry through these lenses. Over time it became a re-frame of the role for me. Of course, no metaphor captures the complexity of our work. But this frame reflects a truth I want to explore with you. Let’s consider these images separately.

Hospice chaplains help people die. They look for ways to align with the little, sometimes compelling movements of faith and gratitude during the journey toward one’s final breath. Pastors, as well, are given this sacred opportunity with parishioners.

But Pete was not referencing the standard, expected grief ministries of pastors, namely, the responses to personal losses that include death of a loved one or marriage or job or reputation. He was pointing to another level of loss more peculiar to the church in our historical moment.

This grief takes us to another category: the loss of church status, once “main-line,” now “side-lined”; the loss of congregational programs once vital but no more; the loss of familiar faith concepts, once life-giving but no more; the loss of institutional loyalty; and the loss of consensus about the essentials, e.g. what is Spirit/God about? … what is church about? … what is being human about?

Pastors these days hear a litany of laments:

“We don’t have young people like we used to” …

“I miss the old hymns” …

“you don’t talk about God in ways I’m accustomed to” …

“our ‘active’ members only attend maybe twice a month” …

“why, we used to have a thriving Sunday School” …

“nobody talks about tithing any more” …

“change, change everywhere, and now in church too.”

But there is an even larger sense of loss and lamenting, seldom named but nevertheless in the air we breathe. Nation-states are collapsing. Refuges know homelessness in unprecedented numbers. No longer can we assume a stable climate, predictable shorelines, and an ample, unending supply of clean water. Others have noted that 9/11, 2001 symbolically represents the undoing of U.S. exceptionalism. For sure, we are witnessing a gradual decline of our sense of privileged super-power at its peak during post-Cold War years.

This is my point. A huge amount of felt loss — losses on multiple levels, deaths experienced in various ways — is experienced by every pastor on a regular basis. People grieving over some kind of dying are the norm, not the exception. I think Pete is right. We are more, but not less than hospice chaplains.

Yet, I know of no pastor who “signed on” to be a hospice chaplain. Not one. Granted, hospice chaplaincy is both worthy and needed. But to see oneself as a hospice chaplain is a major shift in self-perception. A re-frame. It means valuing and appreciating grief work on these many levels. A priority insists on being clarified and embraced: assisting others in the letting go of what is no longer life-giving and, at the same time, companioning with others in the move toward re-formation, toward new life, toward birthing.

Yes, birthing. This takes us to the second image — a midwife. Clearly at this point I am now beyond my personal experience and can only draw on conversations with others, particularly with my ob-gyn physician daughter-in-law. But the birthing metaphor is so perfect, so essential, so biblical, so full of awe and mystery. Think of the fetus forming in the womb, growing until pre-natal life outgrows the constricting walls of the womb. The mother’s excruciating pain announces this point of no-return. But the movement toward new life cannot be stopped. Pushing forward is demanded. Evolution will not be denied. Either this singular evolving life will be supported or aborted. Amid it all, persons with “midwife” capacities offer skilled, compassionate, supportive presence.

Pete, in explaining his metaphor, felt the excitement of a midwife. He was witnessing pushes for birthing the new. Here and there, emerging from congregational relationships, were experimental ideas, programs and practices. This included many who were at work re-imaging their understanding of God, church and discipleship. The winds of spirituality blowing largely outside of the institutional church were beginning to blow within the congregation as well. It was as if he was midwife to emerging life pressing for birth, for breath, for new forms against the womblike strictures of the church.

At first glance, this metaphor of Pete’s — hospice chaplain and midwife — might appear as binary, as either-or. No, it’s not. It is not as if we do grief hospice work in the morning and midwifing of the new in the afternoon. Rather, I see the two dimensions, hospice chaplain and midwife, as held together by our most central theological affirmation of faith, namely, dying and rising, death and resurrection. It’s the Spirit’s way.

We affirm, as I understand our faith, that life and love cannot die; only the form of life and love dies. Any form — whether stage of human life development or stage of church life development or stage of faith development — will die. Our ego, ever clinging to form for security and comfort, will resist the dying, the letting go of our finite formulations. But like the trapeze artist, the trick is learning repeatedly to trust the letting go of one bar, enduring the up-in-the-air anxiety before grasping the next bar coming toward us. Isn’t this what we in the church name the paschal mystery embodied in Jesus — letting go, taking hold; dying, rising; life, death, resurrection.

If true, then this is our work: to help others learn to die in order to live, to help others learn to let go in order to embrace the next stage, to help others release their efforts to control/cling and trust the new life wanting to birth through them. This is where hospice chaplain and midwife meet. It’s one work that faces in two directions. It’s one call to be present in a way that bridges past and future.

This reflection ends with admiration. To stand in that breach, attending both to helping in the letting go and supporting the new being birthed, takes courage. Especially in our time of paradigm shifting, experienced in every institution, this role is seldom understood and appreciated. You can see why. Who likes to hear the message that much is dying in the church? Who is eager to hear the invitation to let go and trust the new yet unformed and unknown? Expect no kudos for that message! Then, on the other hand, what innovative souls, eager to get on and experiment with “being church” in fresh ways, want to hear, “Now be patient with those still denying the death occurring in the church!” Expect no kudos from them!

But this leadership during the “in-between-time” is critical. The church needs clergy called to this challenge. This challenge includes the inner work required. The pastor must learn to release dependence on kudos, to let go of the egoic need to be understood and affirmed, to, as Ethel Waters once said, learn to become “applause deaf.” To relinquish the known and trust the birthing Spirit of the unknown may be the hardest inner spiritual work embedded in this re-frame — being both hospice chaplain and midwife.

I hear this same re-frame in Vaclav Havel, the poet, playwright, philosopher and first president of liberated Czechoslovakia. Let’s give him the final word: “We offer leadership in a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born.”