Some of the most painful hours in ministry for me are those days when I’m called to the hospital to pray with a family and a loved one when the patient is moments away from passing to the next life. I don't take the requests lightly and recognize that it is a great privilege to participate in these sacred moments. I want desperately to help, but I never feel more like Jonah as a reluctant minister than on those days. As I drive to the hospital, I want to turn and escape to the lake for a boat ride (people on boats need ministry too, right?) Instead I proceed on and I am swallowed by the great emotion that drags me to whatever depth it chooses, in spite of my attempts to buoy myself up and keep my head above the swells.
When I arrive the air is often thick with unrest, especially if it is a labored homegoing. There are often livid moments of life followed by almost complete stillness. Each one in the room wants to help their loved one escape the pain and make the journey that can only be made alone. And yet, in a way, each one of us dies a little bit with each arduous in-breath of the person we care about. The horribly descriptive "death rattle" is not a pleasant sound; It just hangs in the air until it mercifully ends. Furrowed brows, muted sobs, and soft sweet words of encouragement usually make up the feng shui of the otherwise sterile room as the patient struggles to both hang on and let go. God usually refreshes us momentarily with emotional daylight and fresh air as we speak prayerful requests and praises to Him. Most of us gulp down the reassurance eagerly, knowing that the sorrow is going to plunge us to the bottom, like a giant catfish on a small Zebco again soon. We are reminded by the medical beeps and whooshes that this journey won’t be cancelled, even if it is postponed temporarily.
The dying experience seems to be different for everyone, but these ministry opportunities don’t seem to ever get any easier for me. It makes me so appreciate the hospital staff, ministers, hospice workers, volunteers, friends, and chaplains who are gifted at helping others through this part of life. These are definitely “take up your cross and deny yourself” moments for me. I want to help people through this difficult time, but I often take on so much of deep sadness of those around me. I sometimes get a hard shell of protective covering or spew mushy emotional talk while I attempt to get a handle again. That is selfish, I know. They need ministry and I have been invited to give it. I guess the reality becomes only Christ in me can do it.
There have been a few notable exceptions to this trail of tears type journey toward the hereafter. I once had the privilege of sharing the final moments of one lady whose Catholic Priest and several of the lady’s family members were present. Each had said “goodbye”, there was a great peace in the room, and there was no struggle. The nurse had disconnected the respirator and the "beep, beep'" of the heart monitor was the only sound in the room. The family gathered and held hands around the bed and the Priest began with the traditional last rites. The "last rites" ceremony was a new experience for me as a lifelong evangelical. The words were comforting and reassuring. As the Priest finished his last words with “Amen”, the monitor immediately went flatline and the beep, beep of the monitor was replaced with an unbroken tone. The nurse turned the monitor off and we all celebrated this woman’s transition to eternal life. At the instant she heard the last goodbye of her faith from this life, she heard the welcoming sounds of the place promised by Jesus. Her loved ones were gathered around her on this side of heaven to say “so long”. And, (according to many of the near death stories I have heard), her loved ones in heaven were gathered to welcome her to her place of comfort and rest. It was a beautiful drama played out in one of the best possible scenarios. A life well lived with few regrets, a passing that was easy and celebrated with loved ones into the welcoming arms of family and a Savior who have gone ahead of her to heaven. This was a wonderful serendipitous trip to the hospital.
Regardless of the amount of duress in dying, the hope that comes from Christ is what ultimately sustains us. Whether it is an easy celebration of a life well lived or a laborious and tragic passing, the result for those who are in Christ is a wonderful place full of love, where tears are wiped away, and sin and death no longer taunt us. The victory is won and we are safe and secure in LIFE; in real, never to be taken again, LIFE.
I request your prayers for this Jonah’s brother and any of the other ministers in your life who may struggle this part of the calling too.