Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Speaking of Dying

Two days ago, we placed Heather’s dad in hospice. It was an intentional shift from extending life medically to preparing for one’s homegoing, making his passage as comfortable as possible. Instead of seeking one more opinion, one more medication, and one more procedure, making comfortable is now the best therapy of all. It has been a long and arduous journey for the family, especially for dad. And while some of you can identify with this, the reality is that every dying is a unique journey. There is no real predictable pattern. I have observed this as a pastor. There is no set itinerary. Each person’s dying has its own time table, its drama, its conflicts, humor, anguish, joy, and sadness.

Through this inevitable experience sons and daughters face, I have been reminded that we do  not do death so well. Our personal eschatology and our behavior do not always match up. There is an absence of a good theology of dying because we have not incorporated the reality of dying into our faith. Like culture, we often live in denial. We believe in heaven, but seem to do everything we can to avoid the transition. We invest lots of resources to prolong the appearance of youth, pursue the next miracle drug.

I sometimes liken our transition to presently living in Somalia, and death representing a plane on the tarmac waiting to take us to Hawaii. And yet, we hang on to Somalia. When healing does not happen, we too quickly chalk it up as a failure of faith. When cancer takes someone in the church, or a child dies in the womb, we usually treat these as a tragedy. And in some respects, they are.  But I wonder how it looks from the other side? Do we hang on too hard?

Fred Craddock, in his most recent book, Speaking of Dying, comments that it is “astonishing that religious people in the US seem to be the ones most enamored of extensive medical support in the last days of life.” He also believes the church, in particular, has lost its way, lost its voice. The church is often absent from “the local geography of dying.”  It has, in the main, capitulated to the secular narrative. Like too many families, it has outsourced its necessary ministry of care to the dying to the medical establishment. Someone else can provide the primary care for the person awaiting death.

There’s lots to be said for modern medicine. It’s amazing what technology is doing. But there is a downside. Medical science has elongated, postponed the experience of dying, removing it from view. In too many cases, medical staff, church, family, friends, and patient agree to behave as though the patient were not dying. And all of this creates huge tensions.

We have experienced these with dad. He has been given 94 years, but it has been obvious for some time he has been on a decline. Complicating this was a recent stroke. Initially, we were on a rehab course. Dying was not in the vocabulary. The result has been an extensive use of medical procedures, longer hospital stays, running from one option to another. We have had to stop and ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing?” Have we bought into the secular faith that says dying is an illness and we can overcome any threat?

The reality, as Craddock notes, is that life is not a gift that lasts forever. It is fragile and its length is not up to any of us—only its quality. What he advocates at the end of his book is a good dying. Watching all of this with dad, I can only hope my dying one day will be good. This will require that everyone involved honors the limitations of extreme health interventions. This will mean that family and church are not on the sidelines, but in the center, providing the best support. It will mean, on my part, the very best living—for to live well is to hopefully die well. Hopefully, I can come to the same place of the apostle Paul—”To live is Christ—to die is gain.”

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1 Comment
  • Bud
    10:54 AM, 10 April 2013

    I remember that when my wife was dying, she had strong faith in her future. But what she said was that she had absolutely no fear of death but that she did have a certain fear regarding the process. Somehow, we need to separate those two aspects to more appropriately deal with physical death

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