It was the Tuesday morning Pastors meeting. 10 am. We straggled in and immediately headed to the coffee pot alongside the donuts, fruit and other tasty munchies. Gathered at a long table were 15 to 20 Pastors brought together for fellowship, prayer and preparation for next weeks sermon. All had agreed to use the Lectionary which gave us 4 Scriptures for each Sunday; Old Testament, Psalm, Gospel reading and Epistle. On a rotating schedule, we were tasked to do the study work and present a sermon idea for that coming Sunday with references to history, culture and modern day applications. We all were eager for the following Tuesday to roll around.
The previous week, I announced that I joined a local Hospice as a full time Chaplain. My church responsibilities were a part time appointment, so I had the time. It didn’t take long for one of the other participants who, having been absent the previous week asked, “Hey Jan, why on earth would you choose to work with Hospice? That’s just a hopeless job, no one expects to live. What kind of hope can you deliver?”
I wondered aloud about the assumed lack of hope. None of us gets out of this life in this skin, alive. If we are born, it can be safely assumed that we will die. Death and taxes come to us all. And so, the debate began.
Surprisingly, most of my compatriots felt it would be a sad way to spend their time. How do you prepare someone to die? I believed it to be an exciting time, a time to look at life and review it. What had that one life been through? In one instance, we had a 3 month old infant who would not make her first birthday. As the family and I met, we discussed their distress and their hopes. They spoke of all the hope they had for her and now that was dashed away? How long is a lifetime, I asked? Generally speaking, 60 to 80 years, they answered. My first born son lived for 20 months, not many decades. He had lived a life shorter than normal, but still, to him, a lifetime.
What the young couple wanted for their daughter was laughter, joy, love, purpose, a husband, children, career, faith, sunshine and happiness. Pretty standard, right? Over the space of a few hours, And then spanning over about six weeks, we went from despair, to discussing how they could make the most of the life she would have. How could they make the most of the time they would have with her?
At that same time, Hospice was caring for a woman of one hundred and three years. She had come to Texas with her family, walking ahead of a covered wagon. She held the hand of her younger brother while they walked ahead of a team of oxen to prevent them from getting dirty in the dust that followed the wagon. Their mom and the newest baby rode in the wagon. Every day, at daybreak, they would rise, have breakfast and coffee, read the Scriptures and then begin walking, only stopping when they got stuck or had to go around an obstruction. At 5 or 6 pm they would stop for the day, prepare the evening meal, followed by scripture reading and prayer and finally, bed. The journey to South Texas from Nebraska took 9 long months of walking. These two patients, the infant and elderly woman, were on my weekly list.
One hospice patient at the beginning/end of life and one dear old soul who had seen more in her long life than anyone else I had ever met. Both facing a transition at about the same time. Talking to my colleagues about my charges, I think they began to get the idea that it’s something all of us must do. And, looking forward to seeing Christ and being in the presence of God for real, in a moment in time that was within the time period we might say was imminent, brought things into a narrower focus.
Most young parents don’t think about death at all. It’s too far away. Losing an infant child changes your perspective. A lifetime can be very short indeed. Where is your hope, your foundation? Can you really trust God with your infant? Sometimes, you don’t have a choice, it happens without your permission and is so sudden that you cannot bargain your way out of it. Are you angry? Perhaps. How do you go forward? I have been there when my almost 20 month old son died.
Grief is work. I know, I’ve been there. When my son passed, I was pregnant with twins. We didn’t know twins were in our future. But, getting off life’s merry-go-round was not an option. Another baby was on its way. Time marched on, one day inexorably following the one just passed. Hurt and angry, I felt hopeless. But, my husband and I moved on, each in our own way. We had each lost other people in our lives, but that didn’t prepare us for the loss of a child. Each loss has its own issues and difficulties.
Over the next several months as we shared our lives and ministries, the questions about hopelessness began to slow until they stopped altogether. What, I wondered, had happened to the questions. Finally, I asked how they saw my time with Hospice. Through the broad silence that followed, I began to recognize everyone was breathing slowly and easily. No one was up tight. Finally, they began to share how calming and quieting it was to deal with death all the time. “While we are in the midst of life, we are in the midst of death”, says a line from the funeral service. They saw me as being in the midst of death as I went about my vocation. It didn’t make me sad, nor angry as it had become a real part of my life. It was accepted. Death had even become a friend when a patient was suffering and unable to find comfort. My colleagues realized that as I walked this path with them, that they had not become comfortable with death. And until you we’re comfortable with death, you couldn’t get on with life in a whole and healthful manner. Death is a part of life that many often refuse to deal with.
Talking with a group of hospice volunteers one evening, I was asked how I dealt with it. To me, it was as natural as breathing. The difference between my life and the lives of others, is that I have experienced a Near Death Experience. I had never discussed it before and decided it was the time to start. While on the delivery room table during the arrival of the twins, I could hear the medical staff talking about the patient’s diminished respirations and pulse rate. I heard, “Oh, my God, she’s in full arrest!” I didn’t feel anything and drugged as I was, if I saw anything, I don’t remember. Everything was very peaceful.
Soon, my awareness went to my core, where I felt warm. From my center, a feeling of love pushed out in all directions and at the same time, a warm sensation came in from all directions. Putting a word to what I felt, it was Love, entering and going out. I was loved by God. I could feel it. I knew God loved me and I was “going home.” But then came the words, “You must return. You are not yet finished. You must go back.” I didn’t want to return, I wanted to stay. But, I did return. Full of joy and sadness, I was returned to my body. Death was real and not at all unpleasant. Much of the next year was spent exploring my relationship with God, examining how I lived my life, reading Scriptures and exploring my options while I grieved the loss of my son and my almost loss of self.
Fear of death was gone. Not that I was considering taking my life. I wasn’t. But how to make the most of my experiences, weighed on me. I did fear how I would get to death in the future. No one wants to hurt or be a burden and that became more a matter of how it would come to me, instead of when. As I packed those concerns away, the fear was gone. Most people who have experienced NDE’s have no fear of death. Our lives are no longer ruled by that concern. It will come when it comes, and until then, I trust God with the rest.
The Pastors that met on Tuesday mornings had begun to deal with their mortality as I shared my life in the midst of those who were preparing to be born into the next life. The passage of a person on that path was impacting many others as I witnessed to my faith and experiences. Our lives are a sermon we preach daily, I just had’t realized I was preaching every time I took a step outside my door. But, we all preach a sermon every day, whether we realize or not.
At the end of this life, is the hope of the life to come. What does that mean to you?