Ministering to the Dying

B8BTE8 Daughter visiting elderly mother patient in hospital bed Cheltenham UK. Image shot 02/2009. Exact date unknown. My blog posts have hinted at the fact that I am not, at the moment, as geared into the issues around Christian abuse as normal. This is because each day I am spending two or three hours at the local hospital doing what is described as ‘continuity care’ for the full-time chaplain during her holiday absence. Most of the patients I see are successfully responding to treatment while others are facing the end of their lives. It is this minority that demand patience and time. Some of these patients are unable to talk about the probable outcome of their illness while others are remarkably articulate on the subject of death. It is not easy talking to someone about their death as it would be all too easy to say something that causes distress. You are speaking to a person who is, until that moment, for you a total stranger. You are not only talking to them but you are trying to raise an area of conversation that is more personal and sensitive than anything else one can imagine.

This topic of what I, as a Christian minister, have to say to the dying does in fact touch on our overall theme. This is because I am trying to minister, not just to the practising Christians among the patients, but also to people who have no outward Christian faith. It is this latter group who present the greater challenge. The temptation for some Christians is tell the patient the ‘Gospel’ and then encourage them to accept Jesus into their heart and say the ‘sinner’s prayer’. The opposite temptation is simply to avoid saying anything of significance at all because all that they believe is wrapped up in words that they, the patients, would not understand. That does seem to be true of much Christian discourse. Words like salvation and gospel pour out of the mouth of the minister, even in the informal setting of a hospital bedside, and they probably confuse as well as alienate the listener. To leave a very sick patient with the idea, that because they are not individuals of faith, they are going to a place of eternal torment would be something highly harmful and distressing. Thankfully none of the accredited chaplaincy volunteers in our hospital would be allowed to speak in this way. But there are many Christians in Britain and elsewhere who belong to the ‘turn or burn’ group. Even if a Christian of this ilk did manage to curb his/her tongue over describing the fate of the unconverted, it is hard to see that they would have much of use to say. Because they would be, for reasons of tact and propriety, restrained in what they wanted to say, they would probably end up saying very little.

The challenge, and it is not an easy one, is to say something of value to a patient who may be close to death which uses no special language or any Christian jargon. It is this task which I have been thinking about and trying to put into practice over the months that I have been helping in the hospital. The first barrier that has to be crossed is to be allowed by the patient to talk about death in the first place. That requires a great deal of sensitivity and care. But once you have been allowed to enter into this space you have to declare what you believe is at the end of life. When I begin to speak on this topic, I might first of all mention, when it seems appropriate, the Near Death Experience (NDE) literature and ask if they have heard of it. I make the point that those who have been through such an experience seem nearly always to return with a heightened sense of wonder at what they have learnt. The experience has enthralled and overwhelmed them in its brightness and glory. There is a sense of having attended the ultimate homecoming, the greatest welcome that they could imagine. I then focus on one component of that experience, the encounter with beauty. The word beauty has many manifestations, whether through a transforming relationship, a memorable aesthetic experience or being raptured by nature’s wonders. Most people have something in their lives that they can identify with beauty and I encourage them to recall it in their imaginations. I then typically will point out that we encounter beauty by an opening up of ourselves. There is an act of longing and a reaching out involved to whatever we identify as beautiful. Beauty is always outside us. I suggest that the place that NDEs point to and the church’s tradition of heaven are roughly the same thing. Heaven, whatever else it is, is a place that totally absorbs our minds, our imaginations and our spirits. If we have ever been enthralled in an act of absorbing something beautiful, we should imagine that heaven is like that, only a million times more powerful. In that situation, time would cease to matter because the object of all our longing and our joy would be ours in a single eternal moment.

No doubt to the disapproval of many conventional Christians, I sum up the Christian faith as being the reaching out by us in faith, expectation and love to a God who also reaches out towards us. That is how I understand the words of Jesus in Mark chapter 1 when he declares that the ‘Kingdom of God is near’. ‘Turn around and receive the Good News’. In my conversations with people at the end of their lives I suggest that God is very close and we have to reach out to receive what he wants to give us, something that is hard to put into words. If appropriate I read part of Psalm 139 which declares that there is nowhere outside God’s presence.

These notes on making the Christian good news relevant to people in extremis who have no background in the Christian faith is sharing very personal material but it is relevant to the theme of our blog. This is because it is far from the Christianity that is coercive and controlling that we have had frequent cause to complain about. If such a message, summarised as ‘turn or burn’ is cruel and insensitive to ordinary people who struggle with normal life issues, it is a horrendous message to even hint at for the end of earthly existence. As a ‘liberal’ I believe that the Christian faith has good news contained within even for people who never come to church, never pray the ‘sinner’s prayer’ and never make any public declaration of faith. The more time I spend with the dying, the more I find that I want to proclaim the truth of John 14 that in my Father’s house are ‘many rooms’. Many rooms implies all kinds of conditions of people are catered by the divine economy and who are we to question how this works in practice? Perhaps I am technically a universalist, but that seems closer to the words and spirit of Jesus than anything I read in some types of Christian literature which is all about threat and control. The Jesus I follow is one that says to me, and especially to those close to death, the words ‘Come unto me all that are burdened and I will give you rest.’

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

21 thoughts on “Ministering to the Dying

  1. Essential work, Stephen. But I have to say, the people I have heard talking about what they call near death experiences, sometimes in public, talk about floating, and seeing dead people as guides, all sorts of chaotic stuff which almost certainly is more like the stuff dreams are made on! Nothing that doesn’t sound like either superstition, or, as I say, something like a dream. So it’s great to think some people have helpful experiences, but many don’t. Not helpful to anyone else, anyway.

    1. Near death experiences are real and very healing and affirming for those who experience them. Who are any of us to deny another person’s experience?

      1. That’s not quite what I meant. If what someone experiences helps them, that’s good, but from a Christian point of view, if people start to believe in spirits and the dead person being there in the room and so on, you’ve got a problem. Some people have such decided views on the subject that you couldn’t persuade them that others might see it differently, for example. They “know” what life after death is like and that’s that. That sort of attitude, about anything, is not helpful. And sometimes, what people believe about death is not helpful at all and might be frightening for others. So, I just meant, “Not always”, because I’ve seen that for myself, that it isn’t always.

        1. Are you not perhaps being as prescriptive as they are? Why are spirits a problem from a Christian point of view? Could you not interpret this as angels and other loving presences? Our experiences are as different as we all are and I celebrate this fact. Our different experiences have the capacity to encourage others.

          1. You’re right, of course. And if someone is in distress, that isn’t the time for a theological discussion, and I would never think it was. I haven’t been specific. But if you had been there, I think you might have agreed that what the person was thinking was not in line with Christian thinking, and perhaps not very helpful.

      1. As always. I put a link to it on Facebook.

        It set me thinking about all of the oncology, ICU, and hospice situations wherein I’ve worked. I always say that someone else’s illness, life, and death are not about my religion, and the best way that I can let my faith shine is in and through kind and compassionate care. And I have always found that when the time to talk frankly and forthrightly pops up, it is like God rolls out a red carpet as the person or their family invites the discussion which is never awkward or forced. And sometimes, I feel like I don’t really connect with the patient, but I have been there for the family — giving them permission to express themselves and the myriad of emotions that they feel so intensely. Sometimes it’s harder for them than it is the one who is passing away.

        It also set me thinking about how gentle God is, His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. The Holy Spirit is gentle, shown to us as a dove who shows up in beauty and calming grace. How else would a loving God be with someone who is dying? What could be more inspiring and inviting to a person who is in pain in body and heart?

        I’m glad that you do such work, and I’m blessed by your writing about it.

          1. English Athena, it’s kind of you to say so.

            Putting all of these things into perspective were very difficult when I was young, starting out in nursing and was still in very dogmatic beliefs about my “duty” of trying to save lives. My hard core evangelical mentors expected me to say that I lead every dying soul to Christ on their deathbeds. Luckily, in my early experience with dying people in the hospital — there simply wasn’t enough time to spend attending to those matters as central (as religious friends believed).

            But — II always seemed to have the unexpected time to talk to people when they or their family called for it — a miracle in and of itself. I would also talk to family to find out what a person might like to hear if they were very sick and unconscious.

            In writing this today, I think of how helpful the pastoral care staff would be to me personally in the midst of such crises. Halfway across the country and half of my life ago, there were a number of ministers who came to the bedside or patients for their families, but many were just as helpful to me, too. I learned much from them and am grateful for their wisdom.

            And I see another layer of this for me, reminding me of John Donne’s discussion of how none of us are “an island unto ourselves….the bell tolls for thee.” I think that I always learned and benefitted more personally from the process to attending to the dying and their families than they ever gleaned from me. The pastoral staff were a big part of that learning process for me, especially early on in my experience.

  2. Some years ago a group of those ministering to the dying produced a report entitled”Mud and Stars”.I do not have a copy as I gave it to someone but the essence of it was that those purveying a “Turn or Burn” mentality were being very destructive of people’s psychological health.
    One thing I have found in ministering to the dying is to teach people how to let go.That is much easier if people have grasped this earlier in life. Looked at from one point of view the whole essence of life is a process of letting go, beginning at the moment of birth when a mother brings forth her child. Parenting is a process of learning how to let go of your children and so it proceeds throughout life. Thus letting go becomes a way of faith and trust in God and not in ourselves. As I get older I have to let go of a lot, books ,friends life style and so on. We all need to learn to let go, even of what we hold dear.It is the way of faith.

  3. Thank you all for these comments,

    During my time among flamboyant noisy fellowships, the reality and the cruel horror of death was diminished by demonstrative waves of “Praise”.

    At this point in my life I admit I find death terrifying and, the last place I would go for comfort is the Church.
    Looking back I see a vast tapestry of betrayal in terms of crowd comfort and an, “UP There” world that never, never, helped me down here. Near death experience is clearly still in the region of the body and mind, no proof of spirit activity. My God, how I wish there was.

    Chris Pitts

  4. Anon,
    Near death experience is Either real or false. I see no proof at all that it is real? (I wish it was). Jesus spoke about ‘The truth’ many times, why are religious people so reluctant to face it. The non believers will draw their conclusions. Please answer me on this, I want to be convinced otherwise.
    Sincerely, Chris Pitts

    1. Hi Chris, I would love to answer you if only to tell you that I can no more prove spiritual experiences to you than another person can prove to me that he or she is in love. I accept and believe what the other person tells me. Why would I not? Why does proof have to be part of our relationship with God?
      I have been a Christian all my life and I have never once worried about what I believe or ask for proof about anything because that is not what it is about for me. My version of Christianity is to seek a relationship with God and Jesus and try to live a life that is in accordance with the teachings of Jesus. When I got married I didn’t make my spouse’s parentage and ancestry an issue and we still have a happy relationship many years on. I just can’t see where proof comes in to all this and the reason I don’t fret about belief is because I find a lot of biblical teaching irrelevant. And guess what…I have not been hit by an angry thunderbolt for saying that! What I do believe in, however, is the reality of spiritual experiences and the existence of beings who love and support us. I am lucky to have had such experiences, but I have dearly needed them. My life has not been easy either. So I would want to say to you, please forget this need for proof and try to rest from this internal fight you talk about. ‘ be still and Know that I am God.’
      I know that you have been hurt by humans and by the church, not by God, but I also know that you are a good and a compassionate man. This is made clear by the concerns you have and the people you try to support. From the experiences I have had, and again I can’t prove anything to you, It appears to me that our reception into the next world has ***k all to do with what we believe and absolutely everything to do with how have treated other people. On that score, Chris, you are probably better than many of us.
      There are those who will call me heretical. I don’t care. It is more important to me to care about the Human beings and animals around me than it is to bust my guts in trying to believe in irrelevancies. The next world is full of people/ angels/ spirits who want to love, heal and nurture you. What sort of God would set up anything different? Not one I would want a relationship with, anyway. Chris, you are a better man than you think you are. Forget proof. You will never find it. It’s not a tangible thing and will not make or break your relationship with God or with anyone else. I genuine wish you the peace you so much crave.

  5. Chris, if it helps, there’s always the possibility that someone is lying about their experiences, and I’ve seen that, and I dare say, so have you. But if we exclude that for the moment, what the person who, perhaps is in a coma has “seen” or “heard” is real enough. It was definitely going on in their brain, and they are not lying. And even they wouldn’t claim that anyone else there would have been able to see or hear it, too. The difficulty is in the cause or source of the experience. Personally, I think the source of a bereaved person’s vision of the one they have lost, is the bereaved person’s acute sense of pain, and of course, their memories. But you don’t say so if you are sitting with someone who is grieving, that would be cruel and pointless. You could say so in a Bible study maybe. I also think that the sense of floating, or seeing themselves from above or whatever is the same process as dreaming, which is reasonably well understood. That is, the brain is “off-line” but still busy, sorting out the experiences of the day, relating them to other similar experiences, remembered music, pictures and so on, and it can be pretty chaotic. This brain activity doesn’t really make sense to the conscious mind, and sometimes random things are thrown up which can be distressing, hence nightmares. Now, having said all of that, firstly, there are loads of things that we don’t understand about this world, and about God, and we do of course, worship a supernatural God, so that’s always possible. And I do believe that God can in a sense “meet” us as we go. Why not? It would comfort us, and he would be up for that, after all! But as he knows whether we’re actually on the way out or not, I admit to scepticism as to whether the kinds of things that people report are really God. But hey, a vision of God is a definite possibility any day of the week. So, I’m a sceptic on this, but that doesn’t mean I think people are lying. And I think, for all my scepticism, it is possible.

    1. I dream of a world where people trust each other and scepticism has no place! And no, I am not naive! (Did I spell that right?)

      1. Yes, you spelled it right. I’m sorry you’re not happy with the word “scepticism”. Is there no place for honest doubt in your world view?

        1. Of course there is. I don’t dance permanently around in the daisies. But I think the balance between trust and scepticism has swung too far in the favour of scepticism in society generally.
          Doubt is essential before making some decisions, but I know people who use scepticism as a status symbol and I don’t find it pretty. I think we all have a responsibility to make other people feel comfortable in our presence and I, for one, feel very uncomfortable in the company of those who can’t, or won’t, respond with generosity to things I might tell them.

  6. Thank you EnglishAthena.

    It is very helpful when I get an honest response like yours. It helps greatly to know that ‘Christians’ are not grabbing at vague shadows of hope. This to me is actually a trigger for faith. If (As we believe in faith) God took on His incarnation in the real world, with all the pain and uncertainties that we human kind face, then truth, divine penetrating uncompromising truth, is so important to the credibility of the Christian faith.
    So yes, your comments are helpful to me, thank you!

    Peace, Chris

  7. Thanks Anonymous,

    Thank you for your kindness in responding. I will meditate upon what you say.
    I can see there are mysteries, deep mysteries here.
    I warm to what you say about animals, I too see them as a very important part of God.
    Did I say you were Naïve?

    Sincerely, Peace,


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