The elephant named death & dying

So I said I was going to be writing about the elephants in our church sanctuaries that pastors rarely if ever lead congregations in talking about. I framed these earlier as being rooted in our deepest human fears, even as human sin itself is rooted in fear: the fear of losing control and thus being separate from God.

I’m often guilty of what some call “psychobabble” and so I’ll try to write from my own personal life experience only. I hope you will trust me and know this is not text book material. Nowhere close!

Today the elephant is our fear of death and dying. In future weeks, I’ll deal with the elephants of mental illness & addiction, sexuality & adultery, power & politics, violence & anger management, pride & prejudice. This will lead up to the 7th and final elephant that I am still afraid to name even in this blogspace.

There are two or three experiences I’ve had of late that inform my work in this post about death and dying. Having just finished three plus years of working in congregational care ministry as an associate pastor in my retirement years, I would venture to say that for every 100 bodies in a mainline church sanctuary today, 50 are dealing with grief about the death or dying of a loved one, if not themselves personally. And that’s only in the suburbs. In America.

Reach into the inner city and the less affluent neighborhoods, or other global hotspots, and the numbers may be even higher than half. Life expectancy is not going up for everyone. Is that a shocking statement? It’s actually going down. Each day we’re closer to death than we were the day before and yet “death expectancy” is the last topic we want to talk about. Even in church, where we should have enough faith and enough grace and enough good news to cover every problem presented.

And when we don’t talk about this elephant in the room, do we live longer? I would suggest quite the opposite.

A close friend of mine named Roger just lost his younger brother, Martin, to an untimely death. By the way, I’m not sure what timely death even is. Or isn’t. So what happened is that Martin, approaching his 60th birthday, had accepted an early retirement from his employer. Free to do a little more playing and less working, he noticed himself having some shortness of breath while at play. Brother Roger had in recent months been stressing the importance of Martin’s using this stage of life to get some affairs taken care of financially and physically, to include a medical exam and, yes, dare I say even to have a legal Will drawn up. But you’ve guessed it, haven’t you? Martin did neither. Never saw a doctor. Never saw a lawyer. Never talked about the elephant. Just died. Suddenly. With multiple emboli in both lungs that had probably been forming in his body over a period of time and that were probably very treatable if he hadn’t been so afraid to start with. And without a legal Will for the sake of his rather complex list of contending heirs.

Sometimes our worst fears become our self-fulfilling prophecies (pardon the “psychobabble”). What we don’t know (how to talk about) really can hurt us. And in some cases even kill us.

Now this isn’t to suggest that by starting a conversation as pastors within a church sanctuary, people will not be afraid to join in. Truth is, most of us are like Simon Peter when Jesus brought up this subject. Maybe you remember Jesus’s line: “get behind me, Satan.” Not everyone will follow any pastor’s lead. But if we can’t talk about death & dying in a church sanctuary half full or more of folks who are, well, dying, then the church itself has an elephant sized problem on its hand as an organized institution.

The local church in which I last served was presented a huge opportunity this year. Involves an entire model of congregational care which begins with helping church people talk about death and dying. The model itself is called, “The Unbroken Circle of Care.” It’s well grounded, even academically, and comes out of Duke University’s cutting edge work on this topic. I commended the model to my own senior pastor, who glanced over the material and decided to “wait” rather than move ahead because, in his words, “the mission of Hospice is not the mission of the Church.”

I write this not to denounce this senior pastor in any respect, but only to ask why it is that even in church sanctuaries, death and dying is only talked about in the context of someone else’s death? Why does it have to be Christ’s death? Why does it have to be a funeral for someone else? Why can’t we talk about our own deaths in church? Like Jesus did? Like when he told his disciples in Mark 8 that if we were to follow him we would have to take up our own crosses. I think he may have been talking about our own elephant in the room. SHHHHHHH! Let’s not go there with Jesus! Let’s change the subject and move on to the next post.

What elephant? There’s no elephant in this room.

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