“That’s the way I want to go,” people often say when they hear that someone has died suddenly. “Fast, no suffering, still able to do what I like to do. It’s not death that I fear. Dying is what scares me.”
Most people in America, however, have to go through dying before they die. It’s a slow decline that includes diminishment of their vital powers. Because of extreme medical processes, dying takes longer than it used to and is accompanied by increased wretchedness and loneliness.
At the same time, the church seems to have abandoned its traditional role of helping people experience “a good dying.”
Speaking of Dying: Recovering the Church’s Voice in the Face of Death is an awkward effort to help the church recover its voice and reclaim its spiritual role in guiding people through the ending-of-life experience. The authors want the church to help people in ars moriendi, the art of dying.
The writing of this book was prompted by ten examples of dying that were not artful in the classic Christian sense. The initial case was the dying of a Presbyterian minister whose sister and father are two of the authors of the book. (The third author had been one of her seminary professors.)
Speaking of her sister’s death, Joy V. Goldsmith says, “From my view (as caregiver), her dying in the church, while working full-time, then part-time, but never not working, was a debacle. A devastation. A secret. An unspeakable thing” (xiii).
The authors became aware of other pastors who also died while continuing their ministries. The majority of the ten examples the authors studied were marking by ambiguous communication,congregational denial, and suppression. The congregations experienced negative, long-term consequences from these episodes.
How could this have happened? And why? The authors declare that the primary reason is that the church has outsourced all aspects of caring for people as they move through terminal illness.
They speak of “glorious medicine” as one of the villains. It is a trust in medical miracles that postpone death and encourage people to dissemble with one another, especially with the one who is dying. The result, however, is often the increase of suffering, loneliness, and the fear of alienation from God.
They also write about the “faithification of the fight,” meaning that people are encouraged to use every weapon at hand to fight as though death could be forestalled forever. As a result, dying is evaluated by the heroic measures taken to keep it from happening rather than by the peace, love, and joy experienced by dying persons and those who mean the most to them.
The constructive aspects of Speaking of Dying are the chapters in which the authors recount the church’s story. Its plot line is that God’s love surrounds and sustains us through every aspect of life including the final episode of dying. Because that forgiving, renewing love is expressed in Jesus, especially in his own death and subsequent resurrection, we can face death confident that God loves us and will be with us through death and beyond death in life with God.
In our baptism, we have been united with Jesus in a death like his and in the eucharist we receive the continuing renewal of love, faith, and hope. Because these sacramental experiences remove the sting of death, we can pass through our time of dying with grace.
The authors provide useful suggestions for the churches as they reclaim their proper role in helping people die. As is the case with most preachers, I have rarely dealt with this subject in sermons. On a recent occasion when I was a one-Sunday guest preacher, I did speak of how to live in the face of terminal illness. Comments afterwards lead me to conclude that the authors are correct when they encourage preachers to speak more fully about this important topic.
It is surprising that the authors give little attention to the institutional challenges that are related to their case studies. Congregations and denominations ought to have processes for handling situations in which pastors are unable to perform their duties, but the authors do not discuss these matters. Portions of the book, especially the earlier chapters, are marked by a defensive tone that beclouds the positive character of the book’s primary message.
The authors distinguish between dying, which is their focus, and death, which is another part of life that the church should address. The artfulness of how one dies, however, may in large part be influenced by what one believes about death itself.
Fred Craddock, Dale Goldsmith, and Joy V. Goldsmith have written from the heart, and their book, despite its shortcomings, constructively addresses topics that are important for pastors, congregational leaders, and bishops and conference ministers.