Helping our people face death
Sue was one of the most attractive women you could ever meet. A stunner. But she knew she was dying. Her words to me were, ‘John, at my funeral please don’t say, “She sadly lost her fight against breast cancer.” Say instead, “She was so excited to be going to be with Jesus.”’ Sue was totally at peace as she faced death.
But that is quite unusual. I have not known many like Sue. The Bible describes death as ‘the last enemy’ and few Christians are able to face it without at least some fears. The devil loves to make people afraid and bring them down.
At present we are in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Many people will be touched by death. And the need for social distancing in order to stop the spread of the virus makes ministering to our friends even more complicated.
How do we help our people as they face death at the present time?1
Speak into the fear
This is important. You may need gently to ask the person ‘Is there anything you are afraid of?’ Whatever their anxieties, Christ and the gospel are big enough. You don’t need to be hesitant. The Lord Jesus has conquered death and the dying Christian needs to hear calm and authoritative reassurance of this wonderful fact from his or her pastor.
What you say shouldn’t be long or convoluted. Just a sentence or two, not twenty verses. These dear people are failing. They require one thing to focus on. Bring the promise of forgiveness and eternal life. Almighty God the Good Shepherd wants to speak through you to his loved-one as they enter the valley of the shadow of death.
The words of the Lord Jesus to the dying thief are a masterpiece of both reassurance and brevity. To the anxious sinner on the cross beside him Jesus said: ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23.43).
Speak the gospel and pray over the person, asking God for his peace and strength for his child. Do so in the assurance that Jesus also is interceding at the Father’s throne.
A visit to a dying person requires you specially to prepare yourself, if at all possible. Don’t take it casually. The person on the brink of eternity needs the presence of a humble pastor filled with God’s Spirit. They need to sense that God is with you.
Ask the Lord to help you know the most appropriate things to say. The more you know your church member the better. The Lord may even lay a particular verse of Scripture on your heart. When this happens it will bring a gentle but authoritative note to what you have to say. It will calm your own heart too. You will forget your own feelings of inadequacy which naturally overshadow us in the presence of death and have a real sense that you are on the Lord’s mission.
This sense of Christ-like authority will be a source of great comfort to the dying saint. It will help them accept the words of the verse of Scripture that you want to share (perhaps John 11.25?) and see them ‘not as the word of men, but as they actually are, the word of God, which works in the hearts of those who believe’ (1 Thessalonians 2.13).
Finding time to prepare may not be easy. It might be difficult especially for a young pastor, if you are isolated and cooped up at home with your children restive and running around, because of the lockdown. But do your best. It is important.
Being prepared will be a great help in having to minister in some of the strange situations which the current crisis throws up.
At present there are generally no hospital visits allowed, and visits to the dying are only for the very closest relatives. To help a dying person, you may have to speak to someone you can’t see. You may have to talk and pray over the phone. You may have to speak to a person on a screen as their next of kin holds out an iPhone and they can see you on FaceTime in the hospital ward. There may be a doctor or a nurse in the room. All this will feel bizarre. But learn to do it anyway. It’s not about you and how you feel, but about your church member and their family. They need to hear from you. They want to hear from the Lord.
If the person is near journey’s end, under palliative care, they may not be able to respond to you. You may speak and there is not a flicker of recognition of you or of what you are saying. Their eyes may be closed. It is not the normal way of relating to people. It is not what you are used to. But learn to trust the Lord and do it anyway. The accepted wisdom is that hearing is, for many people, the last faculty to shut down.
Preparation in God’s presence, and asking the Lord to use you as a conduit of his grace and his Spirit, will give you the quiet confidence to minister despite the difficulties.
Death is not nice. Even in more usual circumstances it can be a less than pleasant eye-opener to see a sweet old saint for the first time without her teeth and fighting for breath. Being involved in ministry to the dying is draining and stressful.
If you are new to being a pastor and dealing with the dying it can be a shock to your system. It is good to recognize this and to have in mind a little self-care afterwards. You need to look after yourself to some extent. You may need to take some time out – a walk a few times around the garden with a cup of coffee – or whatever helps.
If you are absolutely exhausted, you do not want your stress to boil over onto your wife or family. You will need to recover and calm down.
But the main thing is to keep your eyes on the Lord. You may feel totally inadequate. But God can use weak and wobbly pastors in these situations if we are spiritually in tune with him. ‘My power,’ says the Lord, ‘is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12.9).
 I must acknowledge the wisdom and help of my friend Dr. Nicola Ayers, who works in palliative care, in writing this blog.
The Pastors’ Academy free online Study Morning on ‘Pastoring at Journey’s End’ on Thursday 7th May is now full. Do let us know if you would be interested in joining were we to run it again by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.