Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ultimate Grace

One of my duties as a hospital chaplain is to discuss advanced directives with patients and families. There are primarily two that I am responsible for - a declaration of a health care representative and a living will. The first appoints someone to make your medical decisions should there come a time when you are unable to do so, and the second pre-declares your medical decision should there come a time when you are unable to verbalize such wishes in the moment. The first is an exercise in trust. The second, in faith.

Which I did not realize until a few days in when I sat to prepare my first living will with a patient and could not control the holy tingling I felt in my spirit as we discussed his/her dying wishes. It was the same holy tingle as a good worship song, a beautiful sunset, a divinely-purposed moment. And I wondered what it was that made it that way.

Maybe it was a couple of things. It was, in part, this person's faith. This person was willing to sign his/her name on the dotted line and declare that he/she did not wish for this physical body, whose hand I was holding, to be inconvenienced in prolonging life. Inconvenienced! The document actually says "When it would be of no benefit or a tremendous burden." Don't you kind of wish for that kind of faith? That you could look at the evidence and declare, in sound mind and body, that when you are no longer of sound mind and body, you release yourself to be simply of spirit and surrender this body? That's awesome. I am a girl of unfinished business; I think I would always have this idea of something more I wanted to do, someone else I wanted to love, another apology I wanted to make, another relationship I wanted to heal...something, you know, that I wouldn't quite be ready to give up. This patient, without an ounce of resignation to dying, declared a wish that he/she be allowed simply to die.

That's faith. So of course, that struck me.

But perhaps what struck me deeper still was death itself and the ultimate act of grace that is our dying.

This is contrary to most of the teaching I think I've ever heard on the subject. When we talk about dying, we talk about grief. We talk about the tearing away. We talk about the trouble of loss and the difficulty of death. It's troubling for those of us who are left behind, and so often when we talk about it, we are reminded that death was never the intention. That's true, I think. God never intended us to die. When He created Adam and Eve, the idea was that they would live forever with Him. In perfect relationship. In this beautiful community they had, the three of them, although I am certain the numbers would still have multiplied and it would have been the many of us and the One God in perfect relationship in beautiful community forever without the concept of death and only this fathomable idea of life as we saw reflected in cyclical nature, in the bounty of harvest and so forth.

That kind of all got whacked by the Fall, when separation between man and God became reality and we no longer had perfect relationship and we no longer had beautiful community and we no longer even had each other, really, because man was looking for a way to find God again. So here we are wandering, separated and looking for a way back. And here is God aching, mourning and looking for a way to redeem. And it is here we introduce death, and it becomes...

the ultimate grace.

Grace. Think about that. Would you have ever considered the two words - death and grace - in the same sentence? Yet this is true. God could not bear to be separated from us forever. He could not fathom an eternity on the other side of the chasm. He wasn't content to let us spend the vast expanse of time trying to find our way back. Rather than change eternity, rather than surrender forever, God reimagined life. He made our time finite with a smooth transition into the infinite. Death. He gave us a way to get back to Him. He gave us a way to come back to perfect relationship. He gave us a way to restore community after all our wandering and all our wondering and all our world, He gave us death that we might have the comfort of life as He intended it.

So I can't help but tingle when I think about death. It's so beautifully holy. That doesn't mean it's not hard. That doesn't mean it's not a struggle. That doesn't mean I'm necessarily ready to go any time soon (although I suppose if He'd have me, He could have me any time). But I'm reaching an understanding of death that I can entrust my life to and approach with peace the end of my time, whenever that might be, knowing that time is only beginning and holding onto the grace of the God who created the way for me to come home.


  1. Beautiful thoughts. What a privilege to be a part of those sacred moments.