Speaking of Dying

Fred Craddock, Dale Goldsmith and Joy Goldsmith, have done us a great favor by writing SPEAKING OF DYING: RECOVERING THE CHURCH’S VOICE IN THE FACE OF DEATH, Brazos Press, 2012. In the light of their experience of several pastors dying while ministering in congregations and the subsequent consequences of denial and silence about what was happening, they have produced an excellent and inspiring book which I can recommend without reservation.

They argue that Christians, and the Church have outsourced dying to the medical profession and hospice and have neglected Gospel teaching. The doctors’ appointments, the medical facilities and the regimen of treatment have replaced the church in the last days of life.

“For church members, the ‘conversion’ to the Cleveland Clinic, MD Anderson Cancer Center, or the Mayo Clinic may be more fervent and disciplined than their original commitment to the gospel of God’s forgiving, sustaining, and promising love. For Christian’s in these circumstances, commitment to God is often framed as a hope that God will enable the medical establishment to fix the petitioner’s problem…The faith focused on such promises can enable remarkable commitment and devotion, expenditure and hope…The church seems content to outsource not only the physical care for the dying to caregivers who in their turn are driven by the desire to achieve physical/scientific success – caregivers who have different goals. The church waits until the patient returns, dead or alive, to its fellowship…. But science cannot fully minister to the complexity that comes into play as one faces dying. Putting all the eggs of faith into the medical basket radically narrows the vision and scope of the life to which God calls us.”

This is not a condemnation of medical science but a call to the church to assert the truths of the glorious Gospel instead of hoping in ‘glorious medicine.’ All diseases cannot be cured. There is a false narrative which is summarized: “Yesterday I was healthy, today I’m sick, but tomorrow I will be healthy again.” We assume the norm to be health; illness and dying are deviations from the norm. The secular faith is that we can overcome any threat. This is triumphalist thinking which is often heard in Christian churches. It goes something like this: when the (secular) clinicians give you a diagnosis of a terminal illness, refuse to accept it as final; do not give in or give up. This sounds full of faith but it flies in the face of the cross of Christ and the reality of suffering and death. The shape of the Christian life is found in the cross and not in the triumphalism of popular Christianity.

The default position of the culture to the terminally ill is “be strong, don’t mention it, don’t give in, fight it.” This is a secular narrative that doesn’t work.

After making their case the authors lay out a positive and helpful theology of dying and urge the church to take the lead and reincorporate care for the dying into its gospel of care. The chapter headings are: Jesus Christ, Lord of the Living and the dead – and the Dying; The Difference Jesus’s Dying Makes; What Do You Say to Someone Who is Dying? Preaching on Death and Dying; Facing Dying Faithfully – A Small Cloud of Witnesses (stories of how Christian believers have understood and faced their dying); and A Good Dying.

The authors take issue with the kind of spiritual care available to dying patients in hospitals and hospices. There is little that is Christian in the literature that is available and no references to Scripture or to Christ. This book seeks to provide specific Christian content to fill the void of vague spirituality that is prevalent in the training of chaplains.