by Tracy Paschke-Johannes
Pastor, Epiphany Lutheran Church, Centerville, OH, and chaplain in a non-profit hospice in Cincinnati, OH
Over the past three years, I have had the opportunity to live out my call serving part time in a congregation and part time as a hospice chaplain. It is a sacred opportunity to build long term, multigenerational relationships with members of a Lutheran faith community while also serving individuals and their families—people I have never met and will only know for a short time–during a most painful moment in their lives. In hospice, I find a sense of urgency with patients and their families. There are experiences that they long to have. There are people they must see. All of these events must happen soon, before the patient no longer has the strength for the experience, or before they pass away. This sense of urgency, a desire to connect with people and places that bring hope, peace and meaning allow the individual, who has been told they soon will no longer be living, to experience life in the most raw, and important ways for them. A significant part of my role as chaplain is to facilitate conversations with patients and families that help them to dig deeply into the emotional and spiritual parts of themselves, to uncover what these experiences may be. What will bring meaning in this time? How can this individual experience the Holy as their time on earth draws to a close? How can forgiveness, peace, and perhaps even reconciliation occur in this season of a person’s life? We call these “conversations of a lifetime.”
In practice, however, we as faith leaders do not need to wait until end of life to have “conversations of a lifetime.” In a congregation, there is opportunity to engage our members to think deeply about what makes meaning in their lives. This can occur as pastors, when we meet one-on-one with homebound persons. In addition to sacramental ministry and time for prayer and reflection, we can ask courageous questions such as “are there people you have not seen or have a strained relationship with? How does this impact you at this time in your life?” Small groups could engage one another in life review, sharing with trusted friends moments that have brought them hope and joy, as well as grief and loss. On a broader scale, congregation forums can be a place where we foster deep conversations within families and significant friends—“what brings you peace, or what would you like to experience in the next year?” Practically, congregations can also encourage dialogue about people’s wishes regarding end of life care. Many people have not given thought to their wishes if they were unable to make decisions for themselves, or what they would want when they reach an age where curative treatment would hurt more than help. How could we help our members thrive and live fully by sharing these wishes, or even knowing what questions they should ponder regarding care in their later years?
Far too often, I meet patients and families who have never considered what they hope their senior years, or their end life care, to look like. People say “It didn’t really occur to me that she may be dying” or “I didn’t expect to have to make these decisions.” As communities of faith, we have an opportunity and responsibility, grounded in our belief in the Risen Lord, to help prepare people for the challenges and opportunities that await them in every stage of life. Let us serve our congregations well, encouraging holy and sacred conversations about end of life care and meaning making in their later years. Let us make “conversations of a lifetime” part of a lifelong discussion in our congregations.