Watching Souls Depart

I drove past the Hospice unit with my blinker flashing, planning to turn in and check on a congregant. It’s funny how quickly a habit becomes ingrained; he had only been there a week. Perhaps it was a hangover from so many other occasions when I’d touch base with a family holding vigil in the unit.

Then, I remembered. He passed this morning. It was a blessing for him and the family. The wait was over, the questions of pain and discomfort off the table. Gratefully, in this case, his salvation is assured by every measure a church can apply (behavior, charity, profession, baptism, etc.).

I did not wish that vigil on the family, or my friend. As breathing slows, the room is reduced to counting breaths, enduring painful seconds after each waiting for the next, when hope pinballs among lofty goals — I pray for the end; I pray for another; I pray for a miracle.

That body is the touchstone to a particular soul, like a pile of oil-stained rocks made sacred as an altar in Bethel. At the bedside, we can express appreciation, extol the goodness of God, share fond memories, and pray fervently for spiritual peace. Uncertain though we may be whether the soul hears any particular word, we are absolutely certain that we are in physical earshot, and maybe, just maybe, our words can bring the soul some comfort and assurance for the journey.

The stones at Bethel are lost among the stones, the oil washed away and the sacred spot profaned. My friend is gone, his room cleaned and set in order for the next vigil. The air, once heavy with pain and soaring faith, has been cleared, sanitized and freshened. I’m happy for my friend. I miss our time together, even the time we shared in this borrowed sacred space.

I look back on dozens of times when the cycle was repeated. Another opportunity to serve has ended. Nowhere else are prayers delivered with such boldness. Nowhere else is salvation so certain or grace so amazing. But the altar, that physical place where we meet with the spiritual, has lost its power. The body is laid to rest.

I serve an elderly congregation, so I’m no stranger to this cycle. Too often I am called to address the spiritual at earthly temples far younger, though just as worn. It’s a different dynamic than a case of sudden loss, where words must reach beyond the empty remnant of what used to be a temple.

I’m familiar with pastoral counseling to persons nearly or totally unresponsive. Too often, I’m called upon to convince a soul that it’s time to abandon this earthly shell. I’m called upon to use what is visibly fading away to point to the invisible certain and eternal.

Church, consider your pastors. You’ve lost parents, children, friends. Decide for yourselves what your pastors have lost — not parents or children, but if not friends at the beginning of that cycle, then certainly that, or something, at its end. We invest sacred time and words, we see the soul, and we see it struggle to stay or depart. We beg God to heal a spirit whose body is beyond repair. As the years pile up, we do this not just several times, but score after score, losing mental track when the number approaches a hundred or so.

It is wonderful. It is a glorious opportunity to touch the Divine. Anyone who has served this duty without trauma will profess that it is humbling, and an honor. But it comes wrapped in sadness and frustration. And when it’s over, we move on to funerals, eulogies, and bereavement counseling not just for families, but also for friends you never knew your loved one had.

Is your pastor distracted? Frustrated? Ineffective? Aloof? Perhaps her mind is on the magnificent pain of watching soul after soul fighting to stay or be free. Perhaps it’s on the anticipated next event, on what to say to the dying, their families, or to God. Perhaps the pastor’s thinking about how to isolate from yet another painful goodbye, or struggling with the guilt of even having such a thought.

The family is entitled to mourn, publicly and privately. The pastor does so as proxy for those who aren’t as free to express pain, doubt and faith. But the pastor is not similarly entitled.

It’s all just part of the job, right? But it’s a part of the job that we dare not dismiss as just another fact of life. This is not just another anything. It is a person, a beloved one, a unique creation of God. We see the sacred. We feel at least some of the pain. We address the uncertainty. We share a sense of loss.

How glorious it is to watch a soul soar from the temple to the Creator. How tragic it is to lose another friend. Only a peace that passes understanding can enable us to mourn with those who mourn. But try as we might to rest on that peace, there may be more comfort in knowing that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, thus giving us permission to weep as well.

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