Spending time with people who are dying is never easy, if for no other reason than it confronts us with our own mortality. And yet, it is not an uncommon human experience that, when we are standing near the portal of death, lessons of Divine proportion are learned. Even more incredible, these insights into the Spiritual Power of the universe are more often beautiful, rather than life shattering.
I first noticed Diane and her partner Kara when I saw them sitting in church in some regular attendee’s sacred pew. (Wrong thing to do!) This identified them immediately as visitors. Wrong pew, must be new! I made a mental note to seek them out at our usual Sunday morning “meet and greet.”
They were not shy about why they had come to my church for a spiritual test drive. Kara noted that they searched on-line for a church on the Cape that was open and affirming, not just to gay folk, but also to everybody. We are! This reason for their visit made my heart sing! But when Diane quietly, almost hesitantly, told me another reason why she came, my heart wept. She was likely dying of pancreatic cancer so she needed to check out the “God-thing.”
Over the next several months, my heart was torn between singing and crying; crying as Diane’s declining health became apparent and singing because she lovingly invited me into her life. We truly connected with one another heart-to-heart.
One day Diane called and invited me to visit them at their home, but when I arrived, Diane kicked Kara out. She wanted to talk to me alone, one-on-one. We sat in the living room with a coffee table between us upon which rested a well-worn Bible. Our conversation was so personal that I would never dare share it with anyone, especially since Kara is still very much in this world and still very much a friend. The only part of the conversation I will share is one of her questions, because that question is not hers alone: “PJ, have I come to this God thing too late? Should I fear God?”
I answered, “It’s never too late, especially since God transcends time. There is also never a reason to fear God. God is sheer love, love that will never let you go or force you to go it alone. Diane, you are in. You are in God’s heart forever.”
Tears welled up in Diane’s eyes as she breathed a sigh of relief.
A few months later, Diane’s aggressive cancer required greater care than Kara could give her at home. Diane was given the gift of space at an incredible hospice house on the Cape. I visited her often. As she neared death’s door, we continued to laugh and cry together.
One morning, I arrived to find Diane very agitated and anxious. Her pain had reached a level that significant amounts of morphine were needed to control it. Kara was distraught as Diane’s agitation ebbed and flowed between injections. Instinctively, I knew that her anxiety was not due to pain alone. I moved to the side of her bed, held her hand and whispered into her ear, “Diane, breathe out anxiety; breathe in God’s peace. Breathe out anxiety. Breathe in peace. Breathe out. Breathe in.” In harmony with me, Diane began to breathe out her anxiety and breathe in God’s peace. Her anxiety lessened. A slight smile revealed that God’s peace was making its presence known. Not too long after that, Diane breathed her last breath. Without a doubt, Kara and I believe that eternal peace had been gifted to her.
Diane’s life, particularly her last days, has grown increasingly significant in my life. Just a few short days ago, I visited that same hospice home again. This time I went at the urging of a friend to visit a family that was keeping vigil for their 22-year-old daughter. (That beautiful young woman died a couple hours after I wrote the first draft of this post.) There is no tragedy that I have witnessed in nearly 30 years of pastoral care that equals the pain and grief of a parent losing their child.
Upon my arrival, the Mom invited me into her daughter’s room to say a prayer. After that, she asked to speak with me privately. We went to the chapel, but before we could even sit down, the Mom painfully, even a bit angrily asked, “Why is God doing this? Why does a good God let this happen?”
This was not the first time I have been asked that question. It is a troubling question with no really satisfying answer. I used to respond by saying, “I don’t know, but an old professor of mine once said that he didn’t know either, but the God that he thought he was in touch with was in heaven weeping.” Not a bad response, but not good enough. How many tears must a supposedly all-powerful God shed before God intervenes to bring a halt to undeserved human suffering? Wasn’t the genocide of six million Jews enough to get God off his duff? The old professor’s answer would never satisfy that grieving Mom, so I told her about what I learned from Diane’s last days at the same hospice home.
I will never be able to answer the question of “Good God, why?” Diane, however, left a clue for us. An all-powerful God that allows undeserved tragedies to thrive cannot be a good God, which leaves us with a choice: We can either declare God to be evil OR we can redefine God’s power. I choose the latter. Perhaps God’s power is not coercive. Maybe God’s power is a persuasive or a wooing love. Maybe God can’t fix what is tragic and broken in life, but instead woos us to draw near so that our hearts and souls might be healed. God’s power is not to fix what is around us, but to create peace inside of us. God’s power nudges us to breathe out anxiety and breathe in God’s peace.
I must reiterate that I truly do not know the answer to the “Good God, why?” question. That question is bigger than me and God is bigger than any question. But, on the basis of my own personal experience, I embrace that God’s loving power may not change my world, but it will change my heart. This answer satisfies me for now because of what I witnessed at the bedside of my friend Diane. It satisfies me because, after my talk with that grief-stricken Mom, I saw her at her daughter’s bedside, stroking her beautiful daughter’s arm and whispering, “Breathe out anxiety. Breathe in God’s peace.”
Breathe out anxiety. Breathe in God’s peace.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts