Given the diagnosis that I received last year - a diagnosis of living with an incurable, if manageable and chronic, blood cancer - and given my vocation as a Christian pastor I ordered the book. While I have no desire to be living with the label "dying pastor" and, in fact, am remarkably healthy at the moment, I am acutely aware that I am on a journey toward death. I am eager to learn about how best to speak of this journey in ways that are honest, faithful and helpful.
When the book arrived I discovered that it hits close to home. Its authors - Dale Goldsmith, Joy Goldsmith and Fred Craddock - were motivated to write the book because of their experience of the death of their beloved daughter, sister and student who died while serving as a pastor. Her dying was, they report, "a train wreck" (p. xiii). They go on to argue that "The dying pastor provides an extreme example of the modern church's inadequacy to serve the dying, and if the pastor suffers a bad dying in the midst of the church, who can die well?" (p. xiv). It turns out that the book begins with a review of ten congregations that experienced the death of a pastor. Yikes. Like I say, it hits close to home. Not that I am planning to die while serving my congregation, but the stories in the book include ones where the pastor lived for quite some time with a chronic, incurable illness.
The title of the second chapter reveals the thesis of the book. It is titled "Victims of the Wrong Story". It describes congregations and pastors who lived inside a story that is not the story of the gospel. As they write: "A brief diagnosis of what went wrong in the dying of the ten pastors is that the entire approach and handling of illness, care, and final end of life were outsourced ... Death is a condition, a state, but dying is a story ... Just what story is at work here?" (pp. 22 & 23). The story that was lived in the stories of dying experienced by the ten congregations surveyed was one in which health - and the appearance of health - must be maintained at all costs. Quoting Arthur Frank they say that this outsourced storyline goes like this: "Yesterday I was healthy, today I'm sick, but tomorrow I'll be healthy again" (p. 41). As a result congregations and their pastors often maintained a cloak of silence and secrecy about the severity of the pastor's illness. It was regularly assumed that to speak of the possibility of death was to give up hope, to lose faith in God. Some of the pastors spoke of their determination to fight hard and their confidence in winning this battle. "This 'faithification' of the 'fight' response is the transformation of fight into faith, making it (fighting) a Christian virtue" (p. 42). In some cases, pastors were determined to continue to work even though their ability to serve was significantly limited by disease and yet no one in the congregation was able or prepared to deal with the situation truthfully.
What would it mean to no longer be victims of the wrong story but, instead, to be freed by life in the story told by the good news about God revealed in Jesus? Most of the book is an answer to this question. The authors argue that "The church is the 'geography' where good dying can begin and where individual stories of faithful Christians can find deep and nurturing roots in the faith proclaimed in God's story. This is a story liberated from the secular narrative that silences the reality of dying and turns the volume up on a false view of who we are and what can save us" (p. 46). Some of the chapter titles that follow provide a glimpse into the resources offered to a church learning to die: "Jesus Christ: Lord of the Living and the Dead - and the Dying", "What Do You Say to Someone Who Is Dying?", "Preaching on Death and Dying", "Facing Dying Faithfully: A Small Cloud of Witnesses" and "A Good Dying". Speaking of learning, each chapter concludes with discussion questions so that the book is conducive to group study.
I have been a pastor for thirty-two years. For thirty-one of those years I was blessed with good health. I had no experience in being a pastor whose health is, well, not so good. I find that I am learning on the job when it comes to living with cancer and leading a Christian community. This new book comes into our congregational life at a helpful time. We are through the shock of last year's diagnosis. We are through the rigours of the autologous stem cell transplant which took me away from ministry for five months. We are now blessed with a season in which the current treatment regimen is both successful and without significant side effects. Life is almost back to normal. We have time to enjoy the blessings of life together. We have time to speak of things other than the pastor's health. And we have time to prepare ourselves for whatever may lie ahead. In "Speaking of Dying" we are reminded to continue to cultivate the Friday, Saturday, Sunday speech of a church that is rooted and grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In this alternative story we discover that facing death with honesty does not mean losing faith or giving up hope. In this cruciform narrative we learn that when we face our endings truthfully we discover the faithfulness of God in whom our hope resides. Looking ahead, I would like to think that I will have a long time to learn this lesson in the days to come. But, no matter the time frame, I am grateful to be a classmate in this school for disciples.