Hospice and Preaching: Where the Dying Tell the Truth

shoreline with water lapping up - liminal space to tell the truth
Photo by René Molenkamp on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

As preachers our challenge is to tell the truth, even when it’s not comforting. In hospice, it is no different.

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” —Flannery O’Connor

I no longer publicly preach but the essential role I have working as a nurse case manager in a Catholic hospice has not changed.

In both vocations, we tell hard truths about the need for forgiveness, the reality of death, and the certainty of hope.

Death is not the final word

Martin Luther outlined these things as essential to the theology of the cross. “A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” Luther spoke both from scripture, as well as his near-death experience when caught in a thunderstorm. Like Luther, the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle wrote of the dark night of the soul, where what we believe to be true collapses and we lose our sense of “perceived meaning.”

Both Luther and Tolle write that all the lies we hold dear about ourselves, others, and even life itself at some point break down. Perhaps it’s when we’ve deeply hurt another; perhaps it’s when we think our youth, our money or our intelligence can save us; perhaps it’s at death.

We are quite familiar with these illusive narratives: we are not that bad (or we’re not as bad as other people), and we will not die. Maybe these things apply to other people. But not us. Not us. So, we justify our sins, and we do everything we can to beat death.

But God does not grade sins on a curve, and death is God’s enemy. What I can tell you as a preacher, a sinner, one who is dying, and as a hospice nurse is that this hard, liminal place of meaninglessness is not the final word.

“You matter because of who you are. You matter to the last moment of your life.” —Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the modern hospice

Hadley Vlahos, a hospice nurse, recently wrote The In-Between: Unforgettable Encounters During Life’s Final Moments. In her book she writes about the way we speak about death, the way we use language such as “fight” or “battle” or “cheating it.” This language communicates that we should avoid death at all costs.

However, as a hospice nurse she also writes about these liminal moments, the “in-between moments” when someone is near death but still living. As any hospice nurse will tell you, these in-between moments are difficult, scary places where all seems lost, and at the same time they are places that are sacred, hopeful and grace-filled.

But here’s the kicker, the takeaway, so to speak. She also writes that if we’re truthful and able to strip away the illusory narratives to which we cling, we’re living in these liminal, in-between moments every moment of our lives.

Take a risk: tell the truth

But telling the truth, whatever our role, comes at great risk. We might not be believed, others might think we’re exaggerating, we might be shunned or silenced.

The dying know this better than anyone. People tend to avoid them. The people I encounter in hospice show up with their fear, their need for forgiveness, people who are also looking death in the eye. Yet, they often have never been more connected to life than they are now. Going through the dark night of the soul and being at the edge of death, they have never felt more alive.

Every hospice nurse will tell you that even if they aren’t religious, they believe in an afterlife. I did before I became a hospice nurse and now as a witness, I do so even more now. The dying tell us what it’s like. They tell us what matters, what’s vital, what’s true. We who work in end-of-life care are gifted with their stories. When those who are dying speak, they tell of these liminal, in-between places, they tell us what they see. What they see is what we claim to be true for us every day. Their stories give us courage, faith, and bring us peace. They tell the truth, and we listen.

As preachers, we are also called to tell the truth, be it from a pulpit or at a bedside. We must tell of what is hard, what is sobering, what is painful, and we must tell of what is hopeful, what is loving, what is honest. We speak into the in-between, the liminal, the paradox. The Word becoming flesh, God in the form of an infant, this light that shines in the darkness.

From Advent to incarnation

Soon, very soon, this light, our God will enter our world. Not with the crushing impact of unbearable glory, but instead in the way of weakness, vulnerability and need. On a wintry night, in an obscure cowshed, the infant Jesus will come, humble and naked, hope and promise enfleshed. This helpless God, full of a wild mercy, whose presence gives language to our breath, will arrive.

This child will embody truth, will undo your pious abstractions in body and blood, who is for you. For you, you who listen in the darkness, waiting and weary, your body pressed against the tomb door.

And the message you hear is so simple, the words are so clear:

You are loved. You are so very loved.