Wednesday, April 7, 2010


One of the things about being a pastor is that you get to, now and again, be with people during important times of their lives. It's the responsibility that one seminary professor described to me as "hatch, match, and dispatch." We baptize the babies. We marry the couples. We say nice things at the funeral. It's what we do.

Over the last seven years of my ministry at my wee kirk, I've lead and participated in several funerals. I've spent time with folks who were suffering from mortal illness. I've prayed at the bedside of the dying. I've done vigil with family. But in all that time, I'd never been with someone at the moment of death. In fact, I'd never seen a human being die. Not that instant, the instant when breath stops, when a heart stops beating, when organic life finally, permanently, ends.

Last night, I scarfed down Chinese food and returned to the beside of a dear old member of my church. I'd known Dick for years. I visited him during his dear wife's decline. I'd been spending more and more time with him, as Dick was basically alone in the world. He couldn't hear, couldn't really see, and had no immediate family. Late last week, Dick took ill. I got word that he'd gone downhill badly, so I'd been out to see him during the day. I prayed for him, read the 23rd Psalm, and read Isaiah, and talked to him about life and church and Spring.

He was right at the point of passing when I arrived last night. Shallow, labored breaths. Changed skin-tone. After chatting with a nurse who had befriended him, I stayed by his bedside. I talked to him about passing. About not fearing it. About the need to let go. About rest and the grace that awaits. I held his hand, which was cool to the touch. I watched him breathe, watched a vein on his neck pulse and pulse and pulse. I said a few more prayers, prayers of preparation and transition. It was very calm, and I felt still and spiritually tranquil.

At around 9:10 pm, three things happened. First, his breath hitched, then hitched again. Then once again, and stopped. Then, the throb in his neck slowed, and grew faint, and stilled. But as these two things happened, a third thing accompanied them.

I found it suddenly hard to see him. I didn't feel faint or anxious or upset. It was just that, for a moment, it was as if there was too much light in the room. It was like stepping out into the bright gold of the summer sun, in that moment when your eyes struggle to adjust, only with no discomfort. I blinked and tried to focus my eyes, but it didn't do anything. Then, after a moment, my vision returned to normal. My perception of the light was gone, and so was he.

I stayed with the empty husk for a while, and then mentioned to a nurse that he had passed. I made a call or two, and talked with the staff, and then left them to their work.

I drove home feeling deeply peaceful.