Friday, March 20, 2020

Things that make me go ARRRRGGGGHHHH ... on ministering to the dying

Something from ... Martin Luther on ministering to the dying

Pastors serve the sick and dying.  Those who are sick and dying are often plagued by fear, doubt, and guilt.  There is no doubt that the devil shows up at the deathbed of many Christians for one final onslaught of accusations and taunting to cast doubt about God's love and their salvation.  Therefore, the pastor comes with prayer for strength, with God's promises for the assurance that the devil is a liar about our sins (he says they stand against us; Christ says they are forgiven), and with the holy sacrament by which the dying Christian will receive the body and blood of Christ which has conquered death and forgives sins.  This is no small matter, especially when death is at hand.  This is when the fears, doubts, and guilt of the Christian are usually the most intense.  They need their pastor.  Most Christians know this, and the pastor comes as soon as he is summoned.

I would like to say that it always happens this way.  It does not.  I am not surprised when unbelievers feel no need for such things.  They did not care their whole life long.  Why would it matter now?  As one of our former members who served as a hospice nurse used to tell me, "They die like they live."

But one thing that makes me go, "ARRRRGGGGHHHH!" is when people who claim that they are Christians do not call the pastor at any point in during the illness--or even to the deathbed when they know death is imminent!  When your loved one enters hospice, you know he is going to die; and by that point he is often already unresponsive.  When you wait until your loved one is unconscious, comatose, or dead, what do you expect the pastor to do???  Do people really think the mere presence of the pastor grants salvation?  Or that they should get credit before God because, even though his word was an afterthought, they thought of it at all?

As pastoral advice: To whomever is reading this--I beg and plead with you to heed the word of the prophet: "Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." (Isaiah 55:6-7)  The pastor truly wants to declare God's mercy and forgiveness to the sick and dying.  But once a person is dead, his time of grace is done.  There is no more hope.  If you don't want to face that possibility, then beg a pastor to come to you.  If you refuse, you have forfeited your right to get angry with the pastor who must tell you that he will not preside over the funeral of one whose faith he never heard confessed.  The pastor does not bear the responsibility for someone else's negligence.  But he is most assuredly grieved by it.  

And in case I actually have to say it: Do not wait until you are sick or dying to care about this.  Many don't know when their death will come.

Here is something from Luther on serving the sick and dying, and he expresses a similar frustration for those who neglected God's word until it was too late.  I guess Luther knew how to say, "ARRRRGGGGHHHH!" too.

“If someone wants the chaplain or pastor to come, let the sick person send word in time to call him and let him do so early enough while he is still in his right mind before the illness overwhelms the patient.  The reason I say this is that some are so negligent that they make no request and send no message until the soul is perched for flight on the tip of their tongues and they are no longer rational or able to speak.  Then we are told, 'Dear Sir, say the very best you can to him,' etc.  But earlier, when the illness first began, they wanted no visit from the pastor, but would say, 'Oh, there's no need.  I hope he'll get better,'  What should a diligent pastor do with such people who neglect both body and soul?  They live and die like beasts in the field.  They want us to teach them the gospel at the last minute and administer the sacrament to them as they were accustomed to it under the papacy when nobody asked whether they believed or understood the gospel but just stuffed the sacrament down their throats as if into a bread bag.

“This won't do.  If someone cannot talk or indicate by a sign that he believes, understands, and desires the sacrament—particularly if he has willfully neglected it—we will not give it to him just anytime he asks for it.  We have been commanded not to offer the holy sacrament to unbelievers but rather to believers who can state and confess their faith.  Let the others alone in their unbelief; we are guiltless because we have not been slothful in preaching, teaching, exhortation, consolation, visitation, or in anything else that pertains to our ministry and office.  This, in brief, is our instruction and what we practice here.” (Martin Luther, “Whether One May Flee from Deadly Plague,” 1527)

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