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End of Life Matters – A Role for Spirituality and Religion at the End of Life

Downtown Presbyterian Church Forum, 2/4/2018

Wrapping up, how can realization of eventual mortality, sorrow and loss inform how we live? How do we relate to something lasting beyond ourselves; do we relate to something lasting beyond ourselves? Trying to answer such questions can help us live better connected to ourselves and to each other. 


Today as we wrap up this series, I need to leave you with a coherent sense about what I have offered.

I began three weeks ago with a declaration that Spirituality plays an important role in our lives, though its shape might not be easily seen. Consciously and unconsciously we use explanations and guidelines to give meaning and purpose to our lives. We discussed suffering as an experience we will all have to encounter: it comes with losing aspects of our selves.  Last week we focused on physician assisted dying, and how allowing death as a treatment for suffering may be a path fraught with spiritual and emotional dangers.

Today I want to bring us back to a religious sensibility, a spirituality that utilizes traditional truths. To do so, I have to return to the questions that originally took me to seminary in 2013: “Why is having religion not enough for some, and not necessary for others to have a peaceful dying?”

Religion is a faith tradition, a shared set of beliefs and practices, myths and rituals that provide meaning, connection and comfort to its followers. Spirituality, in the way I use it, is similar – but it is an individual’s sense of what provides meaning, connection and comfort. We are all connected to something. Religions have provided those explanations for millennia. For some, religion still is the most important connection to something outside themselves. In our multicultural world, it is harder to know what ideas to take on. But we still have responsibility to make our meanings personal and authentic. As I will explain, it is not only our ideas that define us, but our behaviors and our understanding of what constitutes the ground of our being.

Descartes’ claimed proudly “I think, therefore I am.”  This implies that it is Reason and Mind that define who we are and what is reality. Four centuries of scientific rationalism have challenged and eroded the need for a Creator God. It has also become easier to believe that we are organisms determined by biology and culture, organisms without need for anything beyond our needs to guide us. The rejection of meaning and purpose is a worldview that exists in many ideas and many behaviors. It is a spirituality. But … is it a spirituality that will console us when we face suffering: losses, illness, aging and death?

Abraham Joshua Heschel (as you know by now, Heschel is one of my heroes), Heschel maintains that God and spirituality continue to be relevant. First, science is not superior to religion: “It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” And he also said, “Imagine how smug, complacent, vapid, and foolish we would be if we had to subsist on prosperity alone.” It is an unexamined spirituality that believes that meeting biologic needs can provide all the necessary meaning to our lives.

But let’s come back now to how “religion” does or does not help us to be at peace with our mortality. One of the courses I had at Union was about developmental psychology. Let me offer a view of how our spiritual lives can have three dimensions that relate to one another, but that originate in different parts of our development.

First, there are the ideas. Dogmas and arguments refine our religious beliefs, and are the results of our questioning and our reasoning. Many bright and passionate people have worked on these issues.

But there is a more fundamental level of experience – one that is much less examined. In this second level, spiritual beliefs are formed through our socialization and contribute to our norms of behavior. Whenever we state “we should …”, it is these values and behaviors that we are speaking about. We acquired them from our parents and later, the world of our peers and schools and churches. These Sunday School ideas of religion stay with us. They may be followed or rejected, but they remain with us. Besides religious exposure children will encounter spiritual ideas in popular culture: Star Wars provides models, as do real-life celebrities. Our heroes and anti-heroes help define who we are, how we are supposed to relate to one another, what is good and what is not.

But … I believe that religious training and beliefs can falter at the end of life if our understanding of religion and spirituality is confined to the have-to’s and the should’s. The end of life is different from the rest of life.

At the ends of lives, we need more than ideas. Morality may be perilous when looking back at lives that must have contained shortcomings and failures. There is a third need for spirituality: to provide security, to stand with us when we fear we have to leave behind the known and familiar, and have to go on alone.

Trust, hope and love are needed at the ends of lives. Attachment Theory says these traits have to do with our first experiences. The traits are difficult to define, as they become part of us before we even had words. Attachment theory emphasizes the critical importance of unconditional attentiveness by mothers and other caretakers in the first year. This allows infants to know the world as supportive and comforting: that love, hope and trust are possible.

Against this nurtured and protected feeling, is the awful fear of being ultimately alone. Freud might even admonish, “Grow up – you’re alone in the universe and you’d better deal with it.” Some have hardened hearts and shells of behaviors to shield them. Most of us don’t, and we either hope we won’t come to that point, or we learn to hold on to something against the loneliness and sense of loss. We return to our question – do our religious or spiritual beliefs provide enough comfort to sustain us through loneliness, loss and dying? Have we built enough supports to surround us? Have we envisioned enough peace to feel that we may not be alone after all?

For Christians, the Idea is that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. But is it also a bone-deep Feeling that nothing can separate us from a love that matches and surpasses mother-love? Mother-love was our first experience of comfort and support in a world that was beyond our control. How many of us can say that our religious faith or spiritual beliefs can provide us with similar assurances?

We use churches and religious communities to train young people. But the questions we confronted this month are ones that older people know are lurking: Will I be at peace when my time comes? Our spiritualities may need a beloved community to bring them forward for examination and support. We may need to challenge ourselves to see differently. We may need particular kindnesses to sustain us through desolate landscapes that we had not encountered before. And we need the examples of those who have faced crises, and can testify to strengths they had built and then relied on.

Here is one example. This is a sermon William Sloane Coffin preached in January 1983, 10 days after his son died in a traffic accident.


(Transcript below)

The tears that welled up when I first read that sermon, and which still come when I encounter it – those are tears that remind me of our common humanity: the reminders of virtues that lift up our hearts; reminders that kindness and sorrow are the deepest things.  And tears remind me that God’s heart can break with ours.

We can build on Coffin’s understanding that humanism does not have to be secular. His religious humanism shows that our humanity can be more fully expressed by acknowledging God, a presence and wonder that we do not know only through thoughts and habits, but also through opening ourselves to spiritual experience. It is knowledge that is not just known but also has to be felt.

May the peace of God – which the world can neither give nor take away – be with us.


Transcript ­ William Sloane Coffin’s Eulogy for Alex

Ten days after his son, Alex, was killed in a car accident, Reverend William Sloane Coffin delivered this sermon to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York City.

As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son — Alexander — who to his friends was a real day­brightener, and to his family “fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky” — my twenty­-four­-year-­old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.

Among the healing flood of letters that followed his death was one carrying this wonderful quote from the end of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”:

“The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.”

My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners; for if in the last week I have relearned one lesson, it is that love not only begets love, it transmits strength.

When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice­-looking, middle­-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, “I just don’t understand the will of God.” Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. “I’ll say you don’t, lady!” I said.

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature­-caused deaths — I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I’ve been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain­ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist — yes, even an Eternal Vivisector. But violent deaths, such as the one Alex died — to understand those is a piece of cake. As his younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the casket at the Boston funeral, “You blew it, buddy. You blew it.” The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is “It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

I mentioned the healing flood of letters. Some of the very best, and easily the worst, knew their Bibles better than the human condition. I know all the “right” biblical passages, including “Blessed are those who mourn,” and my faith is no house of rest, came from fellow reverends, a few of whom proved they knew their cards; these passages are true, I know. But the point is this. While the words of the Bible are true, grief renders them unreal. The reality of grief is the absence of God — “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart is in pieces, your mind’s a blank, that “there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away.” (Lord Byron).

That’s why immediately after such a tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers — the basics of beauty and life — people who sign letters simply, “Your brokenhearted sister.” In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends — not many, and none of you, thank God — were using comforting words of Scripture for self­-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face. But like God herself, Scripture is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support.

And that’s what hundreds of you understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us — minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.

After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote, “They say ‘the coward dies many times’; so does the beloved. Didn’t the eagle find a fresh liver to tear in Prometheus every time it dined?”

When parents die, as my mother did last month, they take with them a large portion of the past. But when children die, they take away the future as well. That is what makes the valley of the shadow of death seem so incredibly dark and unending. In a prideful way it would be easier to walk the valley alone, nobly, head high, instead of — as we must — marching as the latest recruit in the world’s army of the bereaved.

Still there is much by way of consolation. Because there are no rankling unanswered questions, and because Alex and I simply adored each other, the wound for me is deep, but clean. I know how lucky I am! I also know this day­brightener of a son wouldn’t wish to be held close by grief (nor, for that matter, would any but the meanest of our beloved departed) and that, interestingly enough, when I mourn Alex least I see him best.

Another consolation, of course, will be the learning — which better be good, given the price. But it’s a fact: few of us are naturally profound. We have to be forced down. So while trite, it’s true:

I walked a mile with Pleasure,/ She chattered all the way;/ But left me none the wiser/ For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow/ And ne’er a word said she: /But the things I learned from her/ But Oh, the things I learned from her/ When sorrow walked with me.
–Robert Browning Hamilton

Or, in Emily Dickinson’s verse:

By a departing light/ We see acuter quite/ Than by a wick that stays./ There’s something in the flight/ That clarifies the sight/ And decks the rays.

And of course I know, even when pain is deep, that God is good. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Yes, but at least, “My God, my God”; and the psalm only begins that way, it doesn’t end that way. As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in the “right” biblical passages are beginning, once again, to take hold: “Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall strengthen thee”; “Weeping may endure for the night but joy cometh in the morning”; “Lord, by thy favor thou hast made my mountain to stand strong”; “For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling”; “In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world”; “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

And finally I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a week ago last Monday, a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come.

So I shall — so let us all — seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.

Reprinted with kind permission of William Sloane Coffin.

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