Call me crazy, but also hear me out. What if the painful chest tightening and shortness of breath I feel every time I do a visit with a church member who is nearing the end of life, is less about anxiety and more about acknowledging the holy and heavy burden of creating space for death amidst life?
I think maybe it’s both.
Yes, anxiety induced chest pain and asthma are physiological stress responses that I’m learning to accept as part of how I function in the world.
What if there’s also a spiritual element to the way that I respond to others as they near the end of the journey on this earth?
I like to think maybe there’s a method to this madness, grounded in the belief I hold that these visits, these conversations are important.
Conversations in the middle space matter: to the person who is dying and to their family, to the minister helping them give voice to their dying, and to God.
The middle space is that sacred ground between life and death; the middle space is a swing on the porch between two doors- life and death.
I call the conversations that happen on that porch swing my ministry of middles.
It can be scary and intimidating at first. As a chaplain resident in a hospital I spent a lot of time on that porch swing-
holding the hands of patients and families, asking what healing would look like for them, asking how it might feel if that healing didn’t happen;
compassionately asking the hard questions about how they were preparing for goodbye and what they might need from me.
That’s what I do in the middle space. Though it is physiologically about as uncomfortable as anything for me, spiritually and emotionally, it’s a gift. A gift I give to them because of gifts God has given to me.
“It seems like that would be so depressing.” Someone will say.
I’ll grant you that I feel sad at the thought of losing these people- I mean they end phone their conversations with me with “I love you.” When I leave their homes, they say “just tell anyone who asks you what you did today that you’ve been to grandma’s house.”
I will mourn their loss, and plan to grieve some as well. Even so, I don’t find it depressing as much as I hold as a high honor, a holy calling that God, for whatever reason graciously gave to me-
the honor of being present for those porch swing conversations in the middle space.
These are the conversations that imbue a ministry with gravitas; conversations that help individuals give voice to their dying while finding meaning in, and purpose for, their living.
I ask them how it feels. Is it painful? Is it scary? Are they nervous? Anxious?
Where do they find peace in the waiting? Where do they see God in the middle space? How can I be supportive?
Then we pray, and I leave- caught in my own middle space where I have to choose –
to be overcome with despair at the frailty of life and wax nostalgic about better times past; nearly quaking with fear as the future ahead of me draws closer and closer-
to be overcome with gratitude for the gift of life: a life well-lived and well-along in years,
a life told in moving stories from the porch swing; gratitude for the life ahead of me and the chance to honor the stories of these dear ones, to pay tribute to their lives through the way I live my own.
I choose life.
I choose to live it in a way that will help the people I serve find meaning in their stories and God’s hand at work in both their living and their dying.