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The Beauty of Pentecost: the Good Death

Reflections from Dr. Howell

   Drew Gilpin Faust, President Emeritus of Harvard, wrote the award-winning This Republic of Suffering, a book I greatly admire. She ex amines what dying far from home was like for the 600,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War, and for their f amilies. The ideal in those days was that one should have a “good death,” surrounded by f amily bringing comfort, with the opportunity to utter parting words of blessing – and importantly, for expressions of faith in God to be spoken, so the survivors wouldn’t have to fret over the dearly departed’s destination.

How horrific to think your son, your husband, your brother was killed on some battlefield under gruesome circumstances, buried anonymously in some mass grave, with no one to report on his final moments. Faust explores the desperation, and how f amilies coped with the absence of this “good death.”

Then I think of Allen Verhey, Christian ethicist at Duke, who gave a lecture in our church about medicine and mortality. Once upon a time, in my grandparents’ day, people died at home. You might sit in a chair or lie in a bed, and f amily and friends could visit. Blessings could be uttered. Goodbyes expressed.

He contrasted this with the advances in modern medicine, which do extend life (for which we can be grateful) but which also leave most of us dying in a hospital, transitioning on the heels of panicked measures of tubes and medicines and surgeries and procedures. Are the gains enough to counter what we’ve lost? was Allen’s question.

Today, we face a new, brutally sad predic ament. The greatest carnage from the coronavirus (to me) isn’t the economy or missed graduations and vacations. Rather, it’s that the elderly have been dying – alone. Nursing home units understandably fret over outbreaks of Covid – so sons and daughters and grandchildren and spouses can’t visit the one they have loved all their lives, and the one who is declining and dying is bereft of the comforting visit, smiles, hand-holding, prayers, singing old hymns, final embraces and goodbyes. I have not seen my father since March 5, and he is in his final days.

I have no polyanna, positive spin on this tragedy. I think we have to n ame it, and remember it, and pray for and with those we know and love who are walking this excessively dark road. We pray for God’s comfort – and that somehow the one isolated in a nursing home bed in her final days will feel the love, will be enfolded in the virtual hugs and prayers and smiles and tears. By God’s good grace, may it be so for them, and us.

And I’m not the quickest pastor to resort to words about “when we all get to heaven.” But this is truth: God’s love for us exceeds our most beautiful fantasies of goodness. What God will do for us and in us to restore what was lost, to redeem what was broken, to fill up what was missing, will stagger our minds, and overwhelm us with glee – so much so that, in eternity, the joy and fellowship we will treasure will be such a high tide of exuberance that the separations of this coronavirus season will be but a dim memory, if it’s remembered at all.

Let us pray for the good death, for ourselves and others.

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