All posts by dyingbetter

What if We Never Had to Die?

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What if we could live forever?  Would we really want to do so?

After a recent workshop on “writing your own obituary,” one of the participants said to me, “I have always been hopeful they will find a cure for death in my lifetime, so I will not have to go through it.”  This person added that gene therapy and other high-tech medicine allows us all to live longer, so the end of death may one day be a possibility.

Since that conversation, I have thought more about death and about my faith as a Christian.

I’ve often wondered what death would feel like and what l will experience. Even as a child noting the dates on tombstones in a cemetery, I wondered what my date of passing would be. I concluded then that I wanted to die in the spring. Then I grew up and realized that you do not get to shop for a specific date unless you have a death wish, knowingly participate in extreme sports with low odds of success, or are suicidal.

As I grew into middle age, my thoughts became centered on the time of day and methodology of death. Like most people, if I get to choose my passing, I would like for it to happen softly and gently, perhaps in my sleep.

Later, when I served as a chaplain, I imagined this question differently after being around hospice patients who struggled with cancer and other terminal illnesses.  I wondered if I had a terminal illness if I would want to know how long I had to live, or if I would prefer to die suddenly, unexpectedly. Many of those I served were angry about having to live with a terminal diagnosis and would have liked to have not known the diagnosis; others appreciated knowing how much time they had left so that they could prioritize their remaining time.

But what if we could live forever and be in good health? Would we prefer to stay here on earth or take our stand upon faith and depart? In imaging this scenario, I might be one of the few people who would choose to die and not extend life indefinitely. I admit, I would probably have to live a few extra years before I could make the decision to leave; but I believe I would have the faith and the courage to give it a try. Part of my hesitancy is simple fear of the unknown and the fear of making the wrong choice. I would hedge my bets by postponing the passing event for a while, to discover on my own whether there really is something out there after death.

graverstone       Even if there were cures for every disease or even most accidents, could not circumstances change and we would die anyway? How is living into the future on earth in this scenario any more certain than our belief in heaven? Further, living forever here on earth doesn’t guarantee us a happy life. And think about what a person might miss out on if he or she chooses not to go through death.

When I reflect upon death, I hope my decision really would be to take the faith route and ultimately trust in God.  That decision would be based upon faith, not knowledge; upon trust, not logic. It would be to not take control over what is really not mine to control, which is my life and my time of death.  To make any other choice would be to deny who I am as a person of faith.

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A Second Coming…. of Age

William Randolphafs

Generational theory is used to explain the cultural and behavioral differences between adults and their children. Parents usually pass their values and beliefs to their children while interacting with them, so children would be expected to be similar to their parents. But parents are not the only influence on children. Gradually observable differences develop between parents and their children, and those differences seem to accelerate during the teen years.

Generational theorists have pointed out that where and when a person is born is not nearly as important as how he or she grew into adulthood. If a person leaves adolescence in an era of stability when there is little societal change, then that person will likely will end up very similar to his or her parents. If, on the other hand, a teenager enters adulthood in a world full of change, then he or she will likely be remarkably different from his or her parents. A generation tends to be about 20 years, representing the time of birth of a group of people to the time they “come of age” and become adults (in their twenties).

This concept is important as we look for new opportunities for older-adult ministry and evangelism – especially with baby boomers.

Often people who lie on the cusp of a demographic cohort believe they have missed out on being a part of the group that best defines them. However, birth-year boundaries for generations are not as precise for sociologists as for demographers. For instance, conventional wisdom says that the baby boom occurred between 1946 and 1964. However, being born during these years doesn’t necessarily qualify a person as a boomer. Some people had extended childhoods. Perhaps their family lived overseas during their teenage years, which means their college were later. Hence, their “coming of age” was later than those who shared a similar birth time. A friend of mine was born in 1944 in Japan, two years before the 1946 baby boom began in the United States, but he classically fits the culture of leading-edge or alpha boomers. The time his family spent overseas delayed his start of school until the fall of 1952, which means he finished high school and college about the same time as younger peers who were born during the early years of the baby boom. He is really a baby boomer, even if he was born before the 1946-64 boom. Likewise, I have a neighbor born in 1970, who was raised by older boomer siblings. She became a parent at a young age, and she is more a boomer than I am; and I was born in 1957, the peak of the boom.

This is important background information, because on the horizon for many of us boomers is a second coming of age, a second coming into our own, much like the first venture into adulthood (in the 1960s and 1970s). Our experiences with it will form us as a very different culture and group. This second coming of age is the aging process itself. No less than Dr. Bill Thomas, the founder of the Eden Alternative approach to wellness and medicine and the Greenhouse Project to de-institutionalize the retirement industry and nursing centers, has suggested as much in his 2014 book Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life.

This new coming of age will be different in some ways, but it will have the same effect of forming boomers as a new culture. The large number of aging boomers will again change the reality of life in the United States. The final outcome will be as hard to predict as our first coming of age in the 1960s and 70s. Sociologists are watching for the effects, and marketers are taking advantage of the numbers of boomers with disposable income. The new “coming of age” for the boomers should be front and center for the church, which never truly made great inroads with boomers in their first coming of age. We lost almost an entire generation. Many boomers gave up on institutions like the church. They did not give up on their hunger for real community or relationship with God, however. A number of boomers call themselves Spiritual, But Not Religious (SBNR). The church moved on without these boomers, as these boomers moved on without the church.

Older adulthood is a journey of self-discovery — of a new identity. Who are we when we no longer do what we did on our jobs? We take on a new identity in retirement. Older adulthood is defined by different relationships at retirement. Retirement may involve making new friends, moving to a new place, losing old relationships — whether through leaving behind coworkers or through a loss like divorce of mates or the deaths of friends. It is a change marked not by addition, but by subtraction.

Older adulthood may begin with a new sense of independence. Older adults sometimes describe three phases of aging: (1) Go-Go where they are independent and active, (2) Slow-Go, where they are somewhat dependent and active, but need some assistance, and (3) No-Go, in which they are inactive or frail and are dependent on others to assist their everyday movements.

Boomers tend to deny they are aging. We don’t want to be like our parents, so we need some help. Astute churches, such as Church of the Resurrection, with its Crossroads Ministry, are helping boomers to age gracefully. They are bringing people back to God, to the church, and into the community of faith.

How we boomers age will set the tone for aging for those who follow us, the baby busters and millennials. Through our lifetimes, we have exerted change upon the landscape. This is explained by our sheer size: the baby boom accounted for approximately 78 million births, which is still the all-time record for births in the United States (sorry millennials, but you only had about 72 million births). All through the aging spectrum, we have changed the way of life for succeeding generations.

Whatever happens to us boomers in our second coming of age in retirement, it is important for the church to be involved and take advantage of it, to claim us boomers for theasgd kingdom. This second coming of age will change how we do older-adult ministry, with whom we do it with, and the setting of ministry with older adults.

The Language of the Soul

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beauty girl cry

We humans are so much more than flesh and blood, brain matter and memory. We are more than physical and mental beings. Not only is this my belief, but it is my identity as a person of faith. I have witnessed things that I cannot explain, which also suggests to me that there is more to us than gray matter, electrical impulses, and chemical reactions.

I have experienced worship with the cognitively impaired and have felt a distinct presence that I could not explain. However, I tend to be a cynic and skeptic, so I have looked for a logical explanation for those experiences. Still, they remain a mystery. I tend to take the experiences and claims of others with a grain of salt too. I was intrigued, however, by Dr. Eben Alexander’s book, A Proof of Heaven, in which he detailed an encounter with an angelic being during a seven-day coma following an illness. Dr. Alexander is a neurosurgeon, who had been skeptical of such near-death experiences.

I prefer the logical and coldly rational explanations about chemicals that rush through the brains of extreme sports athletes. Steven Kotler, in his book The Rise of Superman, links the experiences of athletes at peak performance (“flow”) to the creative experiences of artists and the religious ecstasy of the mystics.

How do I bridge these two sides of myself: the logical, rational side and the emotional, intuitive side? How do we answer the question, “Where does the psyche end and the soul begin, and where does the soul end and the psyche begin?” Great minds continue to probe this same question, not only from a religious standpoint, but from a scientific perspective as well. One of the greatest thinkers in the field of psychology, Carl Jung, devoted his life’s work to this question. Two excellent books about his quest are Boundaries of the Soul: The Practice of Jung’s Psychology by Dr. June Singer and Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction by Murray Stein.

Rather than engage in a highly speculative endeavor to demonstrate or prove the existence of the soul, I believe it is more useful to believe what I have experienced and to share it with others. I believe the soul has a very different way of expressing itself. The soul must express itself in partnership with the rest of who we are.

I believe that music is one language of the soul. I have seen people react with both tears and laughter when music is played or sung. Music calls from beyond time and memory to something deep within us. Those who can no longer hear the music can feel the vibrations and be moved by them.

Laughter and tears are another language of the soul. Sociologists tell us that laughter and tears are universal to all human cultures, but are unique to humans. What causes us to laugh or cry? Some people cry when they are hurt. Others become so happy that they cry. Laughter is a response to a sudden release of tension, as any good standup artist will attest. Tears flow as the result of being overwhelmed by the enormity of something, sorrow or joy.

Tears and laughter are interrelated as well. I have often laughed so hard that I have cried. I have also been so deeply upset and sad that I have started to laugh. Both experiences have a cleansing effect. Our tears and laughter connect us to others who are experiencing the same emotions. Tears and laughter serve the same purpose that language serves. When we share laughter and tears, I believe we connect to the spiritual realm and even to the realm of God, not just with one another.

The Bible lost some of its original language in translation, but still it witnesses to both humor and suffering as the language of the soul. When we read the Bible, we may overlook the humor. Elton Trueblood, in The Humor of Christ, points out the Bible not only records Jesus making his disciples laugh hysterically (even if it is lost in translation), but also his biting satire directed toward his adversaries.

It is our belief as Christians that Jesus’ purpose was to enter into our suffering. Christ experienced physical suffering on the cross and the spiritual suffering of rejection by his own people and inner circle of friends.

The language of joy and suffering is what I believe I experienced with the memory-impaired residents I served as a chaplain. It connected me to them, even when language was either unavailable or failed us. We were able to share both joy and suffering. There was plenty of both.

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The Amazing Swan Song entitled “I’ll Be Me”

glen-campbell-600    Recently, I viewed a very painful, but nonetheless amazing documentary about the music legend Glen Campbell’s final concert tour, titled “I’ll Be Me.” What made this film so intriguing was its honest, courageous, and open portrayal of Campbell’s mental decline because of Alzheimer’s disease. Instead of riding off into the sunset, retiring, and spending his remaining time of mental clarity doing something private, Campbell chose to have this documentary filmed to call attention to the need for research for an Alzheimer’s cure. He also stated that a goal of the movie was to help overcome the stigma associated with the disease and the stereotypes many have of aging. The result is a masterpiece that at the same time will make you cry and laugh, plus examine your own preconceived notions.

The movie opens at the doctor’s office where the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is confirmed. Every day, about 1300 people receive a similar diagnosis, as this movie gently reminds the viewer. Doctor visits continue all through this film, chronicling Campbell’s decline. These scenes were painful to watch because you can see the subtle changes in Campbell’s personality and ability to remember. For me, the scenes brought back memories of watching similar declines in a number of people: those I served in ministry, friends I had to relearn over and over again because they were always different, and family members whom I grieved because every time I saw them in the grip of this disease, a little more of them would be gone.

As viewers watch the movie, they are confronted with issues of identity and understanding. Who are we? Is who we are a measure of what we do or have done in life? Is it a measure of our ability to remember, to think, to create, to express ourselves? Is who we are to be viewed at one point in time or over a lifetime?

Many people have envied Glen Campbell for his ability to play the guitar, for his fame and glory, and for the fortune he has been able to accumulate. This documentary painted a great picture of his incredible accomplishments. I wonder if Campbell were given a choice if he would trade the fame and accomplishments for a life free from Alzheimer’s disease?

The rest of the documentary showcases the concert tour, which highlights the challenges of pulling it together with the star’s memory lapses. It also shows the effects of the decline on Campbell’s family. The movie looks at the extraordinary influence Campbell had on other musicians and celebrates his work in song. The tour was originally supposed to last for 5 weeks and to be 10 concerts, but it turned into at least 60 concerts over 151 weeks. Campbell and his team found ways to adapt to the challenges posed by his memory loss. The tour concert footage includes extended interviews with Campbell, his wife, and his children.

While the film does not gloss over the effects of the illness, it does not try to shock the uninitiated into the disease’s reality. It does portray openly the frustration, grief, and anger the disease leaves in its wake. It also reveals the paranoia, aggression, confusion, and lashing out that are characteristic of someone moving into the middle stages of the illness. In one scene, Campbell loses it on stage; but in an extraordinary and surprising way, the audience is accepting and showers him with love.

The documentary is, of course, a retrospective of Campbell’s songwriting. One song serves as a swansong for Campbell, and it ties the film together: “Not Gonna Miss You.” It was originally written as a love song for his wife. In the film, this song becomes a heartbreaking tribute to Campbell’s unconquerable spirit and legacy.

What You Can Do

This film originally appeared in movie theaters in October 2014 and enjoyed a short run before CNN became interested in the film and purchased the rights. CNN plans to show this film several times this summer, so look in your local listings for it.
I decided to review this film with the hope that the church will respond to Alzheimer’s as a part of its older adult ministry. It is well documented that Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias tend to affect older adults. Since the average age of United Methodists in our churches is almost 60, this disease will affect many within the church in the coming years, either directly or indirectly.

Most churches can easily sponsor an Alzheimer’s Association Support  group. Invite the Alzheimer’s Association to train a volunteer support group leader from your church ( Alzheimer’s Associationhttp://www.alz.org/join_the_cause_volunteer.asp). Consider hosting the group in your church or partner with the local chapter to work with existing support groups or form new ones. It is vital to enlist the support of clergy if you intend to sponsor an Alzheimer’s Association Support group. The group Clergy Against Alzheimer’s ( Clergy Against Alzheimer’s -http://www.usagainstalzheimers.org/networks/clergy ) was formed to help recruit clergy leaders to share with their congregations the need and vision to work together to support those who suffer from this disease.

Note: Clergy Against Alzheimer’s is a part of the much larger US Against Alzheimer’s. The group has joined together to  produce a collection of meditations from diverse faith communities, designed to speak a word of support for those most affected by Alzheimer’s and other dementias. The collection can be used as a devotional, as sermon starters for healing or in annointing worship, and during pastoral visits. It is available from them or from Amazon.

Seasons

Not so Forever Young

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A great number of baby boomers resist anything that smacks of aging because boomers don’t want to think of themselves as being old. One of my friends went to his 1975 high school class reunion recently. He marveled that most of his friends were unrecognizable because they looked so old. He mentioned women who had put on weight and men who had lost their hair. He said he had never seen so many wrinkles, double chins, and hearing aids. I inquired, “Well how about you? Do you think you looked old to them?” “No,” he said, “they knew who I was, and everyone said I had not changed a bit.” This was coming from a friend who is balding, admittedly has put on weight, has a few wrinkles, and has not been in a gym in years.

So why does my friend see the changes in everyone but himself? He, like so many other boomers, doesn’t want to think of himself as getting old.

Marketing and advertising experts know that if they want to target boomers, then they should not actually show boomers in their ads. Effective promotions for boomers are those where the actors are in their early forties.

Why do boomers tend to think of themselves as forever young? Many sociologists believe that boomers have a negative image of aging. Being old is threatening because for many boomers it represents their parents — whom they battled with during their youthful years and when they came of age as young adults. Boomers made a point to be different from their parents. By the time boomers settled into middle age, their parents were well in their retirement years and had begun to decline physically. At the same time, boomers were experiencing similar battles with their children that they had held with their parents. To their horror, boomers realized “they were becoming their parents.”

Aging however is relentless. Sooner or later, it catches up with everyone. So at what point do boomers recognize their true age? One measure of old age used to be retirement. But roughly 10, 000 boomers have been retiring every day since January 1, 2011, the day when the first wave of boomers became old enough to retire with full benefits at age 65. Another measure of old age used to be becoming grandparents; however, some boomers became grandparents well before age 50. For still others, old age represents the time when a person begins to break down physically or mentally, lose abilities, and experience a lifestyle change. Current medical technology, however, enables us to replace aging knees and hips. Loss of activity is no longer a measure of aging because many folks older than boomers continue to live very active lives.

What will it take for us boomers to begin to see ourselves for our own age? When will we stop pretending we are younger than we actually are and embrace who we are becoming? When I was a teenager, I would laugh at older people who tried to pretend they were younger by wearing the current styles, listened to the music of those who were half their age, and tried to hang out with young adults. I felt like saying to them: “Please grow up and act your age!” Maybe someone should say this to many of us boomers!

We need a new model of what being old looks like — someone to guide us into old age by embracing it fully and showing us how it can be a valuable and productive time of life.

When we were younger, music was the great teacher of style and way of life. How many of us copied the long hair of the bands we listened to? Many of us sang along with the songs of protest with our bands. We dressed in apparel we copied from the stage clothes of our rock idols. It is interesting that some of these same bands are now even older than the boomers who bought their records.

Late next month, Mick Jagger, the lead singer of the Rolling Stones turned 72. We boomers grew up with his music and still appreciate him. What if he began to write about what it is like to be 70 years old? What if instead of singing his old music, he begin to write about losing his friends, about accepting limitations, and about how he now is beginning to try to make sense of his legacy and life? Would we boomers begin to see aging as something with which we can relate? If the Rolling Stones presented aging as something of a new adventure to embrace instead of trying to avoid looking, acting, and seeming old, then my bet is that boomers would begin to look upon aging differently. Boomers need a role model to learn how to be old.

I will make a prediction: Sooner or later boomers will discover that aging is not the end of the world. Like everything else that boomers have touched over the years, boomers will change the paradigm and begin to allow themselves to age. Instead of pretending to be young again, boomers may pretend to be older than they are again. Already, I think I see this happening. One of the trending styles in the fashion industry is the boomer models with long gray hair (both women and men). Some people younger than boomers are having their hair dyed gray to look older! Eventually boomers will drop the pretense of being young in favor of looking and acting our age. people younger than boomers are having their hair dyed gray to look older! Eventually boomers will drop the pretense of being young in favor of looking and acting our age.

Sing, Pray, Breath

camp sumatanga chapel

Five years ago there was a very popular movie, a chick flick based upon a best-selling semi autobiographical novel, entitled Eat, Pray, Love. It chronicled a middle-aged woman’s post divorce journey to try to find herself, to find spiritually healing. Her pilgrimage took her to some unusual places and introduced her to new friends. She learned a lot about her world and herself during this journey. In the end she discover what it means to be nourished more than physically in Italy, what it means to really pray in India,,and finds lasting love in many forms in Bali. The title Eat, Pray, Love, comes from these discoveries.

Recently, i had a meaningful journey of my own in the 5 Day Upper Room Spiritual Academy (http://academy.upperroom.org/events/five-day-academies). My journey was to Camp Sumatanga (http://www.sumatanga.org/) a brand new place. Every year there are both 5 day and 2 year Academies offered there because this was the sight of the first Academy ever held outside of Nashville and the Upper Room. The Academy was an idea of Danny Morris and other staff at Upper Room Ministries, as a place to study and explore spirituality. It is built upon the idea that the rhythm of monastic life and the study of the academic world can help reignite the spiritual life of those who participate. The original academies were 5 day but many participants hungered for more directed and deeper study and so there is now the longer two-year academy which focuses not only one skill or theme of spiritual life but 8 inter-related ones in the 8 sessions. Think 8 different – 5 day Spiritual Academies.

The theme of my 5 Day Spiritual Academy was Praying the Psalms. I thought I knew a vast amount about the Psalms, and had courses in seminary about the Wisdom Literature (the Psalms are a part of this section of the Bible)  and one course on the book itself. I had used the Psalms for sermons, did exegesis (back in the dark ages when I still had a command of Hebrew to translate them for myself), and had been a part of numerous Bible Studies in which we analyzed every single word of the text. I discovered one simple fact. I even could cite chapter and verse where the Psalms were sung or quoted in the New Testament, including by Christ on the cross when he yelled out to God (Psalms 22), Why have you abandoned me.” But I discovered I didn’t know jack, because i did not know how to sing the Psalms!!! The Psalms are a collection of songs, the song book of the Hebrew people. I also had not learned that it could be my songbook too. So the Academy taught me to sing.

In the academy I really learned not just to say or sing the Psalms but to SING the Psalms. In other words to join the song of the universe, by singing the Psalms as a part of a community. The community of the Academy is obviously anyone who participates in the academy. Obviously, it was the fellow participants, like myself and new friends I made like Mike Lawler and former friends I had lost contact with previously but renewed a friendship with like Hunter Pugh. Btw, the majority of the fellow students were laity, many of them retired, and most were I would say over 50.  It was also the Faculty of the Academy, Dr. Don Saliers and Dr. Roberta Biondi both of whom I already admired and had previously in seminary. Their lectures were captivating and mesmerizing, and I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. The community was also the staff Kathy Norburg and Pat Luna that met every need so we could devote ourselves to spiritual rest, discovery, and learning. The Community was the facilitators of the Listening Circles, the peer learning groups, like Kelly Clem and David Warlick. But it was the folks who led us in worship, integrating our prayers and the Psalms into the spiritual discipline of 4 times a day worship. Beth Richardson a colleague from the Upper Room and Jennifer Roth-Burnette plus especially Don Saliers with the music and Fr. Andy Thayer, our Spiritual Director.

I learned to pray again. I think prayer had become something I did because I was expected to. I had been told I prayed well in the past. But I knew the truth. I could pray poetically. That is I could pray in ways which seemed majestic and beautiful for others, but often times though they were felt words, they were simply not heartfelt words from the depths of my being. This was the self discovery of the Academy about prayer and praying. I learned first that each Psalm was an expression of prayer. I learned they served as a language for my own prayers, and even to begin to write my own Psalms Prayers, using them as a model, and express things that I did not even know I was feeling in my soul. What’s more I observed others doing the same. Their Pslams written from their depths spoke to my depths. I realized that God uses our words to God to speak to us.

To write our own Psalms, I learned a process that Roberta Biondi had used in writing “Wild Things” which chronicled her journey of caregiving and saying goodbye to her mom, which were her Psalms in that moment. I also learned that to pray I truly need to begin in silence. There were 3 periods of silence everyday, the final one lasting from vespers til worship the next morning. I learned to treasure the silence because I learned to hear God again  in silence. When i told someone this they asked, “and what did God say to you?” The answer was very simple. This is when God said, relax, trust me, you are ok. and I have all of this that you would like to worry about, so be at peace. I learned to take time and in short in the silence to breath. i learned to breath in and breath out, to take a breath., I learned to have a breath of fresh air. Which relaxing surely was.

Julia Roberts recognizes the gift she has been given of the experiences of her journey in finding herself and how it had changed her in the end of this remarkable movie. I now recognize why my older brother Dr. Richard Randolph and my sister Rev.Alicia Randolph Rapking, came back so excited and overjoyed with their experiences at Spiritual Academies and both hunger to complete two-year academies. The whole time as I traveled home I thought, I have to recommend this to Older Adults everywhere and actually to my Baby Boomer friends who are Spiritual But Not Religious. In the two weeks since attending this Academy, I have continued to allow for times of silence to listen to the songs of the universe and God in them,  time to write my own psalms and allow my own words to be a voice of the Divine to speak to me, and to relax and be at peace. In short Sing, Pray, Breathe.

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If I have to talk about Dying, I will just die or the best death prep book on the planet

Edge

A Part of my work of the Office on Aging is to prepare resources on those issues which are of the greatest needs of people who are becoming older as they age or enter into their final years of life. One issue which some of my work is focused upon is Death Preparation, which encompasses not only what is out there at the end of life but dealing with the loss of loved ones, so grief is a part of it. The longer we live of course the more people whose passing we have to grieve. You would think this would translate into a greater ability to process those deaths, with the whole process taking less time and not being as intense with each death. You would also think that our own eventual deaths would be something we would be more accustomed to thinking and talking about. But this is not the case according to the experts I have read, and not been my own practical experience. While this on the surface seems counter-intuitive, it does make sense if we think about it for a second.

When something is painful, of overwhelming, or both we tend toward avoidance of it. When it is fearful and moreover a mystery, there is a certain fight or flight instinct which also takes over, and many of us become a part of the flight or avoidance camp. Even, those whose first instinct is to fight, will often translate the fight into a weird sort of battle: instead of fighting death head on, they will redefine terms, by claiming it doesn’t really bother them so they therefore have no need to talk about it, plan for it, or even think about it. Many people of faith are like that. So are people who are suicidal, btw. The community of believers we call synagogues, churches, parishes, gatherings, does its people a disservice if we do not offer an opportunity to talk about death in a constructive, safe, and hopeful manner.

When I was a part of a parish as the leader, it was a grave struggle (no pun intended) to encourage people to talk about death and dying, unless they had lost someone recently or they had endured a medical emergency. This frustrated me to no end, which is why I hung up being in the parish and opted to spend time serving a captive audience of Older Adults in institutional chaplaincy, better known as a Continuing Care Retirement Community, named Redstone Highlands. Here I had a captive audience of folks who were confronted everyday with death, even if they did not want to be, because the sheer size of the community and the number of employees there, it meant we lost both residents and staff every single day. It seemed like a miraculous and wonderful day or week if no one died, but even so we lived with a long memory list of those who had been a part of the community but were no more, as their names were recalled in the stories and consciousness of us all daily.

Surprise of all surprises was it was actually sometimes just as hard to do death preparation with members of the Redstone community as it had been in parish life. Oh it came up more often, yes, but this did not mean we actually had a great discussion about it. For a time, I blamed myself for not finding a way to open people up to the possibility of talking about death. I did sometimes though. Actually, I got pretty good at getting people to open up about dying and the death of their loved ones. I even got cocky about it. I thought about going to NPR and pitching a new radio show sorta like the old “Speaking of Faith” except entitled “Speaking of Dying.” I shared this with someone and they laughed so hard it made them cry and then asked me to think about the nicknames I would pick up like Brother Reaper, Rev. Death, and Dr. Die. They all made me cringe.

When I became removed from this world and had distance and perspective on the issue I realized something very key. This was I good at getting people to talk about death, opening them up, but I was just taking advantage of their vulnerabilities. It was no different than my previous invention of myself in the parish. It was still mostly people who had had medical emergencies recently, when they were still afraid of death and those who had lost someone close to them who were actively grieving who were prepared to trust me to discuss this painful, fearful, subject we all really avoid. I also realized when I opened people up to such a discussion I was actually giving them very little in return. Probably because I did not have the answers worked out myself. I also realized very quickly I was asking all the wrong questions. I promised myself when I came to my present place of service to learn all I could to offer it to those who need it most.

So I have read everything I can get my hands on about death and dying, grief and grieving, plus about listening and doing therapy and care with folks.I started with those primers like On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and have listed about 50 of the best books, TED talks, videos, lecture, and other resources. All of them however I would gladly sacrifice for one very short, simple, and eloquent book, on raising the right questions and inviting love ones into one’s own death preparation process or thinking. This book is “At the Edge of Life” by Dr. Richard Morgan. It is the single best book on death preparation ever written.

Projecting myself back into those encounters I had as a caregiver, chaplain, and as someone’s friend, when I talked about death and dying with others, I now recognize when I was raising questions, I was raising the wrong questions. I have always been taught if the answers are all wrong then it is really the result of incorrect questions to start with. But looking back, after reading and rereading this book several times recently, I can see both my questions were incorrect and then my answers I gave to others they were not even close to what was actually needed.As prepared as I actually am in the field, having spent time as a counselor and hospice chaplain, I shudder to think about the kinds of conversations which both laity and clergy alike have about death and dying. I remember my own sense of not having the right words sometimes to say early in my career, and even worse with family and friends.

It is hard for me to believe this book has not been promoted more by Upper Room Books which publishes it, that it has not yet become required reading for seminarians, and is not being passed on to a whole new generation the way Henri Nowen’s “Wounded Healer” was when I was in my Master’s programs. Especially since this book was written by a pastor, chaplain, professor of religion, and expert on aging. I mention the book to other clergy and they mostly haven’t hear of it yet, but if I mention it to counselors both secular and pastoral, and they not only have heard of it, but use it. It is a real shame that this book is not being used by churches to help their people talk through death and dying, long before the time when these conversations are made necessary by fate. The ideal time to study this book is when a person is a long way from death instead of when death is on their door. This book is just the type of book to use to jump-start the conversations.

Moreover, there are study guides for this book, At the Edge of Life” by Dr. Richard Morgan. He is also available to discuss it with groups and individuals. I believe this makes a great gift to give to particularly older adults but folks of all ages. Let’s face it, when we are gone, our loved ones will grieve better if they know we were satisfied with our lives and not fearful of our deaths. This book not only helps anyone get started on preparing for their deaths but helps them help others do the same. Moreover, everyone dies and whether we die or not or even when we do not largely control. It is how we die which is important. This book is the best book for helping a person to die well and to help them help others to do the same.