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grappling with end of life issues

by Gary Engler

Paul did not like the thorn, he did not “accept” it, he asked for deliverance—yet God's grace was there in the midst of suffering.
All of us are going to leave this planet. That’s the truth—whether or not we’re Christian, secular or otherwise. Those of us in ministry are expected to be compassionate and available to the critically sick. As a hospital chaplain, there are times when I have observed that we Pentecostals could use some help becoming comfortable ourselves with end of life issues. Due to our strong belief in divine healing, we may have difficulty in accepting terminal illness or death as it seems like failure or unanswered prayer. Here are three points to ponder in helping individuals and families who are facing the tough questions at the end of a life.

First of all, embracing a biblical theology of suffering can be an immense help in grappling with end of life issues. A theology of suffering is the other side of the coin to a theology of healing. For the most part, Pentecostal ministers and churchgoers alike have probably read and heard good teaching on how healing is available to us as believers. Less common, though, is to hear sermons on suffering, though suffering is a normative aspect of both New Testament and Old Testament teaching. Consider Paul’s thorn in the flesh: he asked three times for deliverance and healing, and God said, “No—my grace is sufficient for you.” Paul did not like the thorn, he did not “accept” it, he asked for deliverance—yet God's grace was there in the midst of suffering. Using the NKJV, there are 84 references to heal(s), healing(s) and healed in the Bible, and 126 references to suffer(s), suffered, suffering, and trials. Food for thought: is this approximate ratio reflected in our teaching and practice of biblical Christianity?

Secondly, after considering these theologies of healing and suffering, we can be a huge help to families by understanding what practical arrangements and paperwork are a part of the end of life process. We can encourage families to set their affairs in order prior to an acute health crisis. Typically, there are three important pieces of paperwork to consider in end of life planning: the advance directive for health and personal decision making before death; the enduring power of attorney for financial decision making before death; and, of course, the will for arrangements after death. These documents serve as tools to engage loved ones in planning and discussing end of life matters. Optionally, buying an actual burial plot and making arrangements with a funeral home can be a great relief for loved ones. It may also serve as another opportunity to walk and talk together and realize the certainty of our mortality.

Thirdly, talking openly about death and the hope of heaven can be a welcome blessing for both believers and unbelievers. What an amazing opportunity we have as pastors to share Jesus’ mercy with those who are facing the reality of death. Even while dying Himself, Jesus ministered to the thieves beside Him, offering hope to unbelievers, proclaiming His truth. We can also come alongside believers on their final home stretch. Consider the journey in Pilgrim’s Progress: “Beulah Land” is the uniquely blessed part of Pilgrim’s life in which he has endured the trials and challenges, and is enjoying a mature walk with His Lord. But perhaps the best part of “Beulah Land” is that Pilgrim is so close to the end of his journey that he can see the sun glistening off the walls of the Heavenly City. In the same way, being so close to heaven that one can almost see it can be a tremendous source of encouragement and strength for Christians with a painful illness or terminal condition. We do these brothers and sisters a huge disservice if we don’t allow them to reflect on their passing or engage in life review, and read together some of the Scriptures about the hope of eternal life through Christ. Some of my most treasured moments as a hospital chaplain have occurred while witnessing the homegoings of saints. I remember one godly man who was very excited that he was going to go to heaven in a few days. He took every opportunity to encourage his family and friends to walk with Jesus and meet him in heaven, similar to the Old Testament patriarchs who spoke clearly at these times to their families. He even joked, “I want you to come to my funeral and have lunch on me!” e

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