"You understand what this means, Dad?" a friend asked of her father as they prepared to move him to in-house hospice care.
"Yes, I do!" he snapped. "It means a death sentence!"
Sadly, many people share his assessment. We are a culture dedicated to preserving life at all costs and determined to outwit death. We find it difficult to grasp the hospice concept of accepting the inevitable and changing our focus, in our last months, from medically-supported resistance to a gracious acceptance that creates a space for vitality and creativity. We are challenged by the idea that vitality and creativity -- life itself -- can be redefined, and decline honored.
Yesterday, it occurred to me that the hospice approach might be applied to the aging church. I was delighted to learn from one of my most thoughtful and imaginative friends that someone has already begun this discussion in her own denomination, and I am looking forward to learning from him and his work.
It seems to me that the overall challenge is three-fold, whether in the life of an individual or that of a church.
First, there is the struggle to see, to recognize, to accept. This is the step I know best . I have watched dozens of people, their medical treatment failing and their bodies crumbling, unable to acknowledge that an illness has gained the upper hand. Most insist that it would be "giving up" to discontinue the chemo that wrenches their guts into knots and demands twenty-three hours of sleep for every one of alertness. When asked what kind of prognosis or timeline the doctor has indicated, they say, "That's not a question I want to pursue." The suggestion that it might be time to change course is met with furious resistance. Years ago, when my stepmother was diagnosed with stage four cancer and told that she had a one percent chance of surviving a year with aggressive and debilitating treatment, my brother and I found ourselves butting heads with a brick wall whenever we tried to suggest other options. I have watched her story play itself out again and again.
So it is with the declining church. Few people want to look reality in the face, or imagine the likely outcome of another decade dedicated to following the path of the last fifty. They look right past the realities of increasing financial burdens on elderly members struggling to carry them, of upkeep and supplies neglected, of the impossibility of paying for the staff they need. Words like "merger" and "close" meet stiff resistance.
The second step in the challenge is the metanoia, the change, the turning point. And oh ~ that is difficult, because it means walking the rocky path named Loss and Grief. For an individual, the decision to abandon aggressive medical intervention means relinquishing the hope that life will continue indefinitely, that the body will regain its strength and function, that grandchildren will be seen and enjoyed, that the plans for later years will be fulfilled. So much will be abandoned before it ever happens, and so much anguish accompanies such terrible, all-encompassing loss.
For members of a church, the metanoia is similar, and must surely be accompanied by the dreadful sense that a lifetime of effort was for naught. What else could it mean, that decades of sacrifice of time and treasure and talent have produced a building empty of younger generations? My people love to talk about the days when the town boasted two gas stations, a hardware store, a grocery, and two churches with Sunday school classrooms bursting at the seams and the sanctuary filled to the brim for worship. All of that has faded, been gone for years and years -- but the moment of intentional metanoia has yet to come.
The third step: How to live into one's decline? How to foster transformed vitality and creativity when they look nothing like what you've assumed they should? How to develop the vision of the future that makes the metanoia not only palatable, but . . . enchanting? Is that possible?
Yes, another post . . . .