Epistles from the Epidemic: Sacrament of the Final Breath

Grace and peace to you all. May this find you enjoying good health and abundant hope.

This offering was actually written this past December. I did not publish it then because I had been dealing with and writing a good bit about death and dying—it seemed that something lighter was more in order. That, of course, was before the COVID-19 virus spread and changed the world as we know it. In the days since I’ve dealt with having a church member pass and having to do a graveside service in the midst of “social distancing.” I’ve spoken with a dear friend who works in a nursing home in New York that has been devastated by the virus. People are now in a place where it is not possible to be there for their loved-ones final breaths. It seems to make this piece all the more timely in my mind. I realize the blessed moments I was privileged to share and how others are not allowed those moments in these days. Praying that we will all get through this pandemic and be better on the other side.

As a pastor I regularly administer the sacraments. As a Presbyterian pastor that means baptism and communion. These are the two holy moments in which we say we have a fuller sense of God’s presence and God’s grace. The first is the one that we typically celebrate at the initiation of life, or new life depending on the timing. The second is the one that we celebrate as what sustains life; along the way we need to be refreshed and renewed.

I am now thinking that we could perhaps add one more—the sacrament of the final breath. We recognize the beginning and the journey; should we not also recognize the completion? This moment when we release this body and the spirit flies free—is it not as much a means of grace as the others? Is it not God’s grace that sets us free into life eternal? What grace could be more incredible?

As a pastor I have also been present for many such moments. I have kept watch with families as the end approaches. I have offered care and counsel and comfort to those who are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. I have sat by their bedsides and held their hands and brushed back the hair from their faces. I have been a shoulder receiving the tears of the bereft. I have felt God’s grace in those moments, and I pray that others have as well.

Many years ago my sister called me when her husband was ready to pass. I drove to Knoxville and found them in a hospital room. Phil was already moving beyond this veil; he was here and breathing, but his spirit was in transition. The nurse was administering medicine to keep him comfortable. I prayed over them both. I was there when he left this life for something greater. He also left Janet as a widow. It was a painful moment in its way, but it was also peaceful. And it was undoubtedly powerful.

A few days ago I was also there for my sister Janet’s final breath. Her son, Eric, and my wife, Laura, and I were there with her. We sang hymns from the Baptist and Broadman hymnals that had been brought from home. In no particular order we offered up Great Is Thy Faithfulness, How Great Thou Art, I Need Thee Every Hour, Blessed Assurance, It Is Well With My Soul. Music is typically connected with sacraments; melodies are more meaningful in such situations.

I read Psalms—121, 84, 42, 4, 91. Those last two are part of the service of Compline which is offered at monasteries as the end of the day; they are a way to lay to rest the worries and work of the day and enter into the arms of rest. Fitting words it seems to me to offer up a life. Sacraments involve words and those passages seemed appropriate; there is no telling how often Jesus recited those same words.

I found it ironic that my smartwatch pinged and reminded me to breathe. It is the high-tech way of being instructed that one should calm down and be mindful of what’s happening. So I tried to be intentional about my breathing as I watched my sister struggle for air. I was most mindful at that time, and the gadget seemed unnecessary.

There were moments of silence here too. There was an economy to the words and songs that were offered. Not every pause had to be filled. Memories flooded into the stillness. The silence echoed with conversations gone-by.

Sacraments involve a physical element as well. Water and bread and wine are commonly understood. In this moment there was touch and ministrations to her physical needs. We took turns doing these for her, and each of us was a priestly participant in the process.

In the same way that labor comes in waves, so too, do the final breaths. There is a recognition that it is closer; the body is waning. The pause between breaths grows a bit longer. It appears to be over, but no, there is still another waiting. Until there is the last one. It takes a minute or two to be sure. But it is over. Her final breath was matched by a sigh of relief and release from those who have been serving as the midwifes to her eternal birthing.

I wished I had had the presence of mind to offer the most fitting of Jesus’ words: “It is finished.”

The work is done. The life is over. The new life has begun. God’s gracious reception awaits.

Birth, living, dying—it is all part of the same process. Why we celebrate the first two but not the third is something of a mystery to me. Many have not experienced that moment. Many are not comfortable being that near the edge. Many may never have the chance to perform those tasks of saying farewell. Having done so many times, I am persuaded that we are typically missing a great deal by avoiding or fearing this moment. We receive babies into this life with great fanfare and celebration. Should we not send our sisters and brothers on into eternal life with something similar?

Be safe. Be healthy. Be good to one another.
Blessings, Les

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