06/11/2010 05:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At Death's Door: Where Congregational Support Is Key

There are many reasons why I'm thankful that I'm a pastor, this odd position in which I'm often surprised to find myself. One reason is that I experience the full circle of life, over and over again. Our faith communities are extraordinary places because we don't let things pass by unnoticed. We mark them with gathering, ceremony, and prayer. The church has the dignity to stop and notice those things that are so monumental for a person -- things like birth, yearly cycles, and death.

Before I became a minister, I thought that everyone died in grand fashion, with family and friends gathered around the bed. I imagined that no one left this world without a big funeral. But often, it doesn't happen that way. And for many people, one of the greatest fears is not of death, but of dying alone. Many women and men die without any family. Their friends have all gone before them, and hardly anyone notices their passing -- except these faith communities. We stop, give thanks for life, and stand in the hope that there might be something beyond the horizon that we can see. Sometimes there are only a handful of us, but we are there, even when no one else is.

I've learned so much about death and what a miracle it is. I've noticed how some people slip into it as though it were a beautiful dream. Others fight it, valiantly, until their moments end. One wonderful woman spent weeks in hospice care, unconscious, until, when I was reading her Scriptures, she whispered to me, "What's it going to be like?"

I answered her honestly, saying, "I don't know." But then I knew I could do better than that. I remembered that my husband Brian, who is also a minister, often says that we're like Shamans: we make the way for death. And so it was a crucial time to stir up a little more hope. I went on: "But I imagine what it's going to be like. Neither death nor life can separate you from the love of God. And that love that emanates from God in creation will surround you and embrace you. You'll be all caught up in that love."

"What about heaven?"

I breathed deeply and continued: "Personally, I don't like the idea of crystal fountains or streets of gold. It makes me feel like I'm going to be on the set of the Trinity Broadcasting Network." I saw the first bit of emotion that I had seen in weeks as she smiled and agreed. Then I added, "But I do like green pastures and still waters. And I know that your soul will be restored."

At that moment, she took over the description, barely audible, "There are pools." Her eyes were closed, and she was smiling.

"What?" I leaned over her bed, straining to hear her.

"There are pools. There are pools," she repeated. I'm pretty sure those were her final words before she drifted off again. She died soon after that. And in that quiet room, I was reminded again of the miracle of death.