Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A: That I am not my own, but belong--body and soul, in life and in death-- to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
--Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 1
Serving as a nondenominational hospice chaplain, I spend my days providing spiritual support and companionship to people who have received a terminal diagnosis as well as their loved ones. I meet people from a wide range of religious beliefs and spiritual orientations, from extremely devout to completely non-religious. Regardless of particular faith journeys, most of the time what people seek as they approach the end of life is reassurance that they are loved, that they matter, and that they are not alone.
These are completely natural requests and vital messages to receive, particularly as people are faced with mortality and the opportunity to more closely reflect on what life means. As a clergy person invited into sacred times of transition, it’s an honor and privilege to bless human souls with those messages that always bear repeating: You are loved. You matter. You are not alone.
And while my work calls me into spaces with an acute awareness of death, hospice is far from the only window into the truth that life on this planet is temporary. At the time of this writing, the world is in its 14th month of a global pandemic and 3,352,109 people have died from COVID-19. Racially or ethnically-motivated violence and murder is increasingly publicized, oftentimes sanctioned and perpetuated by the systems and powers expected to serve and protect human life. People who express their gender or sexuality in ways that are misunderstood within a binary framework are disproportionately targeted and killed. Rampant consumption and pollution are destroying plant and animal lives at exponential rates.
The circumstance of death can be horrific, yet death itself is not the enemy. “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8 NRSV).
Therefore the key is in knowing, whether in life or in death, that we are loved, we matter, and we are not alone. Can you imagine the flourishing that could be possible if all creation truly believed and experienced these messages to be true every moment of every day?
The Protestant Reformation affirmed the immediacy of God’s presence and eliminated barriers for laypersons to know and experience God through increasingly accessible worship and Scripture. Yet worship and Scripture are not our only access points for God. In my denomination, we like to say that “God is still speaking.” Within this claim is the affirmation that God certainly speaks through Scripture, yet this was neither the beginning nor the ending of God’s revelation of truth and love to humankind. The Church’s calling, then, is always to cultivate imagination and attentiveness to the myriad ways God reaches out to let us know that we matter, that we are loved, that we are not alone.
Can you notice God’s love for you in a dandelion, a vaccine, or a drink of clean water? Can you feel God showing you your worth through a loving relationship in your life, the strength of your emotions, or a piece of music? Can you sense that you are not alone when you feel the earth beneath you, when a stranger nods or smiles at you and says “have a nice day,” or when another breath of oxygen enters your body, yet one more moment?
No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, as you consider your own mortality—however near or far it may be in the future—may you find comfort in knowing that you fully belong to God.
—Rev. Bethany Joy Winn
United Church of Christ, USA
Bethany is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ (UCC). She currently serves as chaplain with Spectrum Health Hospice and Palliative Care in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. In 2017 she was a member of the UCC delegation to the General Council of the WCRC (World Communion of Reformed Churches) in Liepzig, Germany