The Common Ministry of a Rabbi, Buddhist and Christian Hospice Chaplain

What do a Rabbi, a Buddhist chaplain and former Evangelical Christian have to say about ministering to people who are nearing death? How does each tradition support someone in this state of being?

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These were among the questions posed as part of a recent Choosing Options, Honoring Options (COHO) event in Southern Oregon. The spring series is called “Facing Mortality: The Elephant in the Room.”

I attended a discussion about different spiritual traditions’ views on end-of-life issues. The five people on the panel work with palliative care and Hospice patients.

The presentation – which also included a Catholic priest and Presbyterian chaplain – did get into some specifics about God, impermanence, faith, and natural death versus assisted suicide. But those weren’t the pieces that I carried with me.

What I took away was much more simple. It was something all panelists agreed on. Their main common practice wasn’t based on comparative religion and finding overlaps from different spiritual traditions. Their common practice was based on a simple human act: Listening . . .

A ministry of presence

I felt very encouraged to hear this message and to know that – despite their different beliefs about heaven and reincarnation, the mind and the soul, prayer and meditation – each person approached palliative care with the deep compassion of simply being present and listening to the people they were there to support.

Numerous panelists said that when they are at the bedside of someone who is dying, they follow the conversation instead of lead it. “Serve people where there are” was the main message, and when one person expressed this, every head nodded in resonance.

I imagine if a Native American, Pagan, Atheist, Hindu, New Age and representatives of other great traditions were present, their heads would have been nodding too.

At one point, the moderator called it the “Ministry of Presence.” In this way, we are all spiritual ministers to others, whether they are in the process of dying or are the family members or friends of someone who will soon transition.

Be present, even in silence. Listen beyond words.

Sharing presence matters

To me, this ministry goes both ways and is a mutual experience. Being in the presence of someone who is facing their own mortality is amazing because you both are in the sacred space of transition and of the unspoken mystery of life.

As one panelist shared, it’s important to reframe death so that it is about living more fully in the present moment. So that we look for the miracles that surround us now. When we are “in presence” and listening – to each other AND to the stillness – these gifts become almost palpable.

It was interesting to me that the message of listening is the opposite of preaching. Most of the panelists explicitly spoke to this at some point, saying that they don’t even bring up religion or afterlife beliefs.

Our sacred lives

The chaplain from a Buddhist background said that rather than talking about spirituality, people usually want to talk about purpose, meaning and connection. To me, this is what the sacred is all about.

Every day, in big and small ways, we both experience and question our purpose, the meaning of life and death, and how to be connected to each other, ourselves, and something greater than ourselves.

Here we find the commonalities of spirituality – and of humanness.

Beyond religion, beyond dogma, beyond differences, the Ministry of Presence embodies the mystery rather than explaining or answering it. How wonderful that a Rabbi, Buddhist, and former Evangelical Christian shared this common ministry, a ministry both as spiritual AND as secular as it gets!

Be present.

And listen.

Listen deeply.

Be with those who are facing death.

And listen.

Be with those who are facing life.

And listen.

Listen to the silence.

Listen to your heart.

Listen to the hearts of others.

Listen in this moment.

Listen to the presence of all that is.

BE the presence of all that is.

This is the ministry and the mystery.

Blessed be.

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Jennifer Mathews, M.A., is a writer, spiritual cheerleader, and change maker. She currently calls both Bristol, Vermont and Mount Shasta, California home (when she's not traveling elsewhere, that is).

Based on her own exploration of death, grief, joy and optimism, Jen offers life-affirming perspectives and practical tools to support others on their journeys. In her personal and unconventional TEDx Talk, “Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not,” she invites us to break free from the limitations and language of a grieving process and change the way we think about and respond to the death of those we love.

Jen is a founding member and organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. As part of the Community Outreach team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, she has facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland.

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2 thoughts on “The Common Ministry of a Rabbi, Buddhist and Christian Hospice Chaplain

  1. Thank you Jennifer for gently holding the sacred space for the beauty of this transitioning conversation to be thoughtfully and intentionally carried into the light of our common living room.
    Great and necessary work.
    Be well.