Why it’s never too late to study theology: ministry at a deathbed

By Judy Paulsen
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I was asked to write a blog on the topic, “Why it’s never too late to study theology.”  It seemed like a nice, safe topic that wouldn’t require too much of me in what is a busy part of the academic term. But the more I thought about it the more I realized this nice, safe topic would be best understood sideways, through a pastoral situation that demonstrates why the study of theology matters, no matter what age you are. This is what led me to write about ministry at a deathbed.

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I was a newly minted MDiv grad only a few months into my first pastoral setting when I received a call from a priest in another city asking me to visit the daughter of one of his parishioners. Emily (not her real name) had moved to Toronto, was recently divorced, and raising two teenagers. She had also just been diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer and had been told it was terminal.  She was 41-years-old.

I visited Emily often over the next year.  At first our visits consisted mostly of us getting to know each other and praying together.  But after a few visits we moved beyond the surface talk about her treatments and how she was balancing hospital visits with caring for her kids. She started asking difficult questions.  Questions like: Was there no fairness in life? Why did she (a non-smoker) get this disease when her sister (a heavy smoker) was healthy? Why did she feel like such a horrid person for even asking that question? What would it be like to die? How would her kids handle life without a mom? Why was God doing this to her? Did He care about her and her kids?

These questions taxed every ounce of my theological, biblical, and pastoral training. Although often feeling like I was in over my head, I nevertheless found that I had been given many important tools at seminary that enabled me to walk with and support Emily as the awful disease progressed. What I had learned in the course of my studies was being tested; I found it held and deepened.

Then, just over a year after our initial visit, I got a late-night call from Emily’s sister informing me that Emily had died.  She wondered if I could come over to the house. I got dressed and drove over. After a brief exchange at the door I asked to see Emily and we all went up to her bedroom. I pulled up a chair beside her bed and prayed, including that beautiful commendation that is part of the prayers for Ministry at Death.

God of mercy,

Into whose hands your Son Jesus Christ

commended his spirit at his last hour,

into those same hands

we now commend your servant Emily,

that death may be for her the gate to life

and to eternal fellowship with you;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Then, mostly because I didn’t want to leave but also because I didn’t know what to do next, I sang.

I sang a poignant version of the 23rd Psalm. Written in a minor key, it’s a version that asks to be sung slowly. Gently.

The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want

He makes me down to lie.

In pastures green He leadeth me

the quiet waters by.

My soul He doth restore again

and me to walk doth make,

within the paths of righteousness,

e’en for His own name’s sake.

As I sang, Emily’s daughter drew close and then lay down beside her mom on the bed, wrapping her arms around her mother’s already cooling body.  It was a beautiful and holistic honouring. It was also a painful goodbye. When the Psalm ended she got up from the bed and we all went downstairs.  A few minutes later the funeral directors arrived to remove Emily’s body. After they left we sat together until dawn drinking copious amounts of tea. We spoke about Emily’s life. We spoke about her funeral. We spoke to God.

This is the sort of on-the-ground ministry that is a key part of every good pastor’s life.  We walk with people through the joys and sorrows, and help them interpret the events and times of their lives through the lens of Scripture and theology. What we say about God and what it means to be one of His children will often be completely counter-cultural.  And it will be true and life-giving.

Why study theology (at any stage of life)? Because it will help you to live and share the message of good news that is found in Jesus Christ. Even beside a deathbed. 

About the Author

Judy Paulsen came to seminary relatively late in life, after she had already established a career as a speech and language pathologist. You can read more about her decision to begin theological studies at Wycliffe College (and the impact that decision had on her family) on page 3 of the Winter 2017 edition of Insight magazine.