Between the Lines: A Conversation with Dale Goldsmith

© Corliss Metcalf

We recently got the chance to talk with Dale Goldsmith about his new Brazos book, Speaking of Dying: Recovering the Church’s Voice in the Face of Death, co-authored with Fred Craddock and Joy V. Goldsmith.

Last week we interviewed Joy V. Goldsmith, Dale’s co-author, about why they wrote this book and about how we can best talk with the dying. You can read that interview here.

Dale taught for several years at McPherson College and at the Baptist Seminary of Mexico. He is the author of New Testament Ethics.

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In your book, you use the acronym TABLE to explain how to help someone die well. Can you talk about those points? How would you define “the art of dying well”?

Joy has been working with medical professionals in their efforts to improve care for the dying. A centerpiece of such care is good communication—open, honest, informative, and inclusive of all participants in the drama of dying. In that environment, she and her colleagues had developed an approach to which they gave the acronym COMFORT.

When we were wrapping up our collaboration in a summary that could contain the heart of a Christian hope of a good dying and the best practices shown in the work of health communication researchers, TABLE came to mind. It reminds the reader that talking of the dying and with the dying conveys awareness of the concerns and condition of the terminal patient by means of careful and unhurried listening. What is unique to the church’s ministry is its own fellowship and support—the body of Christ and the profoundly meaningful understanding and strength offered in the Eucharist.

Of course, the notion of an “art of dying well” is not new. The practices of the early and medieval church can be helpful reminders of what Christians should and can do today: prepare for the fact of dying long before that specter appears by acknowledging its certainty, imagining what it might mean to meet God, arranging for death, and including others in one’s final hours.

While moderns hope for a quick and painless death while asleep or jokingly ask to be taken in the moment of some supreme pleasure, such desires reveal a selfishness. That selfishness limits any productive contribution from the dying person to the world and community from which she or he is departing.

We include a variety of well-attested things that can further contribute to a “good dying”: medically provided symptom management to control pain; clarity about the nature and purpose of care offered at the end of life; the availability and presence of loved ones; the completion of unfinished business; the resolution of conflicts; addressing existential and spiritual questions; and a faithful trust in God to be the one in charge of dying, death, and resurrection.

We never suggest that dying is easy or that an “art of dying well” can be easily learned. What we have attempted is to remind the church that practices are available and that this ministry is crying to be offered.

 

Are there resources the church should use to help those who are dying?

This is easy: there is an embarrassment of riches in the church’s tradition to enrich the church’s ministry to the dying. In fact, it is this treasury of resources that provides the basic outline for the book Speaking of Dying.

First and foremost, Jesus Christ’s life—lived under the threat of his own dying—offers the example of how death and dying should be thought of in the fullness of the gospel.

Scripture is the next resource, offering the whole story of God’s creation, patience, and redemptive activity in Jesus and insights into the earliest Christians’ understanding of death and resurrection: that Jesus carried on his mission despite his awareness of his impending death, and that Paul was dismissive of many close calls threatening his life because of the more compelling need to bring the gospel to the world.

Then there is the vast, sweeping history of the development of the church’s ministry to the dying in sacraments, pastoral care, and practical advice. These traditional materials had universal distribution and were the support of the dying until modern times, when dying became a taboo subject and modern medicine inspired the false hope of avoiding death.

Also, individual Christians throughout the ages have left personal legacies sharing their own faith as they faced dying. We offer ten examples, from St. Paul to Bonhoeffer. While their stories differ in detail, they all placed their hope in Jesus Christ, Lord of the dying and firstborn of the resurrection.

Finally, the church accepts the secular offerings of modern science in symptom control and of contemporary research in health communication that can enhance end-of-life quality.

Care for the dying need not be outsourced; the church has what it needs to minister richly to those at the end of life.

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For more information on Dale’s book, Speaking of Dying, click here.