A few months ago my brother died in a hospital in Chicago. He was only fifty. His basic illness was emotional and spiritual, not physical. He had a great need to be recognized and accepted, to be a somebody, to feel satisfaction as a bread-winner, husband, and father. When in his late forties it became evident that he would not succeed in any of these, he began to die more rapidly.

My brother was an alcoholic. But this form of slow suicide which he had practiced for twenty years or more seemingly was not fast enough for him. Last July during one of his “benders” he told me he had cancer. I know this was only his own idea, not that of a doctor, and I didn’t take him seriously. But when he underwent exploratory surgery last August, his prediction turned out to be true. The diagnosis was the death sentence he wanted. Statistically he had a 30–40 per cent chance of “beating the rap.” But deep down within him, in the psychic processes we call the unconscious, the “death instinct” had taken over.

One day he talked frankly to me about his death: “Dying is the best thing that can happen to me. Will you say a few words over me when I’m gone? Tell them I lived a rough life and didn’t amount to much.”

The ministry of a pastor to a terminally ill patient can be considered in two ways, as a person-to-person relationship and as a symbolic ministry.

Religion—which is for me centered in the Gospel of Christ—is best communicated in a face-to-face relationship, I feel. Religion that remains isolated in words, concepts, doctrines, strikes me as cold and distant. My ministry as a pastor, then, is to incarnate (imperfectly, to be sure) those theological truths of God’s love, understanding, and acceptance.

This person-to-person ministry includes the ...

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