January 16, 2021

In the land of birth and death


In one of our hospitals where I visit patients who need inpatient hospice care, many of those folks go to rooms on a certain floor, where the oncology unit is. The placement of this unit has always been interesting to me. When you take the elevator up to that floor, the doors open and you are presented with a choice: the unit to the right or the unit to the left. To the right, the maternity ward. To the left, oncology.

To the right, labor and delivery, where new life is brought into this world.

To the left, a medical unit for serious and life-threatening diseases, where many people leave this world.

Directly ahead of the elevator is a large window and in front of that window are seating areas for family members and visitors. On some of the sofas and in some of the chairs, you see people who are eager with expectation and exhausted, in a good way, from waiting for what they expect will be a glad event. When a baby is born, a little nursery jingle plays over the loudspeakers, announcing the arrival. You can watch small groups going in and out of the maternity ward to see the babies and parents. They emerge with animated joy, sending good news via Facebook and Twitter, calling friends and loved ones, happily celebrating, enthusiastically conversing, sitting back with satisfied smiles. The wait is over. Life has come. It’s a new day.

In some of the other seating areas, the mood is subdued. Many of these folks are exhausted too, but their tired faces are lined with worry. They have loved ones hanging on at the other end of life, and some of them are not long for this world. This may be the end of a long process or the culmination of a sudden, devastating event. Either way, the slumped shoulders, muted voices, and serious looks tell a much different story.

And as I step off the elevator it’s all right in front of me. The full spectrum of life in miniature, represented by its two terminuses and those who watch in between.

Sometimes the division is not so clear. At times I’ve been asked to take a right off the elevator, to go into the unit where celebration is the norm, there to meet the end of life in the place it was expected to begin. On other occasions, I turn left, expecting to say goodbye to someone, only to find revival and renewal of life, a respite from the cold hand of death and a new beginning.

But these are the exceptions.

Most days, it’s life and vitality to the right, death or debilitation to the left. The beginning and the end.

tumblr_lby1veRiG71qzdvhio1_r7_500The faith I hold tells me, in spite of the visible contrasts, that these two places are, in essence, not so different.

Birth is the first kind of death a human being experiences. By means of a violent, wrenching process, a baby is forced from its familiar surroundings where it has been protected, fed, and allowed to grow in comfort. Then a blast of cold air, a blitzkrieg of light and sound, a breathtaking barrage of sensory stimulation suddenly overwhelms. Life! Life that entails the loss of one’s previous place of existence.

Henri Nouwen once said that the experience of babies might help us imagine what it is like to die. He conceived of twins in a womb debating the question, “Is there life after birth?” and suggested that all humans are faced with the same dilemma these babies discussed. We anticipate leaving this place of life and being thrust into the unknown.

So, perhaps death may be anticipated as a kind of birth as well. And perhaps the shock of entering our new environment after death will be just as disorienting. But then, as we hope and confess, there will be a Parent to hold, comfort and feed us. A family to celebrate our arrival. A warm place in which to rest.

I know we have talked a lot about how the ultimate Christian hope is not to be found in us going to some ethereal “heaven” but in heaven coming to earth. God’s plan is resurrection and a new creation, not “going to heaven when we die.” God will not abandon the cosmos but will utterly transform it in Christ. We look forward to embodied life in a new and better world. I believe that and think it is important for people to understand. However, in some ways and at certain times it can be a preacher’s question, a theologian’s distinction. It is not always the issue at hand — like when I go up to that floor in the hospital.

The people with whom I work usually have a penultimate question:

Will God take care of me when I die?

So I step off the elevator. I look right. I look left. And either way, I find that the answer is “yes.”


  1. CP, I hope you are collecting these meditations from your vocation. There is a book in those experiences.

    By the way, The plural form of terminus is termini.

  2. Rick Ro. says

    Twins in the womb debating, “Is there life after birth?”

    What a cool concept!

    Nice article, Chaplain. This past year or so I’ve really been mulling on the schizophrenic nature of church, a place where you have people dealing with cancer worshipping beside people who are celebrating newborns. Your article fits nicely with all that I’ve been thinking.

  3. Robert F says

    Sometimes, for some people, life experience makes it difficult to believe that God will take care of them when they die, given that they have not experienced him taking care of them while they lived.

    “Will God take care of me when I die?”

    “Mommy, I’m scared!”

    “Even when my father and mother forget me, the Lord will remember me….”

  4. If “Will God take care of me when I die?” is their penultimate question, what is their ultimate question?

    Sorry, had to ask.

  5. Christiane says

    I remember a video that was posted originally on Patheos that addressed life after death called ‘The Coffin Maker’. This Imonk post strikes a chord with some of the comments that the ‘coffin-maker’ makes as he is working with wood and chisel. Particularly when he explained that the first coffin he ever made was for his own child when his wife miscarried.
    I expected something different when I saw the title ‘The Coffin Maker’, but when I watched it, I was very moved by a quality in it for which I have no words:


  6. Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation today, Incarnation Is Already Redemption, seems highly connected to the thought here today. It views the whole of our life from birth to death and beyond as incarnation as shown by Jesus. One of the sentences from that meditation struck me as often pertinent for our comments here: “Practitioners of contemplation learn that the mind is much more attracted to the negative than to the positive.”

    CM. a minor glitch you might want to fix before the book, in the ninth paragraph above which begins “Most days . . .”, the first sentence should read ” . . . death or debilitation to the LEFT.”

  7. Randy Thompson says

    Thanks for this post.

    Life is knowing you live in that space where you get off the elevator, knowing what’s to your right, and what’s to your left..

  8. Mourning Dove says

    Long time lurker, first time commenting.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for including that the Christian life is not just about ‘dying and going to heaven.’ It is so discouraging for me to hear that over and over when there is so much more…a new heaven, a new earth, living in perfection as God intended, living in the presence of the Holy Creator.

    I am amazed that so many pastors contribute to this misunderstanding, placing all the emphasis on ‘becoming a Christian so you can go to heaven’. I swing back and forth between annoyance, anger, frustration, and sadness.

    Thank you!

  9. Your paragraph seems to imply that life begins at birth, while Henry Nouwen.in the next paragraph implies that life continues at birth. I know it’s a little off-topic but I agree with Nouwen. Perhaps I read you wrong.

    • Yes you read wrong. This is not an analysis of when life begins.

    • Rick Ro. says

      The thought occured to me, too, that maybe our life begins earlier than conception…?

      • Rick Ro., Jeremiah 1:5 says,

        Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
        and before you were born I consecrated you;
        I appointed you a prophet to the nations.

        God knew us before he formed us in the womb?

        The verse is often used to protest abortion, but be careful—it can also be used to condemn contraception.

        • Rick Ro. says

          My mind took it even further. If I drop a bomb on someone’s head, what potential baby have I just eliminated?

          • Christiane says

            reminds me of a Jewish saying from the Talmud, this:

            “And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world”

          • Christiane, it reminds me of another Jewish saying—I think I got it from a Chaim Potok book—that killing a man is also to kill all of the children and grandchildren and descendents he might have had.

          • Rick Ro. says

            Exactly. Scary, sobering thought.

        • Great way to set up the importance and pedigree of Jeremiah by having God himself write so early into the text that he was foreknown and foretold…

        • Rick Ro. says

          Now my mind is REALLY going down a rabbit hole…

          So if there’s some sort of life BEFORE the womb, but it never makes it TO the womb, or maybe doesn’t make it OUT of the womb…is it still a life? Is there still a soul that God had intended to be born into the world, that He will bring into Heaven anyway…? So maybe abortion and contraception, while they prevent the soul and life from entering OUR world…well, maybe God brings them into “life” in His own special way.

          • Dana Ames says

            Rick, Christians have rejected the pre-existence of souls pretty much from the beginning. A human being consists of both body and soul; to have one without the other, or to view the soul as somehow “better” is not a feature of Christian theology.

            In addition, in the Eastern Church, the soul is not viewed as immortal in and of itself; it has a beginning that requires generation by God combined with the generative act of a human male and human female. Between when we die and the Resurrection, our souls are sustained by God, in his Life.


          • Rick Ro. says

            I certainly hear ya, Dana. I know what long-time theology says and tells us to believe. And I’m not sure I believe any differently. But I can’t deny the question is rattling around in my brain, especially when I consider that Jesus existed before He took form in a body.

          • Robert F says

            ” Between when we die and the Resurrection, our souls are sustained by God, in his Life.”

            And after the general resurrection, aren’t our souls, and bodies, still sustained by God, in his life, and his body?

          • Good answer, Dana.

            On the other hand, Rick may have discovered the answer to the question “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

            I think we need zenmaster Robert F to settle this.

          • Robert F says

            I’m not on top of my Zen game, Ted, so I’ll let Alan Watts give a Zen answer, keeping in mind that his verbosity would drive many Roshis nuts, and none of what he has to say represents my own view on this subject at this point in my life. But it’s fun to get an opinion from a completely different religious perspective, and Watts has such beautifully melodious and nearly mesmerizing voice:


          • Rick Ro. says

            Admittedly my musings are drifting toward New Age-ish bull manure, though I don’t think I was ever a warrior prince named Ramtha.

          • Rick Ro. says

            Watching the Alan Watts video makes me want to believe even more in the idea we have souls before we are conceived and that we just don’t know it. Otherwise it’s easy to let my mind drift toward his statement that just as we were non-existent BEFORE we were born, so it is after we die.

          • re: the Alan Watts video:

            I don’t have to know how to work my thyroid gland??? That’s a relief.

            And, “if I am my foot I am the sun”? Well, that goes without saying.

            I’m glad I asked Robert to help with this. Is this a warm-up for tomorrow’s Saturday Rambling?

          • Rick Ro. says

            Good idea. A whole Saturday Rambling of Alan Watts. Maybe throw in some Stuart Smalley, too.

          • Robert F says

            Lol! You asked for it, you got it, Ted. There are plenty more Alan Watts videos on youtube. The man loved to talk, and to hear himself talk, and to have other people hear him talk. People actually paid him to give those talks, if you can imagine! And he made a very nice living from it, too; sent the kids to college, etc. And he vacationed at Esalen.

          • Robert F says

            Rick Ro., Even if we had a preexistence before our birth, we still are created beings, which means we had a beginning in space/time, which also means we once did not exist.

  10. I’ve often thought we have lost valuable teaching opportunities when churches started to be built without the burial yard or mausoleum. Each Sabbath day one would walk past reminders of the totality of our creation: birth, death, rebirth. Those now reborn in Christ are in fact more alive than we are now.

    • David Cornwell says

      I agree. Now it seems we do everything we can to escape even the thought of death. We try to hide it from our children, and even ourselves. When I was growing up, most of the time the body of a loved one was returned to his/her home after prep by the funeral home. It was there that the family received visitors, usually with the casket open for viewing. And also, often, the body stayed at the home during the night prior to the funeral.

      This made death a reality. Children, grandchildren, relatives, and friends all gathered to console the family and say a final goodbye to the dead person. Our system today is not an improvement.

      When I read the newspaper obits it makes me sad to see how often a service of any kind is omitted at the death of a person.

  11. Really thought provoking piece – birth as a first kind of death. Made me think of the birth of my own daughter, now almost 2, what it might have been like from her perspective, and the parallels to death.

    She didn’t choose to be born – but it was a necessary part of her existence and was, quite simply, imposed upon her. How she may have mistook the calm and predictability of her existence in utero as “control”. To whatever degree her tiny brain was capable of processing anything, being born may have felt like the end of all things, like there was nothing on the other end but more violence and pain. It would be natural to fight against it, though the fighting would ultimately be futile. On the other side of that fighting and unknowing though, there were people waiting for her, ready to receive her and take care of her. And I distinctly remember how alert and wide-eyed she was the first hour of her life in a new world.

  12. The people with whom I work usually have a penultimate question. Will God take care of me when I die? So I step off the elevator. I look right. I look left. And either way, I find that the answer is “yes”.

    I hope this is true. I usually get the sense though, that whether in “heaven” or on a new earth, the default Christian answer to “Will God take care of me when I die” is “Ultimately no, unless you_____”. Given these “conditions” and the sobering consequences of screwing them up (God forbid I take communion wrong and “eat and drink damnation upon myself) or just being screwed (perhaps I or my loved ones aren’t part of the “limited elect”), there is simply no sense in which the eschatological last word of the Christian faith (as it has been presented to me) leads to that “yes”. More like “If you_____, then yes”.

  13. Thanks Chaplain Mike. I guess because I’ve been visiting so many people in the hospital lately this comes as a much needed comfort.

    It really is as Michael wrote in his last post:

    “We need to remember that each day dying people are waiting for the word of death and RESURRECTION.

    The are a lot of different kinds of Good News, but there is little good news in ‘My argument scored more points than you argument.’ But the news that ‘Christ is risen!’ really is Good News for one kind of person: The person who is dying.

    If Christianity is not a dying word to dying men, it is not the message of the Bible that gives hope now.”

  14. My 92 year old devout Christian aunt died last night. Thank you for reminding me of my hope and hers

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