We had a most interesting and challenging visit to the Northern Ireland Hospice this week. Caroline, the Senior Chaplain, took us on a tour of both the Somerton Road building and the Children’s Hospice in Newtownabbey. The work of the NI Hospice attracts a lot of support from across the community, and it is all much appreciated and necessary as the Hospice needs to raise £5.5 million pounds each year in order to continue its wonderful work for those who are living with cancer. Without the work and contributions of many supporters, and the practical commitment of many volunteers, the Hospice would not be able to survive.
It was great to chat with Caroline about her work and it was very challenging to know that she must address some of the biggest and most difficult theological questions that people ask. As many pastors and ministers know, a cancer diagnosis has a great way of focusing the mind and it triggers questions which might otherwise remain suppressed. That is why the spiritual aspect of the care which the Hospice provides is so crucial and so necessary.
When I was minister in Carnmoney, I remember being slightly hesitant before my first visit to the Hospice. Any fears I had quickly evaporated when I experienced the atmosphere and approach nurtured by the professional and volunteer staff who work there. Unlike the busyness and the incessant activity and noise in many of our larger hospitals, the Hospice provides a calm and personal atmosphere that is reassuring and therapeutic. The skill of the medical staff, and the sense of teamwork by all the professional and support staff, continues to create one of the most wonderful places for those who are terminally ill. From personal pastoral experience, I cannot speak highly enough of the important work of the Hospice.
It was particularly encouraging to see how the role of the chaplains in providing spiritual support and counsel is recognised by the Hospice. Patients inevitably ask hard and difficult questions about life and death, and it requires people of great sensitivity, and with a good theological understanding of the issues, to provide appropriate support to both patients and their families. This is particularly true of the work carried on by the Children’s Hospice. It seemed as though Caroline and I were only in conversation for a few seconds before we were discussing these challenging theological issues.
With all the high profile cases reported in the media concerning end of life issues, the hospice movement continues to develop and enhance its palliative care provisions so that the culture of death mentality is resisted and challenged. There are complex issues surrounding the end of life, and they raise hard theological questions for people of faith. “What does it mean for my life to be in God’s hands? Why has this happened to me? And how am I meant to walk by faith through the darkest valleys and the deepest waters?” Those are questions every pastor addresses in his work, but they become more insistent and pointed with people who are seriously ill.
I stand in admiration of Caroline and her colleagues who continue to be life-affirming and faith-inspiring in one of the most challenging contexts for ministry. What they affirm, and what the whole hospice movement represents, is that even though we live in a broken and messy world in which disease and death are realities, we can face it with courage and hope.
For Christians, that courage and hope come through Jesus Christ, who in his hour of suffering asked the Why? question, (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?“) but who emerged from the darkness of death on Good Friday to the light of the resurrection on Easter morning. United to Him by faith, we follow Him in that journey from darkness to light, from death to life, and from suffering to glory.