Pastoral Care in Death’s Path

The first time the Rev. John W. Price encountered someone who described having a near-death experience was in 1970, just five years after his ordination as a priest. The account, given by a respected woman in his congregation, left him confused and upset, and he felt unable to provide pastoral care.

“Nothing prepared me for the person telling me about a near-death experience,” he said. More than 200 interviews later, Price has written Revealing Heaven: The Christian Case for Near-Death Experiences (2013).

“There are really only two religions: fear and love,” Price said. “God is loving and forgiving. Jesus is love incarnate. What counts for getting into heaven is being a loving person.”

Price said he “first began to struggle with the idea of a loving God” while he attended Virginia Theological Seminary in the 1960s. The more he learned about near-death experiences, however, the more he found his faith strengthened. He also began to realize the comfort and reassurance that sharing some of these experiences can bring to a dying person and bereaved loved ones.

“Often people near death are calmed when I tell them some of these stories,” he said. “I want clergy to know that this is real. God is real. Many clergy have parishioners who have had this experience. They don’t want their rector to scoff at their most cherished, precious memories.”

As many as 15 million Americans have described firsthand near-death experiences, the George Gallup and William Proctor wrote in Adventures in Immortality (McGraw-Hill, 1982). Some churches question the authenticity of these accounts because they present universalist understandings of salvation.

For his book, Price kept extensive notes of a growing number of interviews for more than 40 years. By the time he began writing, Price said, he had interviewed 205 people who described having a near-death experience. His work significantly accelerated when he left full-time parish ministry after about 30 years to become a chaplain with the St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston. Since the book was published last year, Price said, he has interviewed another 67 people.

Price enjoys talking with clergy who are skeptical of near-death experiences. He is eager to clear up a misconception that every near-death experience is blissful. Price said he has interviewed 18 people, including Christians and those of other faiths, whose experiences disturbed them. Price thinks many more churchgoers have undergone disturbing near-death experiences than are reported.

“I imagine that fewer people would want to admit that they’d been a terrible person, especially to a member of the clergy,” he said.

Price said he owes his current position, as pastoral associate at Palmer Memorial Church in Houston, at least in part to his familiarity with near-death experiences. After accepting the call to become chaplain at St. Luke’s, Price said, he and his wife began worshiping at Palmer Memorial on Sunday mornings. Price was on call when one parishioner was rushed to St. Luke’s.

“He died three times in the ambulance on the way to the hospital,” Price said. When Price saw him at St. Luke’s, the man was still partially sedated and had a tube down his throat. When Price asked several questions about common factors of near-death experiences, the man nodded vigorously.

“Shortly afterward I went on a six-week driving vacation,” Price said. “When I got back, he had been transferred to another area and been given sedatives, which affected his short-term memory. The experience was lost.”

When Price retired from St. Luke’s, he accepted an offer to join the clergy staff at Palmer Memorial.

Those who have reported near-death experiences often notice lasting effects, Price said. “People are usually much calmer and more empathetic. It’s like 30 years of therapy.”

Recalling Heaven has given Price a higher profile and he has begun to offer seminars and workshops for clergy.

“In a way I am an evangelist for this,” he said. “I have been preaching about it for 15 years now.”

Steve Waring

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