2004 header issue 12

Our Greatest Gift

(A Meditation on Dying and Caring)

Author:  Henri Nouwen (1994)

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (125 pages)

As thoughts of death and dying would come afresh to us during Holy Week, I thought it fit to introduce a book on this somewhat sombre theme.No, it is not a book about the death of Christ, though there are allusions to it.It is simply a book about dying.

 Death has been referred to, since more than two decades ago, as the “new vulgarity of the 20th century.” It seems like the subject is still vulgar, albeit not very new anymore, and this is the 21st century.

 When I was a professional preacher, if I should dwell at any length on the theme of death (and the context was not a funeral service), some member of the congregation would remark about the sermon being somewhat “morbid”.  “Why is the preacher so obsessed with death?” I might ask in return, “And why are we so obsessed with not wanting to die when death is the most certain and universal of all human experiences?”

 For me, having crossed the half-a-century-mark, thinking about death seems to have become harder to avoid. I now make it a point to read the obituaries.  People I know have started to go, and it seems meaningful to try and keep track of who’s gone.

 Books on death and dying catch my attention, too, especially when there are so few of them.  And then one comes along penned by a renowned spiritual writer, it easily gets on my “must-read” list.

 Nouwen divides his book neatly into two parts: dying well and caring well.  Not only need we be mentally prepared to die; having been thus prepared, we become enabled to help others prepare.

 Part One: Dying Well.  This is what you would call an “oxymoron” – a  contradiction in terms.  If you are going to die, then nothing is “well”, is it?  Nouwen argues that if it is something we’ve got to do, we might as well make a good job of it.

 For Nouwen, it all came out of a sabbatical he had been given to write.  He begins by describing the debilitating effects of being locked up in a hermitage (his choice), sans phone, letters, meetings, etc.  Truly a good way into early stages of dissociation that marks the approach of death [p. 20, 21]!

 This he had to do.  It was his calling as a writer.  To be thus isolated.  To think, feel, explore – probing into the interior of his soul that he might share what he finds with others.  “The inner life is always a life for others.” [p. 23]  And in that statement, he encapsulates what dying well and caring well mean.

 For each of those two major sections, he uses a fixed pattern – that of being a child, a sibling, and a parent.

 To die well, we need to re-enter childhood.  In other words, accept the constraints that come with age.  For Nouwen, life is a cycle that moves from dependency to dependency [p. 31, 32].  When you are a baby, someone has to clean you up.  Some day, that process may well have to be repeated.  It is the inability to accept this dependency that makes dying hard.

To die well, we need to recover our sense of oneness with all humanity.  Civilization has always been built on the concept of distinction.  We want to be different, to stand out, to be special.  And these things make it hard to die.  Nouwen says we need to accept mortality as a symbol of our oneness with humanity.  There is healing power in human solidarity.  Nouwen includes as part of his argument the story of a woman who went to the Lourdes for a miracle [p. 46, 47].  What she saw there (the sea of suffering humanity) made her renounce her desire for a miracle.  She prayed for grace to bear with her suffering that she might have her share of pain with those who suffer.

 To die well, we need to re-envision a new dimension of fruitfulness.  “Our death may be the end of our success, our productivity, our fame or our importance among people, but it is not the end of our fruitfulness.  The opposite is true; the fruitfulness of our lives shows itself in its fullness only after we have died.” [p. 53, 54].  

 Nouwen backs this up further with illustrations from history.  For most great men of history, their significance often became clear only after death.  For Nouwen, this means that we need to shift our focus – from “doing” to “being”.  “Our doing brings success, but our being bears fruit.  The great paradox of our lives is that while we are often very concerned about what we do, or still can do, we are most likely to be remembered for who we were.” [p. 56]

 Part Two: Caring Well.  The second part on caring for the dying uses the same sub-themes of childhood, brotherhood, and parenthood in the same apparently artless fashion.  To care well, we need to see the subject of our care as a child (“instrument of God’s grace” to use Nouwen’s words) [p. 69], rather than as a burden.  We need to see in them the face of God – the “brotherhood of God” [p. 87].  If you feel uncomfortable with this idea (as I used to), try thinking about the Christ incognito in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46).

 Finally, to care well, we need to see the goodness of our subjects who themselves are not aware of that goodness.  Nouwen tells the moving story of the death of Connie, his secretary, with whom he had worked for many years.  He speaks of how her goodness shone through her dying [p. 104]  And we, the care-givers, like parents and midwives, bring to birth for future generations the life or spirit of the dying person.

 For me, Henri Nouwen’s Our Greatest Gift has been a moving read.  I may not be able to agree philosophically or theologically with everything Nouwen says.  But to me, part of living and “dying” is to acknowledge the greatness of someone from whom I have much to learn.  For this reason, I find his “parting shot” particularly poignant,

 “When we have the courage to let go of our need to cure, our care can truly heal in ways far beyond our own dreams and expectations.” [p. 109]           


(Reviewed by Rev Ng Seng Chuan)


Climbing With Christ

by Rev Ng Seng Chuan

( March 31, 2004 )


Chapel today was focussed upon the theme for Passion Week – the week that led to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

 The meditation was based on what went on with the group of disciples Jesus was leading into Jerusalem that fateful week (Mark 10:32 -45).  Instead of being sensitive to the presentiments of awesome forebodings which plagued the Master, the disciples were preoccupied with their own agenda and machinations.  James and John schemed to ensure a place of prominence at Jesus’ moment of glory, while the rest simmered in resentment.

The speaker then suggested that that scenario was in fact representative of current realities.  The church today is no different.  We are still preoccupied with our own self-aggrandizement – if couched in spiritual terms or worked out in a religious context.  And we are still resentful (even if this is not expressed overtly) of the achievements of others – particularly if we found ourselves in less fortuitous circumstances, be they to do with sickness, sorrow or some other deprivation.

As we move once again towards Holy Week and Good Friday, we need to be mindful of what it means to be identified with the Master in His “passion” or suffering.


  1. BGST’s “LOVE” phone cards at $1 each.  We would like to  interest our readers in helping us reduce our ex-stock of phone cards. Each shows the letters LOVE, taken from 1 Cor 13:1-13, in New Testament Greek. The phonecard with a stored value of $2 comes in two presentations: mounted in a cardholder or as a blank greeting card. These cards can be used as encouragement cards, thank you cards and even as souvenirs for weddings, camps etc. Do help us by buying the cards or providing us with contacts. You may purchase directly from Library or contact Serene at Tel: 63538071 if you can help us in other ways. To have a glimpse of the card, you can visit the link http://www.bgst.edu.sg/pc.htm.

  2. BGST Faculty. As an appreciation to Zion Bible-Presbyterian Church for the use of the premises at Bishan during the years, some members of our Faculty spoke at the time of Prayer and Fasting at Zion Church on Good Friday. Led by Dr Quek they developed meditations on “The Seven Last Words of Jesus”. Over a hundred were present at the talks.

  3. Easter Appeal. Instead of an Easter Appeal for the General Fund, we have decided to put out a quarterly appeal that will inform all the supporters of BGST concerning our financial and other needs. Currently we have an urgent need to gather in about $600,000 to enable us to complete the move to Tanjong Pagar. We hope those who are able to help through interest-free loans can do so.


Ms Genevieve Goh  5/4

Mr David Lim  6/4

Ms Ng Geok Har  7/4

Mr Alan Tay  10/4

Mr Peter Wong  10/4

Ms Tan Khai Nee  10/4

Mrs Pauline Kwek  11/4

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