Dennis Hughes reflects on love, loss and all the saints

Cancer diagnosis illumines pastor-scholar’s life, end of life

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE – Dennis Hughes has always known that in life — and in death — he belongs to God. But in 73 years of living, he has known the latter all too well.

Dennis Hughes with the author, who were “in the pink” at the 221st General Assembly (2014). (Photo provided)

As a newlywed in his early 20s, Hughes was thrust too soon into the role of family patriarch following the premature deaths of his beloved in-laws. It was a role, he said, “to which I had not aspired, nor thought I would be cast into.”

Then, as a pastor for nearly 50 years, Hughes was an unfailing source of comfort to grieving families even as he bore faithful witness to the resurrection. At the font, he steadfastly proclaimed baptism as a dying and rising with Christ. And — as one of the foremost writers and interpreters of Reformed liturgy — Hughes crafted resources for the Book of Common Worship (1993) and articles for Reformed Liturgy & Music that continue to inform Presbyterian practice around death and dying.

And now—at the end of his own life—Hughes has yet another gift to share with the Presbyterian and ecumenical church that he loves.

It is nothing less than the gift of his peace as he prepares to complete his own baptism in death.

It is a gift that Hughes said was bestowed upon him by both the “capital ‘S’ Saints…and the living lowercase ‘s’ saints, who have not only shown us how to live but also how to deal with end of life issues and with the way Christians ‘die and rise with Christ’ as a lifelong discipline.”

“What people are interested in hearing about is Dennis’ ability—and mine—to have peace with his diagnosis and decision to go on hospice care without chemotherapy or radiation,” said his wife, Ann Hughes. High school sweethearts, Ann and Dennis Hughes married in 1963 at the age of 19.

Hughes’ recent decision to receive palliative care rather than aggressive chemotherapy after having been diagnosed in January with Stage IV pancreatic cancer has given him not only a deep and abiding peace that he freely shares with the wider church, but also the energy and ability to finish writing a chapter on All Saints’ Day for a Festschrift honoring Harold Daniels, his dear mentor and predecessor in the PC(USA) Office of Worship.

Daniels, who died in 2015, was editor of the PC(USA)’s Book of Common Worship (1993). Hughes is a member of the task force that is revising the Book of Common Worship for a 25th anniversary edition in 2018. The initiative for the Festschrift came from David Batchelder, pastor of the West Plano (Texas) Presbyterian Church.

“It was very special when my case got managed well enough that I was beyond pain,” says Dennis Hughes. “I also suddenly discovered that not only did I have energy, but I had an insight into what the saints have revealed over the years about living into their death and their manner of dying—it’s a part of the story.”

An olive wood chalice, paten and Kinte cloth square used at the 207th General Assembly (1995), the first time that Communion was celebrated by intinction at GA. The olive wood chalices and patens, created by Palestinian refugees in the camps, were obtained from Pal Craftaid, a ministry that continues to assist refugees to earn money today. This set was donated to the Presbyterian Historical Society by Dennis Hughes. (Photo by Emily Enders Odom)

Now, as the retired pastor, scholar, mid-council and denominational leader honors his commitments to church and family, Hughes looks lovingly and gratefully to his wife, Ann — a registered nurse and health care administrator for over 35 years — who heads up his “first team” of caregivers, namely his family. They are supported by an outstanding oncologist, Dr. Edmond Marzbani, and the staff of Evergreen Hospice in Kirkland, Washington.

“This chapter of our story goes all the way back to when we went to Yale Divinity School and lived at the Ecumenical Continuing Education Center for the Ministry at Yale,” Ann said. “One of the speakers we heard back in 1968 was the chaplain of Yale-New Haven Medical Center, who had just gone to England with the dean of the School of Nursing at Yale to hear about this new concept called hospice. That’s a part of our life, too. And right at that same time, I had a call from my father and mother, to whom Dennis was also very close, that my mother had inoperable colon cancer and only a few months to live. I was 24 years old at the time. Then my dad died two years later. That’s an underlying part of who we are.”

That same philosophy — deeply rooted in their Christian faith — was also lovingly instilled in and is shared by the entire, extended Hughes family.

“Our family really gets the idea that every Christian is a minister,” said Dennis Hughes, “and so they have had — and still have — wonderful ministries that they do, although they might not label it that way sometimes. We’ve been very blessed to have our kids grow up and affirm the values that are Christian values. Everyone is here; no one is staying away.”

The Hugheses’ daughter Becky, who was a certified nursing assistant in a hospice home health agency during her college years, also volunteered in Seattle for the Shanti Project working with people who were living with AIDS.

“They were also dying with AIDS,” observes Dennis Hughes, “but they called it living.”

Hughes praises not only his daughter’s healing gifts, but also her insight and candor.

“She was telling this one young man about her dad, and how her dad was really at peace with dying and had hospice care,” Hughes relates. “This friend asked her, ‘Do you think most ministers feel that way,’ which is what their faith would teach them — and they both looked at each other and said, ‘No.’ They don’t hear that from ministers. They don’t hear that in churches.”

Which is precisely why Hughes is telling his story now.

“I just got a news service on my phone, and I was reading a little blurb from The Atlantic, a secular journal,” he said. “They were talking about this very thing — how people who are dying have a unique opportunity, a perspective on life, just as I have discovered since my diagnosis.”

His family shares not only in his outlook, but also in his — and one another’s — care.

“Our daughter-in-law Kelsey is becoming an R.N. this month and will probably become a nurse practitioner,” he said. “Our sons, Pete and David, are doing self-sacrificial works of support every week. All live within 20 minutes of our home. Our older son Pete is the chief babysitter for our granddaughter Rosalyn right now. He has basically put his career aside for a while to take care of me and help his mother and our family. Everyone in our family is so committed to being together — it’s what the people in my church are doing, too, through their emails, cards, letters and visits.”

Hughes says that his family limits the number of visitors to their home so that he can conserve his energy. When people do visit, “it’s sad to see that some of them can’t deal with it.”

“I have a favorite cartoon from the New Yorker that I found the week of my diagnosis,” he continues. “It’s called ‘Self-Help books for the newly dead.’ In the panel, there are three books: ‘Five People You Should Avoid in Heaven,’ ‘Eating for Eternity’ and ‘Who Moved My Urn.’ And so I show this to people and some of them just about fall over because they are laughing so hard. Some fall over because they can’t imagine that I could find that funny.”

But sharing the humor, the learnings and the love in his end-of-life story is only Hughes’ most recent gift to the church.

In a long and varied career in ministry including several pastorates, including Northminster Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Hughes also served the national offices of the PC(USA) as Associate for Worship, staffed and served as a writer for the Book of Occasional Services for the PC(USA), was Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Seattle for 16 years, and served for eight years on the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA), two as Moderator. In the late 1980s, he was Vice Moderator of the General Assembly Advisory Committee on Ecumenical Relations, and for six years, until his diagnosis dictated that he resign, he was co-chair with Eugene Sutton, Episcopal Bishop of Maryland, of the PC(USA)-Episcopal Bilateral Dialogue Committee. Hughes received his M.Div. from Yale Divinity School and a Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame.

“One of the things that I highlighted — and that I will highlight in the work I’m doing with David Gambrell [associate for Worship] on the Festschrift for Harold Daniels — is the realization in the last few months that God has given me a foot on both sides of the building in Louisville, if you will,” he said. “I’ve worked on the mission side, but I was also chair of COGA, and nominated [former GA Stated Clerk] Gradye Parsons to his second term. I have always combined an interest in the structure and polity and integrity of the Presbyterian Church and the liturgical expression of that same reality. It is a pastoral and liturgical approach which naturally fits me, which are my two great interests.”

Hughes is also excited about an article he just read in the The Presbyterian Outlook titled “The end of denominationalism,” in which he sees that the church catholic is “something that finally not only Protestants, but also Catholics and Episcopalians and others are realizing is the future.”

“I’ve been very much in my life already thinking in those terms about the church as being one at root,” he said.

In much the same way that the Hughes family is also one — a model that is often at odds with the prevailing culture.

Recalling the classic children’s novel by Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which grandparents — senior family members — sit up in bed to watch TV together, Hughes said with a laugh that they often refer to their bed at home as “The Full Wonka,” for which he is both joyful and grateful.

He is grateful, too, for the words he heard running through his mind the morning after his diagnosis. Words of the mystic Julian of Norwich that are with him every day.

“In her vision, Jesus appeared at the foot of St. Julian’s bed and said, ‘If I could love thee more, I would love thee more,’ Hughes said. “That’s the whole gospel in 11 words, and God’s word to you and me, always and forever.”


Editor’s Note – April 21, 2017: Dennis Hughes passed away on Easter, April 16, at 12:30 a.m. A memorial service is scheduled for May 20.

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