Death just isn’t convenient.

I was talking to the last few people to leave church yesterday when a friend told me, “I had a question posed to me. Someone asked, ‘Why did you schedule ______’s memorial service for a Thursday?'”

“Well,” I said, “First of all, just about everyone he knew is retired, so I didn’t think it really mattered which day I picked. Plus the only family he has, his neices, will be in town that week, and I wanted to include them if possible.”

And then I added, “Death just isn’t convenient, is it?” We both just smiled.

That afternoon I pondered the wisdom and truth of my words. Death isn’t convenient. It always interrupts our schedules, routines and habits. Suddenly, we have to deal with funerals and memorial services, funeral homes and cemeteries, death certificates and insurance policies, family and friends, emotions and feelings. And none of it was on your calendar.

Death is never on my calendar. Neither my own nor anyone else’s. It’s funny. You know it’s coming. But you don’t know when. So for the most part, you never expect it to happen. You live as if you and everyone else were immortal. And then just like that, you are proved wrong. Death happens.

When a member dies, they immediately get a spot on my calendar for their funeral or memorial. Family gets slots on my schedule for visits. All kinds of folks flex their schdules or ask for time off to gather for a service.

Because death just isn’t convenient.

“She’s not here.”

I was just trying to do my job. Just doing pastoral care the best I know how. I figured if I timed it right, I could stop by to see one member in the hospice house and make another home visit before Good News Club this afternoon.

I walked into the hospice house and headed for the room I had just visited yesterday. It was empty. Oh boy. I’m glad I visited yesterday. She must have passed. The room was empty, clean and ready for the next patient.

As I walked out, I stopped by the front desk and asked about the person in room 2. “Oh, they moved her.” Really? “She was transferred to Fish.” Fish is short for another hospital in the AdventHealth chain. That’s unusual. Why would you move someone who was in the last hours of their life? I asked, “I know you can’t tell me much, but why would they move her?”

Someone who appeared to be a nurse said, “I don’t know. I hadn’t seen her.” Another front desk person said, “There could be a thousand reasons.” Another apologized, “I’m sorry.”

When I got to my car, I tried to call, then texted the daughter. A few minutes later I got a phone call fro her. Her mom had died last night. That’s what I thought. But why didn’t anyone at the front desk or nurses station know that? Why didn’t anyone care to pass along that important detail?

I started to call the hospice house, just to let those at the front desk know that one of their clients had died. But I didn’t. Why waste my time?

I’m glad that God knows when a single sparrow falls to the ground, much less one of his loved ones. By grace, she was someone! By grace, so am I.

Don’t be sorry.

When my Dad died three weeks ago, the news quickly spread and I cannot begin to tell you how many people said to me, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

I understand the sentiment behind those words. In fact, I’ve spoken them to those grieving the death of a loved one. But as I heard those words spoken to me, I thought, “Why are you sorry?” It’s not like you did something wrong. Are you sorry that I have to go through this? Are you sorry that I will no longer be able to go and visit my father? What is it that you regret?

I’m pondering this because I really didn’t feel that sad about my Dad’s death. Mom died fourteen years earlier, and I know that he’s been lonely since then. He lost some of the ability to care for himself about six years ago when we (his children) sold his house and moved him in with my brother. His kidneys failed three years ago, but after we gathered to be with him, he recovered. He didn’t want to eat anymore about two years ago, but after we gathered to be with him, and with a few bowls of ice cream, he regained his appetite. So in some ways, it’s been a long, three-year goodbye. Rather than being sorry he’s gone, I’m actually a bit relieved. I’m glad he fought the good fight of faith. I’m glad he finished the race (for him it was a marathon!) and finally crossed the finish line. I think we should be cheering rather than crying!

The last time I went to see Dad, he was basically unconscious for three straight days. We talked to him. We talked about him. We read scripture and sang songs for him. Not much response. I couldn’t help but wonder, “How long?” You just never know. A body created to live isn’t going to easily give up. All you can do is wait.

My memories of Dad are good ones. I remember the things we did together, the things he taught me, and the home and education he provided for me. I treasure the name he gave me (he was Junior, so I got to be the Third). Instead of feeling like I lost something, I feel like I gained so much. His ninety-five years were filled with family, love, church, work and hobbies. Rather than feeling empty, I feel so full of all the things Dad gave me.

It’s been a long time since I’ve lived near Dad. I’ve lived most of my life pretty far away and only got to see him a few times a year. So I don’t miss his presence, not like those who daily spent time with him. Instead, his death makes me more aware of all the parts of him that shape me.

A few folks have shared with me that they were a wreck for months after their father died. Some can barely hold back the tears when a departed loved one’s birthday comes around, or the anniversary of a death. I feel bad that I don’t feel worse, if that makes any sense. Maybe it’s my British (not Vulcan) heritage that enables me to contain my emotion.

The one thing that occasionally brings a tear to my eye is the mental image of my Dad seeing Jesus face to face. That had to be and is going to be the best moment ever, and that’s what makes emotion swell up in me. Oh, and imagining the shout of the archangel, the sound of the trumpet and then the resurrection. I always tear up when I think of that day. But rather than sadness, it is overwhelming gladness.

So you don’t have to be sorry. You can cheer along with me. You can be thankful along with me. You can share that joy with me.

What do you say at your father’s funeral?

I was the third of three preachers at my Dad’s funeral. My son Adam (pastor at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church and School, Dallas, TX) went first, followed by my brother Jim (Pastor at St. Athanasius Lutheran Church, Vienna, VA), and then me. Here’s what I said.

“[The women] departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” (Matthew 28:8,9).

That’s a game-changer, isn’t it? It’s a life-changing moment for the women who came to the tomb early on the first day of the week. It’s a life-changing moment for Jesus’ disciples who were hiding in an upper room. It’s a life-changing moment for us who have gathered here today in the name of the one – Jesus – who met them and said, “Greetings!”

Just like us, those women and disciples were dealing with death. On Friday, Jesus had been crucified. Some had heard the sound of nails driven through his hands and feet into the wood of the cross. Some had been there through the three hours of darkness. Some had been there to hear his last words and witness his last breath. Others had wrapped his body in linen and laid it in a tomb. A few witnessed the rolling of a huge stone across the opening of the tomb, to seal it shut. It was a dark day. A sad day. A tear-filled day. A Friday.

But these words are from Sunday, the first day of a new week. The earth shakes. An angel comes rolls away the stone from the tomb. The guards pass out. And the angel says to the women, “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said.” (28:6). The tomb no longer contains a corpse. It is empty. Jesus is no longer dead. He is alive. Jesus’ words about death and resurrection are no longer a prediction. They are now a reality.

This moment really does change everything.

  • Jesus is clearly not just a man or a great teacher. He is truly the eternal Son of God.
  • We can believe every word Jesus says.
  • We are not simply sinners who will always fall short of God’s glory. Jesus died in our place to pay for our sins. We are forgiven. We’ve been declared righteous. We will share his glory.
  • The grave cannot hold God’s people. Not for very long. “For the Lord himself will [one day] descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise” (1 Thess. 4:16).

These truths certainly changed everything for Dad.

  • Baptized ninety-five years ago, he became a child of God.
  • He sought and found the truth in a lifetime of hearing and reading God’s Word.
  • Words of absolution from his pastors (and his sons) continually and consistently announced  God’s forgiveness for all his sins.
  • And now he waits, along with us, for that day, for that voice, for that trumpet and for the resurrection!

These truths have certainly changed things for me! Just about every day I look at the picture of Mom and Dad holding me on my baptism day, September 29, 1957, and remember that I too am a child of God.

Next weekend, when I am back in the pulpit, I’ll be preaching about God’s discipline. The writer of Hebrews says that’s how you know you’re a child of God. Discipline was a little bit different when I was growing up, but Dad never hesitated to remind me that I was his dearly loved son!

I’m not sure how he did it, but somehow Dad got us to fight over who got to read the bible at family devotions. We had to keep a calendar to keep the peace. I don’t remember ever doubting that God’s Word was true.

One of the greatest gifts Dad ever gave was making sure we met Jesus on the way. In the Word. In worship. In song. In prayer. In life. And in death.

Very few people will ever hear of Dad’s faith. Yet his quiet faithfulness, left a legacy. Three pastors – so far. Three generations of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren – all zealous for the Lord. What a great gift to receive. What a great gift to pass along. And what a great gift to celebrate today!  

Preached at the funeral for William Douthwaite, Jr. (1924-2019) at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Ridley Park, PA on Friday, August 16, 2019. The entire service can be viewed here.

Finally, a funeral

Funeral for William Douthwaite, Jr.
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Ridley Park, PA

We had been getting ready for this funeral for three years. That’s how long it had been since my Dad fell, his kidneys failed, and my brother, sister and I gathered to say goodbye to him at age 92. By the time I got there, though, he had rebounded and returned home after a few days in the hospital. Rather than a funeral, we started making arrangements for assisted living.

Two years ago, still in the memory care unit of a very nice assisted living facility, Dad stopped eating. Rather than another trip to the hospital to find out what was wrong, we admitted Dad into hospice so he could stay where he was. Once again, we gathered for what we thought would be the end of his ninety-three year earthly journey. However, his appetite soon returned, especially for ice cream and other desserts, and we did not need to make any arrangements.

This summer, after about three days into the Dallas portion of my vacation, I got the call that Dad had a fever that wouldn’t break, and was less and less lucid each day. The hospice nurse predicted he would only last a few days, if not a few hours. I quickly booked a flight as my sister boarded a train, and we once again gathered to be with Dad.

This time was indeed different. Dad was on oxygen, was not responsive, and indeed looked like he was at the end. My sister and I spend three days there, watching and listening to his rhythmic breathing. We read to him, sang some hymns, and agreed that even though this might be the end, we would never bet against Dad recovering.

At the age of ninety-five, though, his body just couldn’t fight the infection. No eating or drinking for days took its toll on his strength. But not till he stuck around for another six days. I had returned to Dallas and then home. My sister had gone home and returned over the weekend.

The call from my brother came early Monday morning, August 12. We had gotten home late, so we didn’t hear the phone buzz the first ten times. Finally, I heard something about 4 am, and my brother confirmed that Dad had died shortly after two, with him, my sister and sister-in-law holding his hand. Calm, peaceful, and pain-free, accompanied by families on this side and angels on the other. Not a bad way to go at all.

Over the next few days, my brother made arrangements for the funeral that had long ago been planned for Dad’s long time church in Ridley Park, PA and internment next to Mom at a cemetery in Aston. I booked flights for my wife and I, my son, and one of my daughters who brought her youngest along.

That Friday (August 16), a few family, friends and church members gathered to worship, remember Dad’s life, and look forward to the resurrection. My son, a pastor from Dallas, my brother, a pastor from Vienna, VA and myself co-officiated the service and all took a turn preaching. My sister played the organ and my nieces played violin. It was a unique and fitting moment for a man whose quiet faithfulness had left a legacy of three pastors (so far), and three generation of faithful children, spouses, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When you live to be ninety-five, you outlive most of your family and friends. Dad was the youngest of seven children. His last remaining sibling had died some fifteen years before. Five of my cousins who were still in the area joined us that day. About half-a-dozen members of the church who had known Dad were still around and attended the service. A few folks from my brother’s church and some area clergy friends also attended.

While neither my brother nor I wanted to preach at my Mom’s funeral fourteen years ago, we both wanted to speak for Dad’s. I didn’t know how I would feel. You never really do, until you’re in the moment. My voice cracked just once, when I spoke of Dad, along with us, waiting for “that day, for that voice, for that trumpet and for the resurrection!” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). My brother Jim spoke on Dad’s favorite verse from Romans 8, that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. My son Adam reminded us that even though our hearts and minds are filled with great memories, the best is yet to come when we get to be with the Lord.

My brother and I draped Dad’s casket with the funeral pall as my son reminded us of Dad’s baptism. We took turns reading scripture. Isaiah 55:6-13; Philippians 1:18-26; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 28:1-10. We preached around some great hymns. “For all the saints,” “The Lord’s my shepherd I’ll not want,” “My hope is built on nothing less,” “I know that my Redeemer lives,” and “Jesus lives, the vict’ry’s won.” It sounds like a lot, but only lasted a little more than an hour.

The procession to the cemetery had to navigate some interesting interstate traffic, but we all made it. After a brief committal and military honors, many of us gathered at a nearby restaurant for lunch, memories, laughter and a few pictures.

I had to get my son back to the airport for an evening flight home. My brother’s family, my sister and my family then hung out at our hotel suite that evening. That night was much more relaxed.

And just like that, it was over. Everyone returned home safely the next day.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel. I don’t feel sad, but I know I’ll miss Dad. Our recent visits weren’t much. It’s not like I’ll miss our conversations. He typically sat and snoozed while I sat and visited with him. I’m a bit relieved. I didn’t get up there to visit him very often, and I always felt a little guilt about that. My brother, on the other hand, was there every day. This will leave a bigger void for him. We didn’t shed that many tears. Smiles and laughter predominated those last few days and the funeral service. Dad always made us laugh before, so why not now?

Most of all I’m just thankful. I’m thankful for what he taught me, for my memories of him, and for the faith he and Mom passed along to us kids.

Why wait?

Photo by Cathal Mac an Bheatha on Unsplash

This morning I was reading about the woman who poured out a jar of expensive nard on Jesus’ head (Mark 14:3-9). While some thought it was a waste, Jesus said it was a nice thing to do before his burial.

This got me thinking: why don’t we do and say nice things for people while they are still around?

Eulogies are filled with the praises of those who have died. In fact, most I’ve heard describe the deceased as the nicest, most generous and least selfish person they ever met in their life. And I am glad that’s how you knew that person. But why not tell them while they’re alive? Why not make the phone call or visit and tell them? Or send a note?

Many deaths are followed by generous gifts given to the church or another charitable organization in their memory. That’s all well and good. But what if you had used that money to go and visit them, take them out to lunch, and create a memory that way?

You’ll never be able to make up for lost time at or after a funeral. But you can say something or do something nice today. And it will never be a waste.

A beginning and an end in a moment

It was a beautiful afternoon wedding. Slightly overcast skies kept it from getting too hot as the young couple took their vows just a few steps away from a blooming rose garden. Friends and family watched from all sides, witnessing two becoming one.

Some remained for the vast array of pictures while others, including myself, headed towards the small community center for the reception. I helped put the beer on ice as the BBQ caterers carried in the food and the DJ set up his sound equipment. Just a few minutes later the wedding party entered. Who knew how good ribs and champaign paired? Soon the dancing began.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. I glanced at it, recognized the name, and felt like I needed to answer. The voice told me that Jack (not his real name) had just been taken to the hospital. I confirmed which hospital it was, and thought, “I’ll head down there a little later on my way home.” I also thought, “I better start drinking ice tea and lemonade.”

Minutes later, my phone buzzed in my pocket. Same name and number. This time the voice said, “Jack just died.” What? I just saw him a few days ago. He seemed fine. I grabbed my coat, told my wife what happened, gave her a quick kiss and headed out to my car. I knew that his wife – now his widow – was alone with him. The rest of the family was not just out of town. They were out of state.

I didn’t turn on the radio right away, letting my mind transition from the first day of a married life together to the last day of a married life together. The last day of sixty-five years together. I never know when I will experience such extremes in just a few hours.

Another occasion from a few year ago flashed into my mind. One afternoon I baptized an infant just moments before I did a funeral for her great-grandmother. It was the one moment when all the family could be there, so we laughed and cried and celebrated the first and last pages of life.

Half-an-hour later I walked through the emergency room doors. Suspecting why I was there, a nurse in a mask at a desk asked, “Who are you here for?” After I answered she gave me a room number and clicked me in. I walked into the room where Jack’s body lay, still intubated and IV’d. His widow Marie sat there, head bowed, holding his hand. I touched her shoulder, she looked in my eyes, and reached up to hug me. My prayers joined hers as we commended Jack into the Lord’s hands, body and soul and all things. The words of the benediction spoke a powerful blessing.

I spent the next two hours with Marie. I certainly wasn’t going to leave her there alone as we waited for the staff to contact the funeral home. I also spoke with her daughter and a few dear friends to make sure Marie wouldn’t have to spend the night alone.

We sat there for a while, sometimes very quiet, sometimes talking about life and death. I thought to myself, “Sixty-five years ago, they took their vows, just like the young couple today.” And then I thought, “Imagine that young couple sixty-five years from now!” Time warped for me as six-and-a-half decades compressed into a moment. If you watch space science fiction TV and movies, you get to know the phrase “time-space continuum.” If you are in the ministry, sometimes you actually get to experience it!

Another last visit

justin-schuler-255981-unsplash

Photo by Justin Schüler on Unsplash

I got the phone call last Tuesday just before I headed out the door to visit some church members. But it wasn’t the person whose name showed up on the screen. It was her daughter. Mom wasn’t eating, couldn’t get out of bed, and was receiving twenty-four-hour hospice care. I knew I had to get out there later in the afternoon before they started a second form of medication to get ahead of the pain. It would probably be my last chance to talk with her.

When I arrived I thought, “This must be the place to be.” The driveway and cul-de-sac were full of cars. Inside, I was met by the hospice chaplain, the daughter, and two other hospice workers were in the kitchen. The only thing that surprised me was the quiet. The little Yorkie didn’t come barking to greet me at the door. Yes, this was a different visit.

Just six days before, I had been to this very same house. When I knocked and walked in, the dog came racing to find out who it was and got dibs for my attention. Inside, P. was sitting on the pale green living room sofa, waiting for my arrival. We talked and laughed and caught up on all that had happened since my last visit about a month ago. She was tired from a busy day before, but glad to have some company.

As the usual afternoon storms rolled in, the Yorkie found a secure spot on my lap, nervously shivering after each clap of thunder. She wasn’t going anywhere.

She wasn’t going anywhere during this latter visit, either. Lying quietly at P.’s feet, she was subdued though glad to see me. I can tell. And I know exactly where to scratch.

After a quick conversation with a daughter and the hospice chaplain, I went to the bedroom, where P. was now camped out, on oxygen, wondering when the pain medication would do more than make her feel sleepy. At the side of the bed was a picture of her late husband, whose hospice bed we had sat beside just eleven months ago. It was his retirement picture, signed by all of his colleagues. In a way it was his chance to repay the favor and sit by her bed.

P. had a smile for me and chuckled, “Well, here we go. Not a pretty picture, huh?”

“Looks like you had a rough weekend,” I said.

She said, “Yeah, but what are you going to do?”

We talked a little about how she felt, between sips of ginger ale. Since she was starting to doze off, I didn’t hesitate to ask, “Would you like communion?” As always, she said, “Yes.” As I got the bread and wine ready, I suspected it would be the last time I would bring the sacrament to her. As I spoke the words of our Lord, she closed her eyes to listen. I touched her hand, she opened her eyes, and ate and drank her Savior’s gift of grace and life. I assured her of God’s forgiveness and we prayed.

It is easy to pray in situations like that. We thank God for the care he provides, we commend ourselves into his hands, and speak the prayer our Lord taught us. A quick benediction, and I knew it was time to go.

I got the call Thursday night that she had died after a few days of being unresponsive. I was thankful for the opportunity to visit her that one last time.

Two years ago, I did a memorial service for P.’s mom. Last year for her husband. And now it will be her turn. I am impressed and moved by how she graciously handled both life and death, kind of like Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 4: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). The worst this world dishes out is nothing compared to the grace God pours into our lives. I am thankful for people like P. who lived out this truth.

The only thing P. worried about was her two grandsons. How she loved them and how they loved her! I wonder what they’ll remember the most about their grandparents. Knowing them and the family, it will be something that brings joy not sadness, and that’s just the way it should be.

The Yorkie didn’t see me out as she usually did. She had work to do. And I understood,.

 

 

 

 

Just pay attention

jordan-whitt-145327Here we are, reeling from another school shooting. Usual post-tragedy rants about what should be done is in full gear, at least for now. As more information about the shooter emerges, there are endless questions and debates about school safety, guns, mental health, thoughts and prayers, politics, rights and legislation.

As I was working on my sermon this past week, I found a disturbing connection between an ancient moment and current events. It seems that asking parents to drop their kids off at school isn’t much different than God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22. I know it’s a harsh comparison. But in that comparison, I found some things worth thinking about. Continue reading