Posted in death, virtual reality

My friends are dead.

This post is going to be morbid. Just warning you up front.

I was poking around on Facebook and noticed the phrase “View Sent Requests.” I clicked on it and saw the list of people I had requested to be friends with who had not yet responded. As I read through the list of about twelve names, I discovered why some hadn’t responded.

They were dead.

Some had died recently. Others a few years ago.

I got curious. I wondered how many of my 948 friends were actually still alive? It took a little time, but I scrolled through the whole list. I had no idea who some of those people were. A few had duplicate entries. One was a closed restaurant? But another ten were dead. Some had been dead for years, but their page was still active. People were still wishing them a happy birthday. They hadn’t gotten the memo.

Isn’t that interesting? In the analog world they’re mortal. They’ve passed. I’ve been to some of their funerals. I’ve done some of their funerals.

In a digital sense, they still exist and they are still my friends. They have achieved a sort of immortality.

There is a whole underworld of Facebook users out there.

Posted in death

A shrine in the woods

I (and Samson) have probably walked past this little shrine a hundred times. It’s about fifty feet off the road in an undeveloped lot next to a drainage ditch around the block from my house. I always knew there was something there on the tree, but couldn’t quite see what. Today we decided to take a closer look.

It’s there in memory of Justin, a twenty-three year old young man. A couple of American flags suggest he may have died in military service of our country. A rosary lets me know someone still prays for him. A solar-powered angel-light stands vigil at night. A small valentine sits right next to a small stone reminding us of the presence of angels. A small sign reminds us to count our blessings.

I’ve seen plenty of little shrines at intersections and curves in the road where crashes have taken the lives of loved ones. When words fail us, small crosses, stuffed animals, pictures, flowers and flags announce to the world, “We miss this person a lot.” These carefully erected shrines express a grief in ways that words can’t.

There is almost always a cross at the center of those shrines. A cross that reminds us of Jesus’ horrible death. A cross that reminds us of Jesus’ victory over death on the third day. The church may not be filled with all those who believe, trust or grasp for hope in Christ. But they are out there. They say it with a memorial that speaks volumes about their loved one, their faith and their Lord.

Posted in death, Ministry

Soon

Photo by Tim Evans on Unsplash

A few days ago, I visited a member who had just been admitted to a hospice house. She was alone, comfortable and talkative when I stopped by. We had a great visit.

Early in the conversation, though, she said, “I have a question for you. I told God a long time ago I was ready to die. What’s taking him so long?”

Great question. Way above my pay grade. So I said, “I don’t know.” But then I said, “Do you remember when you were a child and your parents were driving somewhere for the day or for vacation? How many times did you ask them, ‘How much longer? When are we going to get there? Are we there yet?’ I’ll bet your mom or dad said, ‘We’ll be there soon.’ That’s our heavenly Father’s answer for us, too. Soon.”

As a dad that’s what I always said to my kids when they asked, “Are we almost there?” Whether we had fifteen minutes or a few hours to go, I always said, “Yes!” I answered the question and got a few miles or minutes of peace.

The last words our Lord says in scripture are, “I am coming soon.” What does that mean? Who knows? Time can fly or drag. But the word “soon” gives me hope and peace for the next few minutes or miles of life.

Posted in death

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.

Posted in death, Ministry

“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 from 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.

Posted in death, Life

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.

Posted in Dad, death, Life

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.

Posted in death, Douthwaite, Life

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.

Posted in death, dying

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.