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.
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!
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,.
Here 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 “Just pay attention”→
Today would probably be my last visit. The last time I saw J. he didn’t look too bad. He had lost some weight, had lost some strength and had to use a walker. The cancer was there, but he didn’t purse treatment. He’d had ninety-one good years, fifty-five of them with an amazing wife. A life well-lived.
Today when I went to visit, I didn’t know what to expect. When I got to the door, his wife said, “He won’t know you’re here.” But when I got to his bed, he looked at me and whispered, “Hello, pastor.” A couple of weeks into hospice care, he had stopped eating and drinking, and slept most of the time. Death crept closer with each moment. But he was home, in his own bed, without pain and with his wife, continuing to live a good life.
Our conversation was brief as I prepared the sacrament, a foretaste of the feast to come. A little bread dipped in wine would be his portion. His wife would receive the rest as she sat on the other side of the bed. I silently thanked God for this moment, probably the last, to give him communion. To give them communion together. I’m no expert, but I knew he didn’t have many more conversations left in him. I knew this would be his last meal on this side of the heavenly banquet.
This family is one of the few who have been at our church longer than me. They joined about a year before I arrived, so I have known them for a long time. I thanked him for his faithfulness, and reminded him, as I had for the last twenty-one years, of God’s faithfulness. I reminded him of Jesus’ sacrifice, God’s forgiveness, and that place prepared for him by his Savior. After a prayer and the Lord’s prayer, I made the sign of the cross on his head as I spoke the benediction. A reminder of the sign of the cross made on his head and heart at his baptism ninety-one years before, in anticipation of this very moment.
I don’t quickly forget these moments. As a pastor, I get to be a part of many families’ final moments with loved ones. I get to be there in those moments when the temporal and the eternal touch, when heaven meets earth, and when loved ones leave this life for the next. I could tell that God had blessed this family with love, acceptance, hope, and strength. Rather than falling apart as death drew near, they fell into the arms of their Savior a familiar place they had been many times before,
Before I left, I saw and talked with D., his wife. I made sure she was getting the help she needed, got her to promise she would call when anything happened, and talked about J.’s memorial service. For someone as frail as she was, she had strength and composure that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit. I guess that’s why He’s known as the Comforter and the Helper!