Posted in Lent devotions

Full circle

Bonus “Scenes from the passion” devotion for Saturday, April 3, 2021. Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash.

And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid. (Mark 15:42-47)

So we’ve come full circle. When Jesus was born, his mother Mary wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, a feeding trough that some picture as a cave in a hillside. Now that his life is over, they wrap his body in cloth and lay him in a tomb, a cave in the rock.

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Posted in Moments of grace

Fifty seconds of prayer

As I finished up my first visit today, I started up the truck to get the AC going and got my phone out of the center console to quickly check my messages and emails. One immediately got my attention. Someone had called the church just after I left and wanted a Lutheran pastor to pray over the body of his mother-in-law who had suddenly died just a day before. I had no details, but the request was somewhat urgent as an autopsy was scheduled and family wasn’t around. I got in touch with the caller and then the funeral home. It would be just me, to say a final prayer of committal, something very important to the daughters.

Just like that, I was done. The funeral director and I thanked each other and I headed out to my next appointment. Before I drove from the parking lot, I sent the fifty-second recording of my prayer to the son-in-law, so he could pass that along to the family.

Later, I typed her name into the search bar of Facebook and found her page. She was my age, a local business owner. Family and friends had already begun to post condolences and memories on her timeline. I reached out to the family, offering my help and encouragement.

Sometimes God punctuates our lives with moments that remind us of the power of His mercy in life and in death. Even if I never hear the rest of this story, I am glad I could be a part of it.

Update: That wasn’t the end of the story. I had a chance to sit down and talk with her husband for a while and then meet all her children the next day to share some memories and say a prayer.

Posted in Devotions, Moments of grace

Each day is a gift

So if I am mortal, my life is finite and the time of my death has been predetermined, does it really matter how I live? While trying to figure out why he was suffering, Job said to God, “A person’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed” (Job 14:5). Is my life really that determined, so that the things I do or don’t do have little to do with my waking up each day?

If I truly believed that, I wouldn’t worry so much about eating healthy or exercising. I can’t add any years to my life, right? I wouldn’t call 911 when I felt chest pain. It’s either my time or it isn’t. I certainly wouldn’t worry about seat belts, speed limits and stop signs, either. Why own a gun? If a shooter’s bullet has my name on it, it’s a done deal. I would be just like Simeon, who had the promise from God that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Christ (Luke 2:25,26). Until that moment, Simeon was essentially immortal!

And yet, most of us don’t live that way, do we? We watch our weight, check our cholesterol, buckle our seatbelts, wash our hands and wear a mask, look both ways before we cross the street, vaccinate our babies, practice shooting at the range and call 911 when our chest tightens up and we (or our spouse) can’t breath. Why is that?

We also share our food with those who are hungry, rather than assuming it’s simply their time to go. We pass laws and commission police to enforce them and protect our lives. We learn CPR and hang defibrillators on the wall so we can save a life. We post signs that warn of high voltage, sharp turns and slippery floors. Why is that?

After forty hungry days in the desert, Jesus and Satan had an interesting conversation. Satan suggested to Jesus that he jump off the top of the temple, relying on the promise that the angels would take care of him and catch him. Jesus refused. Why? Because you don’t put God to the test. Challenging God isn’t trusting Him. He’ll very quickly remind you that He can’t be manipulated. (This is also a good reminder to always check your sources.)

James, a half-brother of Jesus, wisely pointed out that if you come across someone who doesn’t have clothes or food, you don’t simply say, “Have a nice day. Too bad your time is up.” A faith like that is worthless. James used a stronger word: dead. Trusting God means attending to the life-saving needs of others.

Paul wrote, “If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). If you have nothing to look forward to other than death, by all means do what ever you want. It doesn’t make any difference.

But, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20). We’ve been redeemed from an empty way of life by the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18,19). Life, in both this life and the next, is precious and valuable. This truth moves us to provide food, drink, hospitality, clothing, healing and fellowship for the people around us as if we were giving it to Jesus Himself (Matthew 25:35, 36). That is what faith looks like.

I often remind people that we need not fear death, for our last breath in this world will be followed by our first breath in the next. Death has lost its sting because of the resurrection of Christ. We can live each day to its fullest in light of the life He gives us.

I often remind people that life is sacred, too. So from the womb to hospice, we provide the best care we can. Sometimes that means helping moms raise their kids alone. Sometimes it means triple-bypass open-heart surgery. Sometimes it means eating a little less fried chicken and donuts and more fruits and vegetables. Sometimes it means giving someone a room in my house to stay for a while. Sometimes it means washing my hands a few extra times and wearing a mask. Sometimes it means giving away my money so another church in another country can feed the children in a community on a Saturday.

Yes, my life is in His hands. From before my birth to my last breath and for eternity. I commend myself into His hands, my body and soul and all that I have. I remember that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. And I love Him with all my heart, mind, soul and strength by loving my neighbor as myself. It’s never about me. It’s always about Him and them.

My days may be numbered, but I cannot and will not take one of them for granted. Each one is a gift, a gift from Him.

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 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.

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 aging, death, dying, Ministry, wedding

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!

Posted in death, Ministry, visiting

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,.