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.

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

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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,.

 

 

 

 

One last visit

Sunset_2007-1Today 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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking the fifth

Screen Shot 2017-10-31 at 2.30.11 PMLast night was fifth commandment night in confirmation class. “You shall not murder.” So we ran through the gamut of the best known killing sins, from murder to abortion to euthanasia to suicide to manslaughter.

I guess my lesson gets pretty gruesome as I describe each, because several of the students bemoaned, “Do we have to talk about this?” “That’s horrible!” “Why are we even discussing this?” Which I find very interesting, because they are all gamers to some extent. They spend time in virtual worlds shooting people, crashing cars, blowing up zombies, and waging war. But when you actually sit down to talk about real killing, they get uncomfortable.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. We spend a lot of time in a virtual world of sorts, where shootings, explosions, fires, storms and epidemics fill our news feeds. Most of them don’t directly touch our lives, so it doesn’t bother us too much. It’s not till you sit down and talk about real killing — on your street, in your family, at the school — that we start to pay attention.

Maybe we need to talk about that more. We need to talk about what it really means to take care of someone in hospice, or with an unexpected pregnancy, or who has killed in war or law enforcement. Perhaps then we would understand the depth of this commandment and the importance of life to our Creator. We would better understand what we think are the “lesser” killing sins: anger, hate, bullying and hurtful language. We would better grasp what it means to take care of our lives, exercising, eating right, and getting enough. And maybe – just maybe – we would be moved to take care of others’ lives.

But if the class was uncomfortable talking about death, just wait. The sixth commandment is up next. Time to talk about sex!

“We won’t be needing you after all.”

Why did I say, “Yes?” I suppose I was in a benevolent mood when a local funeral director called and asked if I could do a funeral service at their place on Wednesday morning. I like to serve the community in this way from time to time, so I agreed and waited to hear more details.

Details followed later in the afternoon, contact information for the family of the deceased. I called and set up an appointment to come to their home Tuesday afternoon, so I could prepare for the service.

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No this is not the house, but isn’t that a nice driveway?

When I got to the entrance gate, the guard had my name and pass ready and I drove through the exclusive neighborhood in our area. My GPS successfully guided me to a vast, beautiful home on the water on a quiet and upscale cup-de-sac. As I pulled into the brick-paved circular driveway, the blinds were closed tightly to the afternoon sun. I walked up and rang the doorbell.

After a few breaths, I rang the doorbell again. I listened for sounds of activity within. Silence. The lawn guy’s mower across the street was the only sound I heard. I glanced at my watch. I was about five minutes early. No problem. I’ll wait a few minutes. I am sure they are on their way.

A few minutes after the hour, I walked back to the front door and rang the bell a third time. While waiting, I dialed the number the funeral director had emailed to me. A voice answered and I told them I was at the front door, but no one seemed to be there. After a short awkward silence, an accented voice called a name, and another person came to the phone.

“Oh, my brother is going to do the service. The funeral home said they would call you.”

“OK, thank you. I’ll keep you and your family in my prayers.”

As I drove away, I glanced at my recent calls and voice messages. Nothing from the funeral home. I texted my office assistant to see if anyone had called. Not when she was there. I check the church’s voice mail. Nada.

So I called the funeral home and the director answered. “I just wanted to confirm that someone else is doing the service tomorrow.”

The director responded, “I’m not sure what you mean. We are still planning on you being here.” I explained my experience and conversation, and he assured me he would check things out. A few minutes later he called me back. “Yes, the family made other arrangements, but didn’t inform us. Thank you for letting us know.”

After all of that, I have to admit I’m glad they have to deal with the family. Clearly they are dealing with a lot right now, and need our prayers. I texted my assistant, “I think God knew I was already too busy this week.”

Life after death

chu-tai-121706Several months ago I wrote about our preschool’s last graduation as we closed the door on that part of our church’s ministry. Since then, closing that door has been followed by a flood of new opportunities. As soon as we laid that program to rest, new ministries immediately sprouted and began to grow.

A team of members, both new and old spent weeks cleaning out many years of preschool furniture, toys, craft supplies and teaching materials. A new wall, buffed floors and a fresh coat of paint spawned new ministry ideas.

One area was set aside for youth ministry. Soon after, two young adults took a step of faith and offered to lead our youth ministry, which had lay dormant for a couple of years. They now have more than a dozen meeting each week, not just in our facility, but out serving in the community.

Another area was set aside for our Operation Barnabas chapter, ministering to veterans and families of military in our area. The harvest field of retired vets is plentiful in our area. A place to connect with other vets will also provide a way to connect with the local church and other services that they need.

Yet another area was set aside for our preschool Sunday School class, which is suddenly being populated with little people as the birth rate rises in our congregation and community. Two first-time teachers stepped up to lead this ministry.

Both the girl scout and boy scouts have asked to use our space, another connection with our community, and more importantly, the homes immediately around us.

The space we now have available can be used for disaster relief. We now have space usable as a secondary shelter when the primary shelters close down.

We recently got involved with helping out homeless students at our high schools. We now have some space available to expand our ministry to those families.

Over the past few years, we did everything we could to keep our school open. In hindsight, we were simply providing hospice care for that part of our ministry. From scripture, we should have known that unless a seed is planted in the ground, it remains just that. But when it is buried, it grows into something new and much more than it was before. We should have known that death leads to resurrection, not just on Easter morning, but in the life of the church and her saints.

Our most recent experience in church revitalization happened when we laid an old ministry to rest and watched as God breathed new life into that void.