Tag Archives: death

the disturbing reality of our mortality

My denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, posted this picture on their facebook page for Ash Wednesday:

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (facebook page)

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (facebook page)

It’s a beautiful image – yet disturbing at the same time.  In our culture, talking about death is avoided, confronting death in the face – really avoided, confronting the death of our children – avoided at all costs.  Some people might consider the above photo to be in poor taste because it features a child.

Death is ultimate equalizer – no one escapes it.  We might be wealthy enough to afford the best medical care, but in the end, no matter how much medical expertise we can buy, we eventually succumb.  With medical advances (and again money) we may be able to hold it back, but in the end it’s only delaying the inevitable.  We all die.  And with the exception of suicide, we have little control over how and when that happens.   And death is frightening.  It’s frightening because of our lack of control over it, and our lack of concrete physical knowledge of what happens next.  If we could be guaranteed heaven, our earthly death would be no big deal.  Problem is we don’t have that.   I have FAITH there is heaven.  I BELIEVE that Jesus has prepared a place for me and all the baptized.  But faith and belief are NOT the same as knowledge.  Can I prove there is an afterlife?  If we could prove heaven’s existence, no one would fear death and everyone would (not believe) but know there is God and live and die accordingly.  Alas, we cannot.  Resurrection is a matter of faith.

But here is where I find comfort in the above photo, rather than poor taste.  Here is where I find joy in the photo, rather than an affront.

The first time I imposed ashes on the forehead of one of my children I paused.  Looking them in the face, confronting their mortality, SHOOK me.  In that moment I was thinking only of the “here and now,” which, as a parent was completely natural.  I quickly had to remind myself of what I believe and rest in that.  It’s easier said than done, especially when thinking of our children.  I can’t imagine what it is like to lose a child.  I pray I never know.  I have, however, tasted just a morsel of that pain, when we suspected my middle child might have a degenerative disease that would cut her life very short (thankfully it was ruled out, but the wait for diagnosis was torture).

I can’t say I never doubt.  That would be dishonest.  But I DO have faith.  I have faith that the same cross that was traced on our forehead at baptism, the same cross that is traced on our forehead in ash, is the cross that was there for us 2,000 years ago, the cross of death that leads to life.  I have faith that death does NOT have the last word for those who cling to that cross.

The pain of death is real.  Even those who have faith grieve, and grieve profoundly.  But with our grief we dare to have hope that there is more.  And when hope is fleeting, having a community of faith surrounding us, reminding us of the promises and love of God, can carry us through another day.

So I love the photo.  I love that it jolts me out of my comfort zone.  Out of the comfort zone that tells me I’m the master of my destiny.  Out of the comfort zone that tries to have me deny the reality of my mortality.  I’m thankful to be jolted out, because out of that comfort zone I find the love of God I don’t deserve, the love of God that holds my children and all those I love more than I EVER could, the love that holds every one of us as we travel through the trials of this life, and into the eternal joy of the life to come.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

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Being “in control”

It feels like not so long ago I wrote about journeying with someone to the end of their earthly life (here).  Now I’m doing it again, this time, not as a pastor but as a friend.

I have known this woman for 15 years – never married, fiercely independent, deeply faithful to her church.  In the past two weeks she received a terminal diagnosis and decided to enter hospice care.  Because she has no family nearby (her closest relative is a niece six hours away) she named me as Power of Attorney and the representative in her Advanced Directive for Health Care (in the USA a PoA takes control of a person’s affairs when they can no longer take care of things for themselves, and the ADHC names a person to make health care decisions).  So – I’ve been running around trying to find the original PoA document with the “official” seal, getting my name onto her bank accounts, talking to social workers, hunting down her safe deposit box keys, and sorting through papers that she was leaving everywhere as she was “losing control” of things.  All this official-type work at the same time we were trying to find an inpatient hospice for her to live out her last days, get her transferred, and sign all THAT paperwork.

It’s disconcerting to be “in charge” of another adult human being.  I think it’s made me feel more like a child.  I have found myself second guessing every decision I’ve made for her so far, even though I know I’m acting in accord with her wishes.  Perhaps I’m feeling insecure because it’s been so long since I’ve been on the “personal” end of a death.  As a pastor I’ve seen plenty, and I know what to do and how to act.  But I am NOT this woman’s pastor, I am her friend, and of course that makes things different.

I sat with her for a while today – I brought her CD player and some of her music that she loved.  I brought a picture that means a lot to her, and I “think” she saw it.  She has spent most of the past 24 hours sleeping, with moments where she will open her eyes, but I’m not sure how much she is taking in.  Often hearing is the last sense to go, so that’s why I wanted her music to be with her.  They increased her pain medication today, so I assume she’ll be sleeping more and more now, and that’s fine as long as she’s comfortable.  Our number one goal is to have her be as pain-free as possible and that her death be as peaceful as possible.  That’s what SHE wants, and that’s what I want too.

I’m sharing this for two reasons.  First, just to share what’s going on this past week and why I haven’t posted that much, but also because I want to make sure that all of you reading this have your own affairs in order.  Don’t wait till you can’t take care of yourself anymore.  Have these documents I mentioned above.  Let your medical wishes be known to your family and friends.  And hand over control before  you lose control – that will be a great gift to whoever you name to be in charge.  That way they won’t have to do the running around I have had to do, and will just be able to “be” with you.

It will be hard to say goodbye to this fixture in my family’s life, but she is a woman of faith, and seems very secure in her journey towards her savior.  If you’re a person of prayer, please say a little one for her, and all those who will grieve her loss.  Thanks.

At the end of all things

Yesterday I received a phone call from the daughter of one of my congregation’s oldest members.  She called to tell me that her father was now receiving Hospice care at the assisted living home where he’s been residing the past few months.  I thanked her for keeping me in the loop (it’s always nice when the pastor is informed of these things, believe me.  We don’t like to be shocked any more than the next person.).

I visited with this man this morning.  Without divulging any confidences, I want to share him with you, because his life is an amazing testimony, not only to faith but to what we have come to call “The Greatest Generation.”  My visit with him also illustrates one of the most touching aspects of serving as a pastor in the Church.

This man served in the army in World War II.  He survived the Battle of the Bulge.  He was present for other less popular conflicts in the war as well.  As his pastor he shared with me many things about his experiences, but also didn’t share the half of it I’m sure.  He is supremely grateful to have survived when many of his buddies did not.  Grateful for each day that he could get up, go to work, and come home to a wife and children when many of his friends never got that chance.  A man with a quick wit, always good for a funny story and a kind yet mischievous smileEven today when we visited, he was still able to flash me that smile.

He is dying.  He is in his mid 90’s and he is aware of what’s going on in his body.  Yet even so he can’t understand how this happened.  In his mind he is still a 20 something strapping lad.   I so applaud that thinking!  How many of us, me included, aren’t half as old as he, haven’t gone through anything like the experiences he’s had, and yet feel as old as the hills?  There are certain people through my 19+ years of pastoral ministry that have stayed with me and will stay with me – and he is one of them.  He makes me smile.  I am proud to have known him, and I told him so.

One of the more daunting tasks of a pastor is to journey with people through illness and death.  It’s a terrible privilege.  Terrible because of the circumstances – terrible to be surrounded with grief, sadness, anger, doubt, fear.  A privilege because you are allowed into to a sacred moment, where time almost stands still, where no one questions what is most important, because it is clear then what really matters in life.

Many people run away from scenes of death and dying as fast as their legs will carry them, and it may also be the first instinct of the pastor as well.  But it is our call to enter into that space and provide the presence of God (not to BE God, but to represent faith, to be a sign that God has not and will never abandon us).  Even after more than 19 years I struggle to find the words to say, though I know better.  There really is nothing to say to make the situation better, to make the pain go away, to truly ease the fears.  This gentleman today took great comfort not in any words I said, but in me holding his hands.

At the end of all things*, these are the things that matter: loving, being loved, a smile, holding hands, making a connection to another – BEING together.  That is “wonder”ful, powerful, mysterious, and holy.

*quote from JRR Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo to Sam on Mount Doom, “I am glad you are here with me, Sam. Here at the end of all things.”