A Sacred Window

OnesWeLoveImageNothing can really prepare you for the death of a friend. It doesn’t matter how many pastoral care classes you took in seminary. It makes no difference how many funeral services you prepare and lead on a regular basis. The books on your shelves and the articles in your files do not mean a thing when it comes to losing someone you hold dear.

When I first met my friend (I’ll call her “D”), I was interviewing with the churches I now serve. D was serving as a Committee On Ministry liaison to the search committee. She was fun and feisty and full of energy. She was a strong woman with a clear, strong voice. She was, perhaps, one of the most dedicated Elders I had ever met. She spoke fluent sarcasm and had a wicked sense of humor that matched well with my own. We were fast friends and colleagues.

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The Nearness of the Clouds

An opening in the CloudsJust before Christmas, I preached at the funeral of a beloved church and community member named Wendy. She struggled with cancer for many, many years—far more years than I knew her. We became especially close in the last two years of her life: years which were also marked with my mom’s cancer diagnosis and death. Wendy, my mom, and I all bonded over cancer, death, and the promises of God that we shared.

After such a long battle, Wendy’s death still felt sudden. It was hard to know where to begin with the sermon, although it felt like it should have been easy. After all, not long before she died, she sent me a four page document telling me what to share and what not to say.

Wendy wanted to be sure that I shared how much her family meant to her: her dad and her mom, as well as her husband and children. She loved each of them fiercely and uniquely. Wendy loved people, including more friends than she could name. Of course, I didn’t need her email to know that. Anyone who met Wendy knew that. In the years I knew her, it was obvious that she put others first consistently. Even as she did everything in her power to fight the cancer that had invaded her body, she continually gave of herself: in her classroom, at church, to her family and friends. Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The only difference with Wendy may have been that she loved her neighbor more than herself.

That love for others grew out of love she received: from her family and friends, but also from God. Wendy told me not to say that she was a strong person. Some of us disagreed with that over the years. However, she wrote, “God is who got me through all the years with his strength and by surrounding me with such wonderful people that made me want to stay for as long as I could.” Wendy was strong because her strength came from God, from her faith.

Jesus also said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Wendy loved God and was not afraid to share her faith. She was involved in teaching confirmation for many years. Those were years in which she talked openly about her faith, about what she believed, about her willingness to keep learning and growing, trusting that God was part of her life’s journey. For me, Wendy was part of that great cloud of witnesses referred to in the book of Hebrews. She ran the race of this life with perseverance, looking to Jesus for her strength. And now, she’s still part of that great cloud of witnesses: those who have gone before us, who point us to God.

A few months after her father died, Wendy shared with me an experience she had one evening while driving. She was on the phone but had to pull over because a cloud stopped her in her tracks. It looked just like the profile image of her dad. I told her that I believe the boundary between this life and the next is thin. Throughout the Bible, Jesus says that the kingdom of God is near. And the kingdom of God includes God’s children, in this life or in the next. Wendy saw an image of her dad literally in the clouds but also as part of the cloud of witnesses who reminded her that life is not over even when life is over.

I told Wendy of an experience of mine that she asked me to share at her funeral. My life, too, has been deeply affected by the horrible reality of cancer. My dad died from cancer when I was not quite ten years old. There is much of my life he hasn’t been here for, including the birth of my children, and that brings deep sadness. My oldest child, now six, takes after my dad by having sensitive skin. My dad had been a mail carrier, and the winter was particularly rough on his skin, so he used A&D cream to help. Shortly after my daughter’s birth, when we used this ointment on her, I would hold her close and smell her and think, “Daddy.”  When I snuggled with her six-month-old self, and when she “kissed” me (which was more like slobbers), I felt like my dad knew her and that he sent hugs and kisses for me from heaven.

It’s hard to articulate this. I believe my child is a gift from God, that God knit her together, and that God knows her and loves her. I believe that God knows my dad and loves him, and I believed that before I had children. I couldn’t help but feel like my dad knew my daughter and sent me a message of love through her. Both of them belong to God and are forever connected by that reality. Wendy told me that my story gave her comfort and strength. She knew she belonged to God and would forever be connected to those she loves, even those we haven’t yet dreamed of. The distance between life and death is thin in the kingdom of God.

In life and death, we belong to God. Wendy knew that. Now, she is free of pain and cancer and the burdens of this life as she rests in God’s presence. Her funeral was a day to rejoice in the promises of God: that she has been granted everlasting life. Even so, as Ecclesiastes states, there is a time for everything, including times of tears. There were certainly tears that day and in the days that followed. But none of us walk the journey of grief alone. Jesus lived and died and rose again so that we might live and die and rise with him. Yet God’s promises aren’t just for the dead, but for the living. God’s promises are for us, too. God will be with us, just as God was with Wendy, on this journey through life, surrounding us with people who will share all the bad and good times with us. This is the great cloud of witnesses, who strengthen us to run the races set before us, the cloud of witnesses who invite us to live as Wendy did, loving God and loving others. In life and in death, in joy and in grief, we belong to God. We are God’s beloved children always. I hope that I, like Wendy, will never forget that.

Etched in Stone

13934149385_697e2ac089_bIn the first year of serving my first church, I decided to wander through the village cemetery for the first time. I was on a mission to find a famous person’s headstone. After I had found Jane Addams’ burial place (she founded Hull House in Chicago, a settlement house, in 1889), I wandered around the rest of the cemetery. I don’t remember whether or not I had officiated a funeral yet, but I recall walking down a new row and being jarred to a complete stop. There, in front of me, was a stone that had a couple’s names etched on it. The wife had died already; the husband was a man I visited in the nursing home. I stood there, stunned, for minutes, knowing that I would be the pastor who laid the husband to rest behind that stone.

I had never faced that surety before. It was one of those moments when I knew I was a pastor. The man was frail in body, but passionate in mind. He loved to chat about what was happening in his church and retelling the history of the village. Upon meeting him, I quickly learned that my congregation would lose a huge knowledge base when he left this world. (He had been in town when Jane Addams’ body was returned for burial, he had heard Helen Keller speak, and he had touched Abraham Lincoln’s nose – the one on Mount Rushmore!). In this moment, I grieved that his body would give out long before his mind did. Two years after my moment in the cemetery, I did bury this man. I was honored and privileged to be able to be a part of his life.

Now, I am eleven years into my ministry. My mind flashes back to this today when I am in a different cemetery, looking for the plot where I will bury another faithful saint tomorrow. It’s my first year in this current church, and as I drive around the cemetery I see three headstones with familiar names of living people I have already come to love. I get out of my car and stand at the stone for each name, observing the final resting places of the people my parishioners and I love. Read more


Deep purple, nearly black splotches
Mottle her arms and hands:
She laughs and tells me it took the nurses
Nine tries before getting the needle
Right in her small, wobbly veins.
She remembers when her doctor
took two samples from her husband
instead of trying to get one from her.

She’s amused by her veins.
The stories make me weak.

She’s proud that she’s eaten half
her bowl of now-cold creamed cereal,
though I can barely see a dent.
She tells me suddenly
she wants me to take something
from her china cabinet
the next time I visit her at her place,
anything except the plate
her son has claimed.

My ministry, a collection
of tea cups filled
with stories of dying women.

Then we pray, her hand resting in mine.
She doesn’t echo my, “Amen.”
Is she praying? Has she fallen asleep…?
I hold my breath, then she begins
“Our Father, who art in heaven…”
and my own voice, suddenly caught,
joins hers to another, final “Amen.”

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Summer Time in Corinth

The God of the Wilderness calls to me during the summer. She is a beckoning God. She wants me to abandon all responsibility to praise her radiant glory. She is determined to spoil me with a golden glow and abundant warmth. Alas, she can only distract me from my office window. She is still calling – but so is the blinking light of the church phone.

A message beckons to me from my voicemail, insisting that I ignore the God of the Wilderness that it seems every church member has rushed to worship. As June approached, the members of this small congregation carefully informed me that they would look forward to seeing me in September. They would miss their church, but their [insert summer retreat] awaited them. And so, I wondered, who could have left me a voicemail? If the whole church family has disappeared to worship the Son of Righteousness, who could be calling?

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