Tag Archives: Death

Living on the Edge

While life on hospice has become more normal for me, I still have the feeling that I am “living on the edge.”  Today is all I really have for certain and I need to live each day with that in mind.   While my strength is waning a little each day, signs of the inability of my heart not being able to pump blood to my extremities point toward heart failure and I face a heart attack at any time.  I realize that tomorrow may not be mine to live and therefore  make sure to tell my loved ones every day of my love for them and thank them for their loving care for me.  And I try to live each day as fully as I can—not knowing whether I will have another one.     I am blessed that I have this foreknowledge of my condition so I can prepare, as many do not have that foreknowledge. Others are not so blessed.

But as I look at this dangerous world in which we live I think  all of us are in a similar position to mine.   Illnesses strike us down unexpectedly; terrorists set off car bombs or blow themselves up in large crowds;  automobile accidents snuff  out lives quickly and without warning;  we are gunned down by bullets meant for others but we are unluckily in their path or a deranged shooter chooses the  place we are in to open fire —it may be a shopping mall, a movie theater, a school or a church.  It seems that we are not safe anywhere!

The principle is the same or all of us—without warning we and our loved ones lives may be snuffed out.

So when we tell our loved ones goodbye in the morning we need to tell them that they are loved   That may be the last time we have a chance to do so   Death is so final—-it erases any attempt we might wish we had to express our love; to express our need for forgiveness;  to express our own forgiveness to those we love.

That is the life we all live as we are “living on the edge”.   We may not think the phrase applies to us, but it does.   Give your husband, your wife, your children, your mother and father, your grandchildren  and your siblings the love you feel for them every chance you are given  because, like it or not we are all “living on the edge”  every day.

May we build our lives as the French writer Stephen Grellet (1773-1855) wrote:

I shall pass thru this world but once.

Any good I can do or any kindness I can show another human being

Let me do it now.

Let me not deter or neglect it—

FOR I SHALL NOT PASS THIS WAY AGAIN.

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Spring and Resurrection

This February I celebrated my 80th birthday!      I must admit that at times during the year I questioned whether I would make it to that milestone, because my health has been deteriorating.   But,thanks be to God and to the care of my doctors and my wife I am seeing another Spring.     Perhaps that is why I am seeing Spring in a different way this year!   I am reminded  by what I see around me that Jesus told his disciples that a seed must die before it can be brought forth (resurrected) and bloom and produce fruit.    As I was coming home from my doctor’s office today, the flowering pear trees were blooming, the trees were budded and will soon produce leaves, and the somber and stark winter landscape is rapidly becoming green and inviting and beautiful again.    That is the miracle of spring.   That is the miracle of resurrection!

Nature each year goes through the process of death and resurrection, as Richard Rohr reminds us in many of his books.    As part of God’s creation, why should we think we will not go through the same process,  and that after we die we will be resurrected to something glorious and beautiful, just as the trees and flowers that I see all around me this Spring?

Something to ponder…..

Climbing Ladders

There is a drive in all of us to achieve success in our lives.   That is what our ego’s, or as Rohr puts it “our false self” feeds upon.   Seldom do we take time to really define what “success” is.    What is “success” for you?   You will have to answer that question, I can’t.   I have a hard enough time answering  the question for myself!

On my wall above my desk are some physical signs of what might be called success.   Three college degrees (including two Master’s degrees);  Awards of various kinds from both the Education field (Who’s Who in American Education, e.g.)  and the field of Christian Ministry (Minister Emeritus of Christian Church in Kansas, e.g.).   Does that mean I’m a success?   No—it means some people think that I am a success, I feel.

I have pictures in my office of my two children, a boy and a girl.   They are now adults and are doing well—but most important they are loving and caring individuals who are contributing to society.   Does that make me a success?   I’d like to think so,  but who knows but what they would be the same despite me being there to help raise them—-and I have to share any success in that area with my wife who did more to raise them than I was able to do while working two jobs to support my family.

I have a nice, comfortable home in Wichita and a loving wife to share it with after the death of my first wife.   We have two cars and a half-garage full of woodworking tools that I love to use.    My life is comfortable and I’ve had reasonably good health for my age in the late seventies.   Does that make me a success?   It may mean that I am blessed by God far beyond what I deserve, but I do not believe material things make me a success.

Wherein should my feeling of success lay then?    As I write this I am reminded of the words of Thomas Merton:  “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

I am trying, at this point in my life, to lean my ladder of success on the right wall—God’s wall.   The only true success I can strive to attain is in an ever closer relationship to God.    I found at the sudden death of my first wife that all the knowledge and skills that I had were of no value in dealing with an event over which I had absolutely no control.   I turned to God and said:   “Help me God, I can’t do this without you.”   And I felt a peace come over me and knew that God heard and began the healing process of my heart at that point.

Since that time, as God helped heal my grief and led me to a loving caring and Godly  woman that would share my life and become my wife,  I have realized more and more that the ladder to success for each of us mortals is the ladder to God.   The happiness my wife and I feel today is the result of a “God-thing”, we both agree.   So I have endeavored to place my ladder of success on the wall of God.

And the greatest thing about the ladder  to God is that we don’t have to laboriously climb it from day to day with great fear of falling and failing—-instead our God of love and grace comes down the ladder to dwell  with us now; right here,  and will do so forever.    Amen

What’s in Your Tear Bottle?

There is a verse in Psalm 56:8 that says:   “God, you have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.   Are they not in your record?”    This refers to the ancient practice, according to author James Fleming of “collecting one’s tears and preserving them in a tear bottle made of glass, many of which had a bulbous bottom and a long neck flared at the top to facilitate collecting of tears. Some scholars think that the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears at the house of Simon the Pharisee may have actually been pouring out her bottle of tears on his feet.

The Lenten Season is the time when we are asked as Christians to examine ourselves and I would like to examine the question:   What’s in your tear bottle?   

I see Jesus as a man who felt deeply!   A man who cried tears of compassion, of grief, of love, and of anger.   Jesus loved deeply and those who love deeply express deep emotions.   We see in the Gospels that Jesus wept over many things:

  • After his final entry into Jerusalem he wept tears of compassion over Jerusalem as he saw they would reject him and the way of peace that he brought and choose instead the way of a military messiah that would result in their utter destruction by Rome.
  • He wept tears of grief as he saw the sorrow in  the lives of Lazarus’s family—Mary and Martha— at the death of their brother Lazarus.
  • He wept tears of anger at the sight of those who took advantage of the “little ones”—-the poor, the weak, the young, the old, the sick, the outcast.
  • He wept in the Garden of Gethesemane as he prayed that the “cup might pass”—but that God’s will be done.

When I was growing up I was still taught that “Men don’t cry!”   Somehow I never learned that lesson very well.  I am glad to see today that men are no longer embarrassed by crying.   But I’m talking to all followers of Jesus, both men and women when I ask you the question:   “WHAT MAKES YOU CRY?   What makes your eyes tear up?  

Are we, like Jesus, crying tears over injustice, tears of compassion, genuine heart-and-soul tears over the plight of our world and humanity?    Is our crying based on the kinds of attitudes and activities that brought the sting of salty tears to Jesus eyes?    What tears are in your tear bottles?  What tears are in mine?

I’ll go first and tell you some of my answers to this question.   Then I invite you to answer it for yourself.    

  • I cried tears of grief yesterday as I conducted funeral services for a man and watched his wife grieving the loss of a husband of 53 years.
  • I have cried tears of frustration as a pastor when I left the room of an elderly person in a nursing home whose family never visited her and whose life was being “warehoused” by the system .
  • Many years ago as I stood in front of the Vietnam Wall in Washington D.C.—-I cried tears of grief for the loss of all of those young men and women whose names are recorded there and as I think what their lives might have meant to their families and to our society.   And I cry tears of grief for all who have died in Iraq and in Palestine and Afghanistan since then.
  • I cried tears of compassion many times as a hospice chaplain as I talked and prayed  with a patient that had been told their cancer was terminal.
  • I cry tears of anger when I read about the elderly being forced to choose between paying for medicine or food.   Something is terribly wrong with a system that allows that to happen.   And something is terribly wrong with professed Christians who keep quiet about it.
  • I cry tears of compassion and anger when I see pictures of children who have bloated bellies and sticks for limbs due to hunger while the adults of their society are spending the money that might have fed them to kill each other
  • I cry tears of compassion and anger as I see a homeless man or woman going through the trash, or trudging down the sidewalk with all they own on their backs in the cold and snow and rain.   Tears of compassion for the homeless—-tears of anger at a society that would allow that to happen.
  • I cry tears of grief as I see a mind wasted by Alzheimers disease.
  • I have cried tears of joy when as a pastor I united a loving couple in marriage and declared them husband and wife.

Those are a few of the things that bring tears to my eyes.    So—-WHAT DO YOU CRY ABOUT.   FELLOW CHRISTIANS–WHAT MAKES YOU CRY?

I have come to believe that there is a linkage between suffering and love.  They inhabit the same place deep in our souls.    If we did not love, there would be no crying.   We suffer and hurt and weep for our kids late into the night only because we love them.   Kids get home sick when they go away to school or camp—because they love their homes and families.   We shed tears over someone’s death because we love them.   TO NOT CRY IS TO NOT LOVE FULLY!   JESUS WEPT BECAUSE JESUS LOVED.    WHAT IS IT THAT MAKES YOU HIS FOLLOWERS WEEP?

Frederick Beuchner, in “Whistling in the Dark” says:   “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.   They are not only telling you  something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not, God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where you should go next.”

WHAT’S IN YOUR TEAR BOTTLE?   WHAT MAKES YOU CRY?

Hope in the Midst of Despair

Back in the “good old days” (that didn’t seem so good then) of  the late 20th century we seemed to have a “motivational icon” for every decade.   For the 70’s it was a “Smiley Face” with the words “Have a nice day!”.   In the 80’s we sang “Don’t worry, be happy” with Bobby McFerrin.   For the 90’s we were told by Nike to “Just do it!!”

Those days seem to have gone away in the first decade of the 21st century, haven’t they?   We’ve experienced the sea-change of fear brought about by the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon;  executive wrongdoing on a massive scale that cost many their homes and livelihood;  wars in Afghanistan and Iraq resulting in the death of thousands of our young men and women;  the threat of nuclear weapons development by Korea and Iran—our sworn enemies; high gas prices; mortgage failures.   What should the icon be for the first decade of the 21st century?–an “orange alert”?  Taps being played at a gravesite of our young men and women killed in the wars?   a foreclosure sign?  the song “Brother can you spare a Dime?”

The pain and suffering we see  is enough  to drive us to despair and a company called Despair, Inc. has tapped into it to make a buck by selling “pragmatic pessimism”.   For example, they market a glass mug with a line in the middle that says “half-empty”.   Also  lithographs that feature beautiful photos with depressing twists, such as a photo of a dark sunset with the saying:  “DESPAIR:  It is always darkest just before going pitchblack! ”  or a photo of a lightning storm, saying:   “PESSIMISM:   Every cloud has a silver lining, but lightning kills hundres of people each year who are trying to find it”

Despair, Inc. has tapped into a truth that all of us know and few of us want to admit—Pain and suffering is a grim reality for human beings.   It is part of the human condition.

In my work as a hospice chaplain I saw a lot of pain and suffering along with valiant attempts to alleviate it by palliative care specialists every day.   We all know that no amount of wealth, no measure of security, no low-fat, oat-bran diet can defend us against suffering, pain and eventually death.   At birth there is the knowledge that this new life will eventually end.  Good or bad, rich or poor, we know that pain and death are just a word, a mistake, an accident or an illness away from us all.    Depressing?  Exactly!   Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide with over 9 percent of Americans affected by it every year.

We’ve all known some amount of despair, haven’t we?    It happens in times of stress like a move, a job loss, an extensive illness, a loss of a loved one through divorce or death, an economic downturn or a natural disaster such as hurricanes, floods, forest fires.    While this despair usually lifts in time it is very stressful at the time and can leave us broken and in fear of our very lives—feeling like we have been abandoned by God.

This is not just a 21st century feeling—-it is part of the human condition and has been with us through the ages.   We see it in Psalm 22, our text today,  written hundreds of years before the birth of the Christ.   The Psalmist feels he is surrounded by enemies, broken in body, and spirit.  He cries out for help with the words:   “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”   In the midst of pain and impending death the psalmist seeks the intimacy of a relationship with God, but God seems so far away from helping him.   However he remembers that God HAS been a help for others and for his nation in the past; but just now he feels he is surrounded, tortured, and almost dead.   He hears the sarcastic taunts of his enemies ringing in his ears, “He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him” (v.8).   No wonder he asks  WHY?

When we our those we love are in pain or are suffering, we also want to know “WHY?”    I remember a hospice patient, a man in his late 40’s dying of MS who told me:   “Chaplain, when I see God after I die I have only one question for God:   WHY!!!

But when we cry out for answers to the “WHY?” question we seldom receive them.   Perhaps it is because we are asking the wrong question.   THE QUESTION SHOULD NOT BE “WHY?”   but “WHO?

Although God may not answer the “why question,   God is not silent.   Someone has said “What God whispers to us in our pleasure, he shouts to us in our pain”.   And what God shouts is:  “I am here for you!   I will help you through this time!  Trust me!

This is what the Psalmist acknowledges.   This is what Jesus acknowledged on the cross when he said:  “Into your hands I commend my spirit” right before his death.   The answer to pain and suffering is not in the “why” but in the “Who”.  God will be with us if we trust in God’s presence.   And as Paul says:   “If God is for us, who can be against us?”   If we draw near to God he will draw near to us.

I love the words of a hymn that tells us this.   “I was there to Hear Your Borning Cry”.

I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old.

I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold.

I was there when you were but a child, with a faith to suit you well;

In a blaze of light you wandered off to find where demons dwell.

When you heard the wonder of the word, I was there to cheer you on;

You were raised to praise the living God, to whom you now belong.

When you find someone to share your time, and you join your hearts as one;

I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme from dusk till rising sun.

In the middle ages of your life, not too old, no longer young.

I’ll be there to guide you through the night, complete what I’ve begun.

When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes,

I’ll be there as I have always been, with just one more surprise.

I was there to hear your borning cry.  I’ll be there when you are old.

I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold.    Amen.

Life can change in an Instant…

     Life can change in an instant!    In the Summer of 2010, my wife and I spent a sunday evening planning what we would do when I retired from the interim ministry the next Sunday.   We planned a trip to California; to explore the area around our new home in Wichita; to take some day trips in Kansas and to go to other places.   I went to bed with these thoghts in mind.   About an hour later, as my wife came to bed, somehow she stumbled at the head of the stairs and even with the stairlift in the way, fell headlong down the stairs and sustained a life-ending brain bleed.   A week later she died—never regaining consciousness.

In an instant, our lives changed forever!

   I could not avoid thinking of unpredictability of life  as I read the headlines today about the airliner crash in San Franscisco.   182 injured, 2 deaths.   I thought about how a few i nstants before the crash some passengers were anticipating reunions with loved ones; some were looking forward to a great vacation in the states; some were perhaps here to begin college, or to start a new job—or were just coming back home!

In an instant, anticipation of happy events changed to pain or death.  In an instant!!

     This life is unpredictable  isn’t it?   Too often we forget this and are like the man in the paraable Jesus told about the farmer whose crops were so good that he built bigger and bigger barns to store them in.   Then he sat down and said:   “Soul, eat drink and be merry!”

     Jesus called him a “fool”.   He said:  “You fool, tonight your life will be required of you and then who will have all of these riches you have stored up?”

     We never know how long we will enjoy this life, so it is better to “build up treasures in Heaven, where moth and rust do not corrupt, and thieves do not break in and steal” Jesus told his listeners.   Life is fleeting.   Enjoy and be thankful for what and who you have in your life today, for there are no guarantees for tomorrow!

     And be sure that God is in your life today, so that tomorrow will always be assured to you as a treasure in God’s Kingdom.