mourning

Now you know, Lee.

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As pastors have for millenia, we gathered around coffee and sugared sweets and gabbed. It was almost time for the pastor’s conference to start, and we all wanted to catch up with old friends.

My phone rang. Not out of the question for 8:30 in the morning, but when I glanced at the caller ID I stepped away from my conversation quickly. These people wouldn’t be calling me at this time unless it was serious.

Hello, this is Pastor,” I answered.

I expected to hear the shaky voice of an older woman or the raspy voice of an old man. Instead, a young man greeted me. “Is this pastor?” Strong voice. Sure voice. Not a voice that belonged in that house.

This is,” I answered.

I’m officer –” I don’t remember his name. When I heard the younger voice, I expected it to be one of their sons or grandsons. Not an officer. I tuned back in: “– wanted to call you, but she couldn’t get her fingers to dial. Here she is.”

And the phone transferred and I heard that dear woman’s voice. “Pastor. Lee’s, um. Lee’s dead.”

I left the conference. I gathered my things and headed out to the car. It would take at least a half hour of driving to get back to their home.

It’s not safe driving through the rain when you’re weeping.

Oh, Lee. Oh, Lee!

This man, even as his body betrayed him, even as his physical form withered, was more of a man than any five others combined I’ve known. His scratchy, raspy voice always smiled, though. I’d come to see him, and he’d always be in his chair, oxygen in, waiting with a smile and a question. “Pastor, how is Gideon?” or “Pastor, where is this in the Bible?” or “Pastor, when will Jesus come?”

And every time I visited, he told me: “Pastor, I always pray, ‘Thy kingdom come.’ And I always do it in two ways. First, I want more people to know him. The children, Pastor. The children. They need to know Jesus. I hurt for them so much.” And he’d stop and wheeze for breath, near tears. “And second, I pray that he comes for me soon. I want to. Can you imagine it, Pastor? Can you imagine feeling Jesus’s arms around you?” And his eyes shone with unspilled tears.

Oh, this man. He knew Jesus’s love so well, and he longed for others to know it. He shared that love. He prayed for others so vigilantly. He asked after others. And yes. He loved.

As I left his home, he would wave me over to his recliner and embrace me. “I love you, Pastor,” he’d wheeze.

I love you, Lee,” I answered.

I told him that last week.

He told me that last week.

And now.

Finally. Finally, I’ve reached their home. I run up the driveway and pass the medical tech on her way out. And there, there is his wife.

His widow.

And we move toward each other and embrace. And we sob. We weep.

This is the family of God. It is not drinking coffee and gabbing on Sunday morning – at least, not that alone. It is not smiles and nods and pats on the back. It is weeping and mourning and sobbing together.

Because death stings. Oh, the sting of death will be removed, yes, it will, but today we are broken together by the curse. Oh, we hurt so much. We miss him.

We hold each other for a long time.

And then we step back and sit and talk. And talk.

I ask, “How did it happen?”

He went last night,” she tells me. “I didn’t call anyone until this morning. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to leave him.”

Oh. Oh, my sister. Oh, how I grieve for you and with you. Oh.

And we talk. I ask her to tell stories she’s told a thousand times before, but needs to tell again in her grief. I tell her stories of how Lee longed to know the feel of Jesus’s arms around him. Of how Lee struggled with guilt but clung to Christ. Of how yes, Christ took his guilt and there is no question: Lee knows what it is to breathe again without oxygen. He knows what it is to dance again, though it has been years. He knows what it is to feast again, though he’d not eaten anything in so long.

We talk for hours. And we weep together. And we laugh together. I hold her hand. We pray.

And Lee. Now you know.

Now you know your Savior’s love fully. Now you feel his embrace. Now you can touch the nail-scarred hands and weep together with the God who loved you even in those sins that haunted you.

I miss you, Lee. I love you.

Lee, you wanted to experience His love. You wanted to know those arms.

And now you know, Lee.

Now you know.

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Two Funerals, an Anniversary, and a Wedding

A funeral on Tuesday. She was baptized in this congregation when it was six years old; on Sunday we mark our centennial. I remember holding her hand, her smile, and her sorrow at leaving her home when her health made it necessary for her to move into an assisted living facility.

On Tuesday, I tell the family the good news: Yes, she was a sinner. Yes, the wages of her sin was death. And yet, Jesus loved her enough to die for her. Despite what you see in the casket, she is rejoicing in heaven. In other words, I preach Gospel in the face of death itself, clinging to Jesus’s promises. I’ll see this old woman again. I’ll hold her hand again. And even more, we’ll do it while rejoicing around the Throne in heaven.

Tuesday evening. I’m about to teach teen Bible study when I get a phone call from my mother-in-law’s number. I figure it’s either something fairly quick and frivolous – “Hey, I’m shopping. Do you have this movie yet?” – or it’s something serious. I decide to answer.

It’s my brother-in-law on the other side. “Hey. Um, dad’s dead.”

I think he’s joking.

He’s not. (more…)

Not Mourning, But Love, Breaks the Heart

“I’ll pray for your dad.”

“Your dad’s in my prayers – and you, too.”

“I’ll pray God blesses your trip.”

Person after person, hand shake after hug after concerned smile, they came.

I announced after church today that I wouldn’t be sticking around for Bible study – probably the first time a pastor has said something like that here. “My father suffered an unexplained paralysis. He’s getting better, but the doctors still don’t know what happened. There’s other complications. So that we get the chance to see him today, I’ll be leaving as soon as we finish shaking hands.”

I paused, looking over the congregation. “But if Dad dies… I know I’ll see him in undying lands under a sky that’s always bright. I can’t say that about the people in our neighborhood. Instead of Bible study, since I can’t be here to lead it, one of our members will lead discussion on reaching out through our neighborhood cookout next month. We want to share Jesus.”

And on the way out, so many of our members and not a few of the regular visitors expressed prayers and blessings on my family. Some of them have met my father; many haven’t ever laid eyes on him. But someone their pastor cared for was hurting; that was enough for them.

And I felt so small. (more…)

To Stand in Joy Beside

“Good morning. Welcome to St. Luke’s.

“Usually I say ‘Welcome home’ here, because we’re a family. We care for one another quite a bit. We’re tight-knit. Last night, one of our family members went Home to be with the Lord forever. Melissa Schwartz was taken to heaven at about seven last night.

“It’s ok for us to cry and to mourn. The Bible tells us not to mourn like other men who have no hope, but it never tells us not to mourn. Don’t cry for Melissa, though. She’s happy. She’s celebrating. She’s partying. Cry for yourself. Admit that you miss her. That’s ok.

“To start our worship today, we’re going to sing a song in her honor. Please turn to hymn 152, and we’ll sing verses one through four.”

And then I walked over to the piano at the front of church… and I played an introduction to “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” that I created. It’s a fanfare, a bombastic piece. On my last note, the organ joined in, and we played together while the congregation sang. I’m told that more than one congregation member was watching the piano – apparently it was literally rocking under the force of my playing.

For Melissa. (more…)

What Awaits

They were married seventy years and two weeks the day he died. She told me today, about a month later, that she was convinced she should be over it by now.

…getting over seventy years of marriage in a month? Mourning a lifetime in just a few weeks? Seriously?

Her children don’t want her sad. They want her to be happy. They’re convinced that the best way to do that is to hurry up the mourning process. Oh, and make sure she’s taken care of. Physically, she’s probably not been better off in quite a while. But mentally… emotionally…

I told her it was ok to cry. I was the first person to tell her that. I told her about Jesus… Jesus knew he was going to see his friend Lazarus again in just a few minutes. He’d told his disciples he was going to “wake Lazarus up.” But when he saw the tomb… he wept. And if it’s ok for Jesus to cry over the death of a loved one, it’s ok for you to cry. It is true we do not mourn like those who have no hope, but that doesn’t mean we don’t mourn. Jesus knew he would see Lazarus again, and soon, but he still wept. You know you will see your husband again… but you still miss him. You have been stung by sin’s greatest weapon. It’s ok to cry.  (more…)