Friday, February 12, 2010

I will praise you with my dying breath

Some years ago, Gavin McGrath once mentioned in a systematics class (of all places) that the singular greatest honor ever visited upon clergy is the opportunity to shepherd parishioners from this life to the next. “There is no honor greater,” he pounded in to us. I must confess, I have found his assertion true. And I was reminded this magificent day why it is.

One of the spiritual patriarchs of my church is, as we pray this week, changing from glory into glory. Norm is a spiritual patriarch against his will. He would be the first to tell us all that none of this was his idea. Mostly it was his bride’s. Maybe she nagged God into it, maybe it was God's plan all along. He is always humble and self-deprecating in the face of such praise, but, by virtue of his life and tenure, he became a patriarch in the parish of St. Alban’s.

Norm is dying of cancer. He has chosen not to fight it and extend his life two months. He has chosen, instead, to go to hospice. As I was sitting on the couch this morning, we reached a quiet moment in our visit. It was during a quiet moment that a nurse walked in and missed seeing me. “Are you ok, Norm” “Are you afraid of dying, Norm?” “Would you like me to get our chaplain?” “We want you comfortable, and you cannot be comfortable if you’re afraid.”

Norm told her he was fine and that he had a good bargain with his Lord. “A bargain?” she asked. “A bargain.” said he. “What kind of bargain have you made with your god?” she wanted to know (and so did I, I must admit). Norm responded, “I trust Him, and He takes care of the rest, even death.” But Norm was not done. “Do you trust Him?” he pressed. “I’m not sure.” she confessed. “Well, I hurt too much to continue this conversation, but my priest here can help you find out why you don’t and see why you should. Talk with him.” he responded with finality.

After apologizing for not seeing me and repeatedly telling me that she was not trying to kick me to the curb by bringing in a chaplain, I got a word in edgewise. “Do you trust Him?” She confessed that she was not sure. She deals with death on a daily business. Death is ever present with her job. Sometimes the deaths are good. Sometimes the deaths are painful. She just is not quite sure whether she believes that Jesus was and is who He said He was and is, and so she is not sure what to make of death. I won’t relay any more of our conversation. Her struggles are very real, and I think they are best left unpublicized. Those who know me can probably guess at the conversation. Her’s is a hard job without faith. My guess is, if she does not find it, she will be forced to get a job elsewhere in the coming years. Without the hope of the risen Christ, her job is smply too hard to do, day in and day out.

But when she had left, I laughed at Norm. “What?” he asked grumpily. I just smiled and reminded him of some previous conversations where he had explained to me some of his deep thoughts. He shrugged, “I wasn’t worried for me. I was a bit worried for her, but I was mostly worried about all those that she takes care of.” He continued, “If she does not begin to learn that there is no good death and that God weeps at each one of our deaths, she will never be a great caregiver. She’ll just be somebody who gives food and medicine to the dying. She will make the dying worse for her patients, and where’s the hope or fun in that?” “Well, thank you for letting me see that.” I replied. “See what?” he brushed aside my thanks. “The Gospel so well distilled.” He turned away with a “that wasn’t anything big. It was just the truth.” I nodded and said to myself that nothing truer has ever been spoken.

As Christians, we so often stand at the grave of a loved one and sing our Alleluias after they have passed from this life to the next. But every now and then, if we are so lucky and so honored, we get to see the loved ones do the same, before they ever enter their own tomb. And so, this day, I give thanks and glory to God for the life and coming death of my brother Norm. And I give thanks for the grace that enabled him to praise God and think of others, even when death's shadow was so close at hand. And I pray that God will "give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord."


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