eternal early this morning. I had the privilege to sit with her again for a short time last night and share prayers both spoken and silent in the company of her family. It was a quiet and dignified death - as befits her spirit - a truly good death as the Spanish poets like to say. Watching family members comfort her, shedding quiet tears together as we remembered stories of her spunky past and quick wit and tongue, is one of the deep blessings of this calling.
It is a sacred privilege to be with people in these vulnerable moments, evidence of pure grace for me, for I know I can never earn nor deserve access to such intimacy mixed with fear and love no matter how hard I tried. For those who share my office, these are times of gift and holy obligation. And while we are always inadequate to the need, I have discovered that when we enter these encounters with open hands and respectful hearts, the Spirit truly does intercede for us with sighs too deep for human words and something hallowed happens beyond our control. In a vastly different context, Jesus told his disciples that they need not worry about what to say because "what you are to say will be given to you at the time, for it is not you who speak but the Spirit of God speaking through you." (Matthew 10: 19-20) That has certainly been my experience over the years - one of the ways the words of Jesus have been true for me - one of the reasons why I continue to trust Jesus in the times when I am confused: he was faithful then, so I will trust him to be faithful now, too.
The United Church of Canada has a way of putting all of this that resonates with me at times like this. Their "New Creed" is as follows:
We are not alone, we live in God's world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come to us in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God's presence,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus,
crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone. Thanks be to God.
It has been almost exactly a year since another of our saints said good-bye to those of us on this side of the great divide and crossed over into God's deeper care. I will be having tea later this week with his beloved wife. That, too, will be sacramental time for me - a true gift of holy love. And, of course, it is four months to the day since my own father passed from life into death and now life beyond death.
I wept calmly this morning when I heard of my friend's death. It was time. She was ready. But I already miss her with an aching in my heart that is palpable. I am grateful for her life. I am humbled by her death. St. Paul wrote to the church in Thessolonica that "we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died." And this, too, is pure gift - a consolation of grace - that I trust by faith. Even our tears are gifts, yes?
As I was leaving the nursing home last night, and we were wiping away our respective tears, I remembered what Joy Davidman told her husband, C.S. Lewis when he grieved her slow dying. Lewis reprises his wife's wisdom at the close of the movie "Shadow Lands" saying: "Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers any more. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I've been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal."
That IS the deal. Today I give thanks for this deal - and this calling - in ways too deep for human words. Being a pastor always has a public dimension to it; I own and respect that, after all, our connection with the people we serve is always a public relationship. That is part of what healthy and honest boundaries are all about. But please never, ever think that being a pastor is a "role." Sure, there are some who play the part, I've seen them and have done it myself from time to time. But as a calling, this is never a role. It is a broken blessing that tears you up inside and binds you to the people you love and serve in ways unimaginable until you live it. It breaks your heart over and over again. And I, for one, have never gotten used to the pain of sorrow and loss no matter how many times it comes into my life. Never.
As odd as that might sound, I have come to know that this heart break is yet another of the gifts of this strange calling. Again, St. Paul says it best:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes* for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.