Tag: grief

When Death Comes To Our Community

This is the sermon I am going to preach on Sunday, February 21, 2010.  It comes on the occasion of the death of one of our members tonight, Saturday, February 20.

When Pope John XXIII lay dying, the Pope’s physician is reported to have said, “Holy Father, you have asked me many times to tell you when the end was near so you could prepare.”  The Pope replied, “Yes.  Don’t feel badly, Doctor.  I understand. I am ready.”

With that the Pope’s secretary, Loris Capovilla collapsed at the Pope’s bedside weeping.

“Courage, my son.  I am a bishop, and I must die as a bishop, with simplicity but with majesty, and you must help me.  Go get the people together.”

His reply was, “Santo Padre, they are waiting.” — Accompany Them With Singing, Introduction.

Last night one of our own left us.  Earl Hedrick went home to be with God.  I had planned to preach today on angels as God’s ushers, bringing us at death and at the end of time into the presence of God.  And while that might be a subject of great interest to us at another time, I felt today I needed to speak to you as your pastor about death, and what happens when death comes to our community.

This is not Earl’s funeral or eulogy, but because his death came so close upon our gathering here today, and came as such a shock to each of us, I want to take a few minutes today to talk about death and how we as followers of Christ deal with the grief and loss that accompanies death.

Dying Is Part of Our Life’s Journey

We all know we are going to die someday, but the will to live that beats in our chest does all it can to push death away.  We have sought to remove death from our lives, our homes, even our churches so much that when death does come in unexpected and surprising ways, we are struck with its finality and force.

There was a time when death was seen as the shadow companion of life.  Walk through any old cemetery where the grave stones display dates that reach back a hundred or more years.  What strikes me each time I visit an old cemetery is the number of small

Continue reading “When Death Comes To Our Community”

Grief as the surprising companion of cancer

As cancers go, it was the best kind to have, the doctor said.  Basal cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, that lives at the base layer of the skin, but rarely metastasizes to other parts of the body.  The bad news, he said, was that it was in the worst place it could be — in the middle of Debbie’s upper lip.  It would have to be removed.  There would be a scar.  He couldn’t work miracles.  That was only for Hollywood, he said.

Debbie had noticed what appeared to be an enlarged pore just at the bow of her lip.  Early last summer, she noticed a lump inside her lip just under this pore.  Summer was busy, though.  We had Vacation Bible School in June.  In July, my brother died and we made a week-long trip to south Georgia for his funeral.  In August, I spoke at a conference at Myrtle Beach, where we had a few days in the sun.  In October, Debbie went to a new dermatologist because the lump was bigger.

The dermatologist immediately diagnosed the enlarged pore and the lump as skin cancer, probably basal cell.  We were both stunned.  Neither of us had thought about cancer.  A cyst, maybe.  A clogged pore.  But cancer was a complete surprise.  A biopsy confirmed the diagnosis.  Then we had to wait for an appointment with the surgeon.  Debbie had the option of scheduling a consultation with the dermatological surgeon prior to her surgery.   On a November day we met him in his office.  That’s when he told us the good and bad news.  Most of it seemed bad to us.  Surgery was scheduled for December 11.

Last Friday, she went in for what would be called minor surgery by a casual observer.  With Mohs surgery, they don’t even put you to sleep.  She walked into the clinic, then out again four hours later.  The cancer was excised, and the doctor, who is also a plastic surgeon, did a wonderful job of repairing her lip where the cancer had been.  It was larger than he thought it would be, he said.  About the size of a nickel, right on her upper lip.

What surprised us both was the grief that was companion to the cancer.  Our first reaction was shock and disbelief.  How could this be cancer, even the least invasive kind?  It didn’t look like cancer.  Not like all the warning signs of cancer you typically see.  Our shock turned to anger at another doctor who had dismissed the enlarged pore with an “I don’t know what this is, but don’t worry about it.”

And then we prayed.  And read books on healing, and wondered if somehow God would not heal her so she wouldn’t have to go through the surgery.  And we prayed until we could not pray about it anymore.  We had no more words, no ability to sit together and ask God for anything — healing, peace, grace, calm, nothing.  We had come to the end of our prayers.  We had to hope that Paul was right, that the Spirit would pray for us because we did not know how to pray for ourselves.

And we cried.  We cried in our private moments, when we turned out the light at night, lying in bed.  We held each other and cried for the uncertainty, the loss, the fear, and the anxiety.  We wept because we had no words with which to comfort each other in the face of this disease that had crept into our life and now occupied almost our every thought.

We cried for each other when we were not crying for ourselves.  We grieved the loss of this part of Debbie’s body, this part of her lip on which I had seen a million smiles take form and blossom.  We grieved because no one else could grieve for us.  Because all the well-intentioned assurances did not help.

But the prayers of others did help, we believe.  The surgery went well, the doctor was skillful, and Debbie is healing.  Her lip no longer has its Cupid’s bow, as that little curved part is called.  But she’s well, the cancer is gone, and we’re on the other side of this experience.  What surprised us was the grief, whose shadow is just now fading.

I have always tried to visit my members who were facing in-patient surgery, and I have sat with families waiting the outcome of open-heart, cancer, and other types of major surgical procedures.   Day surgeries don’t seem as serious.  Medically, I suppose, they are not.  But few will know the emotional and spiritual pain accompanying those procedures we call ‘minor.’  Grief, however, makes no distinction and visits us at surprising moments of our own vulnerability.  I’m going to remember that, I hope.

Jesus never denied the presence of grief, never dismissed it, but always was present with those in grief.  “Blessed are those who mourn,” he said, “for they shall be comforted.”  I want to be among those who are the comforters, as well as the comforted.

The Call We Knew Would Come

I received a call from the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office at about 9:30 PM tonight.  A very kind investigator told me that my brother had been found dead late this afternoon in the apartment he shared in Atlanta.

We knew this call would come one day.  My brother had a sad history of substance abuse and several run-ins with law enforcement dating back for decades.  He was 55, and died alone.  We don’t know the cause of death yet.

The tragedy is that he was a very talented, sensitive guy who taught himself to play the guitar, the piano, keyboard, and could sing beautifully.  He graduated from college and seminary, and worked for two Christian bookstore chains.  But, he couldn’t get away from prescription drugs, and later street drugs.

As a result of his addiction, he lost every job he ever held, he lost his family, and contact with his two daughters.  He never saw his three grandchildren, never held them, never heard them laugh.  Later in life he was diagnosed as bipolar, which I am sure he was, looking back on his behavior.

But tonight he is at peace.  Despite all his problems, he loved God in the best way he could.  In the last extended conversation he and I had, Dana told me about an interesting book he was reading about ancient New Testament era manuscripts.

Sometime today, we don’t know exactly when, Dana crossed over from this life into the life to come.  Our mother is there, and our grandparents, and a host of others who have gone before.  Some of our relatives shared his addictions, and perhaps that’s where Dana got them, but tonight he’s free from whatever dogged him to death’s door.

Dana had been homeless, living on the streets of Atlanta for the past couple of years, when he was not in jail.  He preferred the streets to homeless shelters where he had been beaten up and robbed, or at least that was his story.  You never knew if you were getting the truth, or another attempt at sympathy.  But he had made a friend in Atlanta, and was staying in his apartment against public housing regulations.  His friend found him this afternoon, dead for several hours, according to the medical examiner.

Pray for my 89-year old father who will bury his youngest son later this week.  Pray for Dana’s daughters, and the grandchildren he never knew.  Pray for me, filled with regret that I could not help my brother, despite many attempts.  Pray for the other Danas who walk our streets, whose inner demons make living difficult, and death a relief.  Their families are also waiting for the call they know will come one day.

How I prepare for a memorial service

A memorial service  should accomplish two things — it should bring comfort to the family, and it should connect with the life of the deceased.  To meet those two criteria, I ask the family to help me by providing these 6 things:

  1. Scripture passages.  I ask if they have scripture passages that hold special meaning for them.  I do not promise I will use all the passages, but they usually give me a place to start in message preparation.
  2. The Bible that belonged to their loved one.  I have asked if the family would like for me to read from their loved one’s Bible. Some do not have a Bible they have used frequently, and I move on. 
  3. Stories. I am looking for stories that characterize their loved one’s life.  These can be funny, serious, spiritual, or everyday stories but they need to capture some aspect of the person’s life.  I always ask if I can share that at the service.  Sometimes people tell you stories as a part of their griefwork, but they do not want them told publicly.
  4. Hymns or songs.  In our community we get requests mostly for  traditional hymns like In The Garden or Amazing Grace.   Some families may select recorded songs that may or may not be apppropriate, but you can guide the family to use music that honors both God and the individual’s memory.  I conducted a teenager’s  funeral years ago, and the family played heavy metal music prior to the service.  I thought someone at the funeral home had a radio on.  I complained to the manager, who informed me that this was the family’s request.  I would have tried to steer them to a more appropriate means of honoring their son. 
  5. Poems, prayers, or readings.  Some families want a special poem, prayer, or reading used during the service.  I try to accomodate those requests as often as I can.
  6. Eulogies.  Often families want to give an opportunity for others at the service to share their memories with the congregation.  I suggest that one or two of these be planned so there is not a long period of silence while waiting.  

If you’re a pastor, you probably have a similar list of helps that you’re looking for when you prepare for a funeral or memorial service.  What questions do you ask?  How do you connect the service with the life of the person being remembered?

Ministry during life’s turning points

At the end of each summer several new families move into Chatham, which is remarkable for a town of 1300 people.  These families are new faculty members at Hargrave Military Academy and Chatham Hall here in our small town.  This year, we’re going to figure out ways to officially welcome these newcomers to Chatham at this turning point in their lives.

In addition to moving, other turning points in life include marriage, family stages, job changes, divorce, and grief.  What is your church doing in any of these areas?  Do you have a ministry story to share about how you are helping others navigate life’s turning points?  Outreach magazine has asked me to do another short piece around this theme, and I’d love to hear from you.  Post a comment, or email me at chuckwarnock [at] gmail.com.  Who knows — your church might be featured in a future issue of Outreach magazine!

Old traditions of a living faith

Typical dress among Old German Baptist Brethren I stepped back in time 200-years today. No, I did not go to a museum. I went to a funeral. A friend’s father died after an extended illness, and Debbie and I attended the funeral today. Our friend’s father was of the Old German Baptist Brethren, and the funeral moved me profoundly.

We got lost on our hour-and-a-half drive to find the Old German Baptist meetinghouse, and pulled into the churchyard just as the funeral was beginning. As we walked up to the church door, I heard the sounds of singing. In unison and without accompaniment, as one great strong voice, the congregation was singing as we entered the meetinghouse. A bearded minister stood at the front of the large meeting room, “lining” the hymn — he spoke the verse, which the congregation then sang. The sound reminded me of vespers at a monastery retreat I took several years ago. Almost a chant, the melody soared and fell in a slow, deliberate cadence that was solemn, but not sad.

Debbie and I sat down, only to realize upon looking around that we were seated on the left section filled with men only. The center section contained families — husbands, wives, children — and the right section of pews seated only women. All the pews faced the front of the room, which could probably seat about 400. One group of pews on the left faced toward the ministers. Deacons occupied those pews, I was later told.

The meetinghouse was well-constructed, but plain — a wood floor, newly polished; white unadorned walls; flat ceiling about 14-feet high; and plain pews with no hymn racks. The rectangular room was lined with pews in three sections, all facing the wall opposite the door. The two entrance doors were on the south wall, the pews faced the north wall, both were the longest walls, so that the congregation was broader than it was deep.

As I looked at the front of the room, there was no platform and no pulpit. The ministers, who are elected by the congregation and are unpaid, sat on two rows of pews facing the congregation. In front of those pews, between the ministers and congregation, was a long wooden table. I had read that the earliest Baptist meetinghouses had a central table around which the congregation was seated. I was witness to that 300-year old arrangement at the Old German Baptist Brethren church today.

After the hymn singing ended — each person carried their own small hymnal with words but no music — a minister stood to speak. Although he used no microphone, his words resounded off the floor and walls with crisp clarity. “This is what a service must have been like 200-years’ ago,” I thought to myself, although the room did have plain electric lights hanging from the ceiling.

The men wore beards, but no moustaches. Their suits were dark without collars, jackets buttoned at the top button only. Plain white shirts without ties worn under a dark vest completed their attire. Women wore dark dresses, with a cape-like design that covered their upper torsos. Dark bonnets nestled in their husband’s black hats, either hung on hooks or suspended in an ingenuous wire hat rack that ran overhead from the front of the room to the back.

The service included two speakers, two or three hymns, two prayers during which the entire congregation — men, women, and children —  knelt on the hard wooden floor, and the Lord’s Prayer followed each prayer. From 10 AM to 12 noon we sang, prayed, knelt, and listened as this funeral “meeting” offered words of comfort, and a community of support.

After the funeral, we drove the short distance to the church-owned cemetery. As we stood by the graveside, brief words were spoken. Then cemetery workmen lowered the casket into the vault, secured the top of the vault, and lowered both into the grave. As they did so, two of the Brethren came alongside with long tamping poles. As the vault was lowered, they inserted the poles down each side, guiding the vault away from the sides of the grave into the center. What followed was remarkable.

The gathered congregation began to sing. As they sang, bearded men in black suits picked up shovels and began to shovel dirt into the grave. These hands were not strangers to work, and as they shoveled, other men holding the tamping rods tamped the dirt vigorously as the grave filled. One song gave way to another as one by one, bearded men and family members shoveled dirt into the grave, and tamped it lovingly into place. Some tears were shed, but most wore pleasant expressions of seeing an old friend off on a long journey. As the grave filled, other men brought rolls of sod, covering the smoothed dirt with green grass.

The hymns ended. A minister spoke of the journey of their brother, a journey that had taken him safely home. A prayer was offered and then another minister thanked everyone for their loving kindness to the family.

As Debbie and I stood among these gentle people dressed in clothes belonging to another place and time, I marveled at how they had gathered to take care of their brother even to the duty of laying his body in the ground. This was a community of faith. A community carrying out centuries-old traditions, but not without meaning. This community gathered from all over the country, as automobile tags carried the designations of many states. They gathered, greeting each other with hugs and holy kisses, to do what communities do — to cry, to pray, to help, to support, to do the work that one friend does for another.

Most of those Old German Baptists were old. Gray beards and gray-bonneted hair were in the majority. I felt we were witnessing the passing of an era. An era when people believed together, worshipped together, mourned together, and rejoiced together. An era when life was simple, families were close, and faith was real.