In the midst of life, we are in death;
from whom can we seek help?
From you alone, O Lord,
who by our sins are justly angered.
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and merciful Savior,
deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.
– Media Vita In Morte Sumus (14th century hymn)
The day after Thanksgiving, being both a rest day after the Holiday and my weekly day off, a good friend and fellow pastor called me up. He was out of the state and told me one of his parishioners was dying.
Not much more had to be said, “I will be up there.” Death takes no days off and has only one Risen Master. After all, it is the job of a Pastor to prepare people to die. Perhaps this is one reason why a Pastor in the hospital is either eagerly sought after or perilously avoided. I have been both.
My own Pastor told me this as a young boy, and it is the thought which forms every question I ask and every sermon I preach. I exist to ready you for death and for what follows death: to be brought into the presence of God, whether that be for good or ill.
Within the hour, I found myself collared up and riding the elevator in the hospital. In my hand were my pocket hymnal and my Pastoral Care Companion to assist me through the Commendation of the Dying.
I got off the elevator and began the long walk down the hallway to the dying person’s room. About halfway down, over the intercom, a lullaby began to play; a common hospital procedure to let everyone, and their dying mother, in on the fact that a baby was just born somewhere in the hospital. In the midst of life, we are in death.
I almost paused in my walk as the lullaby went off. My mind quickly flooded with memories of a similar situation a year prior. Back then, one of my members called me up to say his wife had just given birth to their son and they wanted me to visit them in the hospital in order to give a prayer of thanksgiving for a healthy child and safe delivery. I thought back to that day when I showed up, met the new tiny infant, gave a prayer, and began talking about dates to schedule a baptism where we would have their new child be drowned and die and raised up anew in Christ.
I left and was walking to my car when I saw a young girl walking with an older member of my church. They saw me as well and flagged me down. They expressed heartfelt thanks that day for the seeming coincidence to have bumped into me. They revealed how their mother was dying, and it would not be long. “Would you come with us?” I remember them eagerly asking.
Caught completely unprepared in my thoughts as I was contemplating babies, new life and youth, I found myself thrust into the midst of death. Thankfully, I said the right thing to her. “I am coming with you.”
Minutes later I was beside a woman who was seconds away from her final breath. Blood pressure becoming barely detectable, and rattling, growing, shallow breathing. She was no longer vocal but was still lightly squeezing hands. It was not long before the family’s eyes were locked on me.
By what must have been sheer spiritual instinct, I remembered leaning over her, loudly saying her name and who I was. “Irene, my name is Pastor Andrew. The Lord Jesus Christ has sent me here to prepare you to meet Him.” Her hand lightly squeezed mine. I began by singing the first hymn that came to mind: “I am Jesus Little Lamb.” Thankfully, 27 years of being immersed in the Church’s Musical Heritage had prepared me for moments like this.
“Irene,” I began again, “Do you confess that in life you have sinned by your thoughts, words, and deeds?” A pregnant pause, but soon a light squeeze on my hand for several moments. She had been Lutheran for much of her life, and the benefits of this heritage were paying off now.
“Irene, the Lord Jesus Christ has sent me to not only announce the forgiveness of sins in His name that He has achieved by the blood of His cross, but to give that forgiveness to you. As a Called and Ordained Servant of the Lord, and by His authority given to me by virtue of my office, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and the of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
At this point several alarms were going off on the equipment tethered to her because the instruments were no longer detecting what they were designed to measure, she was fading fast. All the doctors could do now was to shut off the alarms, there was nothing almighty medicine could do.
Quickly, I summoned the family together as we all prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Then I said, “Irene, we are going to confess the faith you are baptized into with the Apostles’ Creed. This faith tells you all about who your God is and what he has done for you.”
We confessed those words, repeated countless times in her life, and still yet uncountable in the life of the Church. At the end, I said, “Irene, is this the faith you are willing to die confessing as you stated at your Confirmation?” A very faint squeeze here, the last I would receive.
I read Psalm 23, gave her the Benediction, sang a bit of Amazing Grace, and within the next round of minutes, Irene died. A week later, I was assisting at her funeral.
All those memories churned within me as I snapped back to a different part of the hospital in the present day listening to the lullaby over the intercom. I smiled to myself thinking of Irene, who was indeed prepared. I walked through the door this time to meet the faces of over a dozen family members and the dying parishioner on her bed. I had met with her before, several months ago, so she knew me. A weak smile was on her face as she saw me walk into the room. “Oh Pastor, thank you so much for coming to see me. They are telling me this is it, but I want you to know I am ready. I want to be with my Lord.”
I returned the smile, a wide grin for hearing such an answer and said in return, “LaVerne, I want you to know it is an honor to help prepare you to meet Him and to wait for the Resurrection of the Dead.” I spent the next hour or so preparing her, hearing her stories, having her confess her faith, and helping her family be prepared as well. It is important for them, as well as for me, to see in their dying family member a chance to one day face their own death.
Here is a good thought to pause on: How much do you think about preparing for death? What confession of faith will you one day make? Are you practicing making that confession now? If not, make it muscle memory before you cannot. Are you teaching your kids about death, as well as the hope Christ gives as the One who is Master of Death and, “holds in his hands the keys of Death and Hades?”
If you hide death from yourself and them, then the good news of Jesus Christ is also hindered and neglected. If you hide the enemy of death and the hope of Christ, you will find only yourself; unlike Irene and LaVerne who were both prepared and knew the hope that even in death, the Lord Christ would raise their bodies back to life one day.
LaVerne died less than two days later. A week to the day of her death, I found myself in the car driving a couple of towns over to be at her funeral. In the back seat of the car were my twin sons, now 4 years old. My wife was at work, and I found it good to have the boys along. They are old enough for me to begin fleshing this out to them and recently have been curious about the topic as well.
I told them where we were going and what had happened to LaVerne. They asked good questions. What was death? Were we on the old earth (they know Jesus is coming back to make a new one)? Would Daddy one day die. “Yes,” I said. “Daddy will one day die.”
Of course, what followed next was natural: “Will I die Daddy?” A cruel question for any parent, but crueler still would be to lie or mince words. Such a direct question deserves a direct answer: “Yes Son, you will die. Though I do pray it is many years to come.”
Death is the price we rebels pay, it is the due reward on that day. “But what will Jesus do?” I asked my little boys. Every night we talk about this before bed as they lie down to sleep to prepare for the final night of sleep coming to all. They know this question and answered well. “Jesus will make us all better!”
“Why?” I probed further.
“Because I am baptized in Christ, which means I have the Holy Spirit and new life.” Such a good answer.
“Behold he who believes in me will never die!” Our Risen Lord indeed promises. “Behold if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation! The old is gone, behold, the new has come!” Saint Paul proclaims.
I gave a large smile. “Yes, he will son. Because Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, Jesus will make Daddy, Mommy, and both of you better one day.”
The funeral itself was a good learning experience as well. Going up to the casket to pay respects to the family and view the body. Sitting through the funeral service and hearing a Christ focused message. Driving to the cemetery in the procession and noting to the boys when a truck rudely passed through how you are supposed to stop for funeral processions, especially because it is inconvenient. Death is never convenient. And finally, the coffin was placed on the vault and the final benediction read. The boys were enamored with the cemetery, amazed other people were under the markers around them.
“Will Jesus make all them better too Daddy?”
“Yes, Jesus will make them better too.” They wait for Jesus to come and say the Word and make them better.
“The hour is coming, and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live… Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
Of course, here in this context, to be good is to hear the Son of God and live, to believe in He whom the Father has sent. To be evil is to not hear the voice of the Son of God and die eternally. Woe to those who do not teach others to hear. Woe to those who leave it up to chance and choice.
I noted how my boys were the only children by the graveside, though several had made the trip over. I realized this only when one person mentioned she left her kids in the car when she saw mine. Perhaps she would say she left them there because of the mildly cool day, but I suspect it was just as likely the crushing human finality at the graveside was something she wanted to save her kids from.
I cannot afford that though and my sons cannot afford it. They need to be ready, so when some young pastor walks into their room as they lie on their deathbed they will turn and say, “Prepare me Pastor. I am ready, and I know Jesus will make me better one day.”