John 10:27-28. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.…”
They gathered around her like the small clusters of folks at a cocktail party. Some gathered around her bed at the foot and then moving away to a corner to coalesce in another group that continued a conversation or created a new one. She herself seemed not to notice. Her skin was the color of her bed sheets and her head was tilted back as she struggled for breath with eyes closed shut. The hands that lay on the blanket were darkly veined and wrinkled and showed the result of countless hours of toil. Occasionally the small groups of visitors would have a member peel off and move to the woman’s head and speak into her ears in a voice between a sigh and a whisper.
I stood by the door an ambassador fulfilling my duty to my sovereign in bringing appropriate words of mercy and hope to the dying and hopefully saying something to comfort the bereaved, or at least those who were about to become bereaved. My problem was that I could see nothing resembling sadness, concern or worry. The truth is that I was angry at these chattering, inconsiderate, irreverent, and, to my mind, disrespectful visitors. Had they no regard for the magnitude of what was happening here. This person around whom they were circling was going on that “Long Journey” that the blue grass musicians sang about so hauntingly. This is monumental stuff and they did not appreciate the gravity of the situation.
I thought of Jesus at the home of Jairus daughter, where as Matthew says, “Jesus saw a lot of confusion. People were crying and sobbing loudly. He went inside. Then He said to them, “Why all this confusion and sobbing? The child is not dead. She is only sleeping.” But they laughed at Him”. I always felt that the change from weeping and mourning to ridiculing Jesus was strange but this behavior in this hospital room was very bothersome. I could accept weeping and mourning here but this cavalier detachment was unsettling. Have they no appreciation of their sins and their lost condition and the fact that on the death bed the devil will accuse and excuse us in our extremity and try and get us to despair? Do they not understand that their Grandmother too was a sinner in need of repentance and faith and that perhaps now she needs assurance and strength from their witness?
I remembered the passage from Ecclesiastes that it’s better to go to the house of mourning than into the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart. (Ecclesiastes 7). I took that to mean that the funeral is more beneficial to human beings, because it focuses ones mind on the fact that we are dust and to dust we shall return. It focuses our attention on the fact that all of us are going to die, and that we earn the wages of our sins and need to pay attention to the things that deal with eternal life. Here we stood at a deathbed, and we’re having a party. We stand around the woman who is probably undergoing the pains of death, and the terrors of conscience and we stood around like people do in a cocktail party.
Someone must have noticed perhaps from my expression, or the fact that I was fidgeting and trying to get closer to the bed, that I was not happy. Perhaps my frustration emanated around the room, because one of the grandchildren said something that brought me up short. “You know Pastor, grandma died a long time ago”. Now I really was getting angry. How dare this little pipsqueak who does even understand life presume to speak to me about death? I have heard this kind of nonsense before, from people who want to “pull the plug on grandma, because grandma died a long time ago. Grandma really died when she had her first stroke, grandma died to us when she can no longer recognize us. Grandma died when she had to move out of her house and we took her car away and on and on and on the excuses of those who want to deny the preciousness of life at the end of it. I was about to launch into a soliloquy about the sanctity of life but was brought up short again. “Grandma died when she was baptized”. Now the room erupts- large conversations about grandma’s death and resurrection in Christ and how everyday grandma reminded all who would listen that the life she lived after that death she lived by faith in Christ who loved her and gave himself for her.
“Remember how the notes would come from grandma, especially when we were in college and at the bottom of every note was Colossians 3:1-4? Pastor did you ever get a note from grandma?” The answer was yes and I noticed the sign off from Colossians, but I was ashamed to admit I never bothered to look up the Bible passage and didn’t know what it said. One of the chatterers in the corner quoted, “Since then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things, for you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
“We used to get frustrated because Grandma never gave us birthday presents. Instead we got a lamb cake in the mail. Can you imagine being in college and thinking that you are pretty hot stuff and going to get your mail with your buddies and you get a lamb cake with a Bible verse from your baptism? I have remembered that. No matter where I am or what I do or how successful I am, whatever situation I am Jesus lamb. We each got one of those cakes every year until she couldn’t bake anymore – then we got the cards. Baptism reminders”.
Another pipes up – “Grandma was a saint, but not one of those plastic saints. She had a temper and she talked about everyday going to confession. She called it “mirror time”. I understand what she meant now. My whole life is to be one of repentance”.
I am having my “mirror time now”. I had to come to this place expecting (Hoping for), the pains of death, and the terrors of conscience, and wanting to bring the balm of the Gospel. What I had come to was a room full of life, witness, and Grace. I had forgotten what Luther taught me long ago; that where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation. Jesus is here. This is not just picture language this is real. This is as real as these young people who are participating in the rebirth of a Grandma who already died in Christ. Not only do they live in Christ and Christ in them but their Grandma lives in them through her witness.
“We will have our times of sadness”, one said, “but not now. We will have our times of crying, but not now.” These folks were not trying to avoid the terrors of death, or cover up the terrors of conscience, they were living in the one who gave them life and removed the terrors of death. They were living in this moment in absolute trust in the one who is greater than our conscience and our hearts. This knowledge of Christ was alive in them and carried with them all their life because of the witness of one who by the grace of God understood that Christ is everything.
I offered up an appropriate prayer of thanksgiving for a Good Shepherd that always seeks and find his wandering sheep. I mumbled something about being gently laid on a shoulder and being brought rejoicing home. Then we sang a hymn.