Watching Souls Depart

I drove past the Hospice unit with my blinker flashing, planning to turn in and check on a congregant. It’s funny how quickly a habit becomes ingrained; he had only been there a week. Perhaps it was a hangover from so many other occasions when I’d touch base with a family holding vigil in the unit.

Then, I remembered. He passed this morning. It was a blessing for him and the family. The wait was over, the questions of pain and discomfort off the table. Gratefully, in this case, his salvation is assured by every measure a church can apply (behavior, charity, profession, baptism, etc.).

I did not wish that vigil on the family, or my friend. As breathing slows, the room is reduced to counting breaths, enduring painful seconds after each waiting for the next, when hope pinballs among lofty goals — I pray for the end; I pray for another; I pray for a miracle.

That body is the touchstone to a particular soul, like a pile of oil-stained rocks made sacred as an altar in Bethel. At the bedside, we can express appreciation, extol the goodness of God, share fond memories, and pray fervently for spiritual peace. Uncertain though we may be whether the soul hears any particular word, we are absolutely certain that we are in physical earshot, and maybe, just maybe, our words can bring the soul some comfort and assurance for the journey.

The stones at Bethel are lost among the stones, the oil washed away and the sacred spot profaned. My friend is gone, his room cleaned and set in order for the next vigil. The air, once heavy with pain and soaring faith, has been cleared, sanitized and freshened. I’m happy for my friend. I miss our time together, even the time we shared in this borrowed sacred space.

I look back on dozens of times when the cycle was repeated. Another opportunity to serve has ended. Nowhere else are prayers delivered with such boldness. Nowhere else is salvation so certain or grace so amazing. But the altar, that physical place where we meet with the spiritual, has lost its power. The body is laid to rest.

I serve an elderly congregation, so I’m no stranger to this cycle. Too often I am called to address the spiritual at earthly temples far younger, though just as worn. It’s a different dynamic than a case of sudden loss, where words must reach beyond the empty remnant of what used to be a temple.

I’m familiar with pastoral counseling to persons nearly or totally unresponsive. Too often, I’m called upon to convince a soul that it’s time to abandon this earthly shell. I’m called upon to use what is visibly fading away to point to the invisible certain and eternal.

Church, consider your pastors. You’ve lost parents, children, friends. Decide for yourselves what your pastors have lost — not parents or children, but if not friends at the beginning of that cycle, then certainly that, or something, at its end. We invest sacred time and words, we see the soul, and we see it struggle to stay or depart. We beg God to heal a spirit whose body is beyond repair. As the years pile up, we do this not just several times, but score after score, losing mental track when the number approaches a hundred or so.

It is wonderful. It is a glorious opportunity to touch the Divine. Anyone who has served this duty without trauma will profess that it is humbling, and an honor. But it comes wrapped in sadness and frustration. And when it’s over, we move on to funerals, eulogies, and bereavement counseling not just for families, but also for friends you never knew your loved one had.

Is your pastor distracted? Frustrated? Ineffective? Aloof? Perhaps her mind is on the magnificent pain of watching soul after soul fighting to stay or be free. Perhaps it’s on the anticipated next event, on what to say to the dying, their families, or to God. Perhaps the pastor’s thinking about how to isolate from yet another painful goodbye, or struggling with the guilt of even having such a thought.

The family is entitled to mourn, publicly and privately. The pastor does so as proxy for those who aren’t as free to express pain, doubt and faith. But the pastor is not similarly entitled.

It’s all just part of the job, right? But it’s a part of the job that we dare not dismiss as just another fact of life. This is not just another anything. It is a person, a beloved one, a unique creation of God. We see the sacred. We feel at least some of the pain. We address the uncertainty. We share a sense of loss.

How glorious it is to watch a soul soar from the temple to the Creator. How tragic it is to lose another friend. Only a peace that passes understanding can enable us to mourn with those who mourn. But try as we might to rest on that peace, there may be more comfort in knowing that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, thus giving us permission to weep as well.

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Shouting Hosannah

I can’t believe I’m losing my voice! Here comes Holy Week, Palm Sunday and Easter, two Sundays of high attendance where peak performance in preaching is the order of the day. I can’t believe I’m losing my voice!

My voice is reduced to a whispering croak. If you know me, you know I’m a shouting preacher, a stump-standing, Bible-thumping screamer of a preacher. It’s what the congregation has come to expect, some drawn to it and the rest resigned to live with it. You bring your friends and relatives to hear that crazy preacher, especially on Easter, and you know that even the hard of hearing will get the message from this guy. I can’t believe I’m losing my voice!

What was it? The shouting an acoustic sermon or full-bellied singing on Saturday night? Was it all the hours on the telephone or those two-hour counseling sessions? Was it those private shouts of frustrated wailing to God for relief from the conflict of a growing, changing congregation? Maybe it was shouting across the table at the board meeting, or across the parking lot to greet departing worshippers. Maybe I picked up a bug in the hospital as I prayed for the sick and dying. Maybe. Maybe.

Here it comes: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Easter, and maybe a funeral thrown in. I’ve virtually given up singing, mouthing the words to the doxology as I wait for the offering plates to be delivered down the aisle for yet another shouted prayer of blessing. I’d give up talking for a few days, but a good friend is dying, and he couldn’t hear well when he was wide awake. I’ll be loudly praying and recounting his story of salvation, giving his testimony to family and friends from out-of-town, leading prayer circles with the verve it takes to express my confidence in his eternal reward.

Then, I’ll shout to the glory of God on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Easter — if I have a voice left. I can’t believe I’m losing my voice!

My mind takes me back to that Palm Sunday parade, a disciple shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosannah in the highest heaven!” We scream at the top of our lungs, reveling as our rebellious shouts launched from the hillside bounce back off the walls of Jerusalem. “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” we shout to the curious, then return to our accolades, trying to convince the city, and perhaps ourselves, that THIS is the Chosen One!

We’ll spend a week arguing with Temple authorities, trying to control the crowds around our beloved Rabbi, debating with Pharisees and loudly rebuking our Lord. “This will not happen to you, Lord!” “Who would dare betray you, Lord?” “Surely not I, Lord?”

We’ll sing a rousing hymn and follow Jesus to the Garden, where we’ll nap, then wake our sleep-stilled voices trying to shout down the soldiers who come with Judas to the garden at night. When the crowd yells, “Give us Barabbas! Release Barabbas!” our rattled cries of “No, Jesus! Set him free!” will barely be heard. When the crowd yells, “Jesus? Let him be crucified!” Our shreaks of objection will be barely audible.

We’ll lose the last vestige of voice sobbing at the sight of our dying Rabbi, weaping in shame and beating our breasts in remorse. By the time sun sets and the body is laid to rest, we’ll have no words left.

I can’t believe I’m losing my voice!

There will be no need for words until the third day, when we will be too amazed and bewildered to shout. Perhaps that’s the plan, to let us rest from our misery so that we can rejoice again when the truth sets in, until at last at Pentecost we find our voices and proclaim the glorious story to all the world.

Yes, I’m losing my voice, just in time for Palm Sunday. It will be appropriately pained for Maundy Thursday. I can only pray it will be adequately restored as befits the excitement of Easter, when we will baptize seven and likely bring many more into the church.

If salvation depends on the ranting of one shouting preacher, we’re in trouble. Fortunately, it doesn’t. Sometimes the gentle conversation of a church is all it takes. Perhaps it takes nothing beyond a pained, “Father, forgive them! They know not what they do.” from a lofty perch on Calvary hill.

I want the church to hear my voice this Easter, but that’s just ego talking. What they need to hear is God’s voice in the life that shouts across the ages the love of God and the lengths to which God was willing to go to restore the family.

I can’t believe I’m losing my voice! Fortunately, God found a voice two thousand years ago in the outskirts of Jerusalem. Even as my words fade this Easter, I pray that the Word of God rings more loudly than ever in the hearts of the church.