This week was funeral number seven for me. It’s not really that many considering I am a pastor. Funerals come with the territory. But three of those seven were family members. During the funeral yesterday, I was struck with the intense realization that death makes everyone equal. We love. We hurt. We laugh. We cry. Death makes life so much more real and profound.
Over the years, but especially this year, I have discovered some things to be true about death. As a pastor, these are things I wish everyone knew about death.
1. All death is sudden. No matter how long you have been anticipating it, it will still catch you by surprise.
2. People will say stupid things. Forget what they said and remember that they cared enough to show up.
3. Funerals and memorials are for the living, not the dead.
4. Grief is not a straight line. It’s a hot mess.
5. You’re never fully prepared for it.
6. Death brings out the best and the worst in us.
7. There is no such thing as closure. Lines close. Stores close. Relationships transition.
8. Guilt, anger, and regret are all normal.
9. The practice of sending thank you notes after the funeral is cruel and unusual punishment. I have no idea why that started.
10. It’s ok to cry…to not cry…to laugh…to live. You can’t go over it, under it, or around it. You can only go through it. But it does get better…eventually.
We can endure twice the pain if we have one caring person in our life. Find your one person. Then find a few more.
Jim Bakker was a televangelist in the 1980s. He was a TV preacher known for his prosperity gospel with a ministry that reached millions of viewers. Then, in 1987, he was [accused] of raping his secretary. Later he was arrested for fraud and found guilty. In his book, I was wrong, Bakker confessed he had never truly read the Bible until prison. He repented and committed to turning his life around.
I became a Christian in 1992. Although I had heard of Bakker, his ministry didn’t influence me one way or another. After prison, Bakker started touring the country with the release of his new book. I went to hear him speak. It was mostly out of curiosity.
The church that hosted him had a large auditorium that seated maybe 5000 people. There were 500 of us there that night clustered together on folding chairs. Most of the people were twenty years older than me. I looked into their faces and saw doubt mixed with hope. I was there out of curiosity, but they were looking for hope. Hope they had been wrong about how they judged him. Hope that people can truly change.
I remember nothing of what was said that night. And I couldn’t get a sense of his sincerity. He seemed repentant. He seemed like a person who wanted to make amends. But it was as if he wasn’t sure how to do it.
I didn’t discover anything about Bakker that night. But I discovered something about God.
I discovered that God truly desires to redeem all things. And he has placed this same desire in the hearts of mankind.
Here was a man who had betrayed his supporters. Yet, at least 500 of them were willing to take a chance. A handful of people were willing to offer redemption. Now, it’s a far cry from the millions of people Bakker once knew. But redemption is not the same as resurrection. It’s not a re-do, a do-over, or an un-do. Redemption is about us offering up the broken pieces to God to see what he can do. It’s God using our brokenness to create something new and different and beautiful.
Things will never return to the way they were beforehand. The puzzle never goes back in the box the way it came out. The woman’s body never returns to pre-pregnancy condition. And you never step in the same river twice. If we truly want to experience redemption, then we need to let go of our fantasy of the way we were. We grieve. We learn. We grow. And we receive the new and different gift we’ve been offered. We step into our new beauty that came from the ashes.
What needs to be redeemed in your life right now? Are you willing to surrender the broken pieces to God? What is the first step you need to take today to move in that direction?
It was a year ago this week that I rushed my father-in-law to the hospital.
It was my daughter’s senior year of high school; our youngest. I woke up at 5:30 AM and it was pouring rain. We had a 30-minute drive to school (one way) in good weather. So we hurried to gather our things and get out the door a few minutes early. It took 1.5 hours to get her to school and finally arrive at work. But this was our life. We were in a season that included no margin for error. And no margin for emergencies.
I sat at my desk trying to catch my breath. If I put my head down and worked hard, then I could accomplish my to-do list before I headed to pick my daughter up from school. And then the phone rang.
My father-in-law needed someone to drive him to the emergency room. Everyone else was busy or unreachable. In my heart, I was angry. His health had been deteriorating for some time. And it was mostly from a life of cigarettes and alcohol even though he had been sober and smoke-free for many years. The reality was that he couldn’t escape the abuse he had put his body through. But I was certain this was a non-emergency. And I was angry that it had fallen on my shoulders.
My life during that season was chaos. I always felt I was spinning my wheels. And all of our extended family pressures were mounting. It seemed we were in it alone. I know God was with us. But, frankly, hearing people tell me that God was with me made me want to punch them in the face. Go ahead and judge all you want. You cannot heap guilt on me that I haven’t already heaped on myself.
I’m sure my father-in-law could feel my anger and disapproval radiating from me as I drove in silence. When we arrive, the hospital rushed him inside and later transferred him to another hospital downtown because of the seriousness of his condition. Guilt and shame washed over me to replace the anger that had been there. What had seemed so outrageous was really only an inconvenience. I was only thinking about me and my schedule. And it had no margin for error or crisis.
We all have seasons like this in the course of life. Our youngest was in her senior year. I was a pastor with other denominational duties. And we ran a small business. That trip to the hospital was not the end. But it was the beginning of the end for my father-in-law.
I have carried that guilt for a year. I tried to articulate it to God in confession more than once. But I choke on the words. It’s as if not saying the words will make it go away. I’ve been doing this long enough to know the opposite is true. However, I kept stumbling in the darkness.
My father-in-law died three months later. I wasn’t at the hospital that day. It was a Sunday morning and I was at church. My husband made it to the hospital and he was with his dad when he passed. I think it was good for my husband to be there. And we have spent the last nine months learning to live with margin.
It’s been hard unlearning a bad habit. Yet, living without margin is not one bad habit. It’s 10 or 12 bad habits on top of one another all enmeshed. So changing one means changing them all. The initial chaos that ensues tries to tell you it’s not worth it. You want to keep your tangled mess of marginless life and push on. But that day in the ER one year ago? It was my life crying out and pleading with me to start over.
I am far from where I need to be, but I do have more margin in my life now. And I’m still working through the guilt. If my father-in-law was here, then he would tell me he forgives me. He might even tell me that he deserved it because of how he lived his life. And I would tell him he was wrong. I would tell him that his really bad decisions made me take a closer look at my own life.
And that day in the ER? He might have even saved my soul.