Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Joys of Ministering to the Dying, the Greiving and the Soon-to-be-Married

Looking at the date of my last post, I was surprised to see that my absence from blogging has been a whole week now. As a parish pastor shepherding the flock takes first priority, and this past week demanded my all and then some. By this time last Tuesday two of my members had died, and with a midweek service and a wedding coming up that Saturday, it was clear that even sleep would be slighted along the way. I preached five times in a period of four days, with Thursday's evening sermon being rewritten for Sunday on that morning, simply because I didn't like the way it flowed the first time. My wife, who heard it on Thursday, actually said she liked it. But I'm the one that has to preach it, and if I don't have a sense of peace about what I am saying I go back and retool the message. God's Word demands the very best of the preacher's art, time constraints notwithstanding.

But far from complaining, you should know that such labor is full of rich rewards for the undershepherd of Christ. Ministering to the dying and the grieving is among some of the most fulfilling tasks of the pastor. Anne, though lost in the fog of dementia, made the good confession soon after her arrival in Hospice. I heard her clear admission of guilt and clear affirmation of faith in the forgiveness of sins through Christ. The first thing she saw from her bed was a picture of Jesus and the cross on the wall. I am grateful that she died in this little Catholic hospital, for where else could I have hoped to have the very walls witness to the hope of salvation? The text for her funeral sermon was Joshua 23: 14, 15. It is part of Joshua's farewell address to the Israelites. Moses' successor reminded the people that not one of Yahweh's promises had failed, despite the fact that there was no shortage of grumbling along the way. Anne, born in 1913, had lived through at least 6 wars and the Great Depression. Those of us much younger can hardly appreciate the challenges faced by her generation. Yet what a pleasure to be reminded that for nearly 94 years Anne could safely say that all of the promises of God were fulfilled, beginning at the font of Baptism where she was made a child of God in Christ.

Harold's death was a surprise that Tuesday, for his stay at the local nursing home came about after a fall caused a broken arm. Other than that he seemed fine. He had been with my parish for less than 7 years, having moved back to the area after a stay in Illinois where he raised his family. As with so many of the aged saints here, I would minister to him only at the end of his life. Yet paging through the church records, his first steps as God's child unfolded in the ancient pen marks on the brittle yellowed pages of this ancient tome. In 1922 he was baptized, years removed from the crises looming with the Stock Market crash of '29. However, in 1936, at the heart of the Great Depression, he sat in an August hot church facing the stern face of Pastor Zuberbeier along with 17 other young people. The good pastor preached that day on the text from Genesis 28:20-22, which is at the end of the story of Jacob's Dream at Bethel. I used the same text for his funeral on Saturday, emphasizing this great statement of faith in the face of uncertainty and fear. In those early years Harold's world here in Langlade County was reeling from a nationwide economic disaster and successive crop failures. A plague of grasshoppers ravaged the countryside. But these German Lutherans would not give up faith. And neither did Harold. Some 70 later, hunched over from age, he would drive the eight miles out into the farm land from which he originally came, to hear the Word of God. He died in the faith into which he was born.

The wedding that followed this funeral brought a very different atmosphere. From grief and sorrow to joy, it is sometimes hard to make this transition when you preach. Still, we stood before those gathered and recalled how God himself was making the two one in Christ, a union unlike any other human relationship known. The groom serves with the Air Force and is currently based out of Colorado Springs. If his back successfully heals he hopes to one day return overseas, maybe to Afghanistan. My prayers go with this young couple. They will face such mammoth pressures if he is deployed again. I pray their union holds against the struggles of a certainly long separation. Still, they were united in Christ. What greater strength could they have and what deeper source of love, than the Savior himself?

Ending my long week I was once again in the pulpit, but now, however, to minister to my people who came for the regular Sunday service. The text for this message (twice written!) was from the epistle reading in Hebrews 12, especially those verses that talk about the discipline of the Christian life. I couldn't help but think about the discipline through which God was taking me these last few days, honing my skills, driving me to depend more and more on the Lord who called me. The writer of Hebrews was preaching a classic theology of the cross. Too often in the church today preachers want to coddle their listeners instead of preparing them to face the hardships that come with living under the cross. Those who grieved lived under the cross. Their loved ones are in heaven, but they are still aliens and strangers on earth, greeting the glory of their future home from a distance. The young married couple will live likewise under the cross. They face the uncertainties of war. But for all of them God is using their struggles as a means to strengthen them and direct them to the all-sufficient Christ. Through their hardships he is treating them as children. Only illegitimate children, the writer tells us, are left without the hardships of discipline.

And so now I am back to my regular routine, with more disciplining from my Savior. A long list of "must dos" awaits me. But I had to sit down today and write once more. I missed it. I guess it's just too much a part of me now. Thanks for listening.

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