“I have a friend who just turned 88, and she confessed to me that she’s afraid of dying
I sit here years from her experience and try to bring her comfort
I try to bring her comfort
But what do I know?
Really, what do I know?
Well, I don’t know if there are harps in heaven, or the process for earning your wings
And I don’t know of bright lights at the ends of tunnels
Or any of these things….”
I love this song. Have for a long time now. It soothes me.
Yes, it’s a song about death.
But it reminds me that I can still help people….and have no flippin’ idea what the ‘answers’ are.
I’ve been ordained since 2001, and over the course of the past 15 years, I’ve performed no less than 96 memorial services. This weekend will mark number 97. Saying this out loud sounds just….weird…..but, I’m good at funerals. I’d even venture to say that they’re one of my specialties.
They’re never easy though.
Death isn’t easy.
It isn’t something we like to think about. When we come face to face with our own mortality, it can, frankly, scare the crap out of us. The thought that I won’t exist anymore is unnerving at best.
People want to know what happens.
Where do you go?
What do you do?
And the answer is – I don’t know for certain.
I used to be ashamed to say that. I was supposed to KNOW. To believe in faith that I knew exactly what was going to happen and what was/is on the other side. To say anything less was to doubt my faith, and for a pastor to doubt her faith was to cause “the sheep to stray.”
Well, guess what?
I really DON’T know what happens when we die…..because I’ve never done it! And I’ve learned that “I don’t know” really is an acceptable answer.
Strangely, working in a nursing home taught me that.
When I left the Army, I went to work for an amazing woman named Maggie in the activities department of a nursing home here in town – mostly, at first, in the dementia unit, and then full time in the “regular” home. I spent a lot of time with the residents, and, though we had a lot of laughs, there would also be some surprisingly deep conversations with the most unlikely of people.
There were these two women, in particular. For the sake of privacy, let’s call them Gladys and Ethel. They were ALWAYS together, even though Gladys often got on Ethel’s nerves, and Ethel could be mean because Gladys was slow. All that aside, though, they were best friends, and rarely did you ever see one without the other.
On Wednesday mornings, we had these church services. Wednesday was my favorite day of the week at the home. It meant church and bingo, and I loved doing both. We’d gather in the lounge and sing old hymns, and they would share their joys and sorrows with one another. Thankful Moments and Prayerful Moments, we called them. We didn’t try to fix one another, but listened and prayed for one another. And then, I’d preach a short sermon about some topic relative to life in the home, and we’d all head off to lunch.
She grew up singing about the glory land,
and she would testify how Jesus changed her life.
It was easy to have faith when she was thirty-four,
but now her friends are dying, and death is at her door.
And what do I know? What do I know?
One morning, after we’d had a particularly painful wave of deaths [they always seemed to come that way – in waves], Ethel piped up during Prayerful Moments.
“Everybody’s dying. And I keep thinking that I might too.”
Nods of agreement from around the room.
It’s a real fear, in the nursing home – when your friends are there at dinner, and then not at breakfast the next day. You’re confronted head on with the reality of your own mortality.
She didn’t stop there, though.
“I think I’ll go to heaven when I die. I hope it will be nice there. I hope George [her long time, motorcycle riding boyfriend] will be waiting for me.”
One of our “younger” gentlemen piped up.
“Thinking about heaven makes it less morbid…..sort of.”
And then, my dear, sweet Gladys pointed at Ethel and said, in her typically very hard to understand voice,
“If she’s going, I’ll go too.”
I sort of chuckled at the time. That was such a typical Gladys response. If Ethel was doing it, it must be okay for her to do too – so why wouldn’t going to heaven be anything less than another adventure?
I left the nursing home in October for a desk job, and I miss my residents and their insights every day. I miss doing the Wednesday church services. I miss preaching. But mostly, I miss their surprising, simple wisdom about things like death.
One of my co-workers lost his father tragically in the blizzard two weeks ago, and asked me if I’d be willing to do his funeral, since he knew my background.
Of course I agreed.
So death has been on my mind this week.
And then I saw one of my old co-workers over the weekend.
She was healthy [well, as healthy as an old person in a nursing home could be]
I’d just seen her the week before. She teased me about my red lipstick and the fact that I was wearing a dress. [I’d come straight from work, and she wasn’t used to seeing me in ‘real’ clothes]
Immediately, that conversation during church flashed through my head.
“If she goes, I’ll go too.”
I looked, wide-eyed, at my former co-worker.
“You know Gladys won’t last without Ethel.”
Two days later, a text.
“You need to come to the home. Gladys is dying.”
I went immediately after work.
As I stood by her bed, softly saying goodbye, singing a quiet verse of amazing grace in her ear, I could hear her electric blue-haired roommate softly singing along from behind the curtain.
I kissed Gladys goodbye, and said softly, right into her ear,
“I’ll bet Ethel is waiting for you. Go ahead and go to heaven Gladys…..”
She died less than half an hour later.
Death can be so inconvenient
You try to live and love
It comes and interrupts
But what do I know? What do I know?
Back at work this morning, my co-worker piped up out of nowhere –
“I wish I knew what happens to him now….”
His dad. The one who died in the blizzard.
He looked at me.
“Chris, what happens? You’re a sort-of pastor. You know right?”
I stopped. Slowly put my pen down and turned in my chair.
“Honey, I don’t. I don’t know what happens for sure. But here’s what I do know. I know that, in my heart, I want to believe that there’s more to eternity than just falling out of existence. I need to believe that. And the god I’m re-learning how to love gives me hope that that’s the truth. I can’t give you more than that. I’m sorry.”
He thought about that for a minute.
“I think that’s enough. Hope. Right? That’s got to be enough?”
That’s right, my friend. Hope. And faith….that’s all we can cling to, because we just….don’t….know…….
Oh, what do I know? Really, what do I know?
Well, I don’t know that there are harps in heaven,
Or the process for earning your wings.
And, I don’t know of bright lights at the ends of tunnels,
Or any of those things.
But I know to be absent from this body is to be present with the Lord,
and from what I know of him, that must be pretty good.
*lyrics by Sara Groves