Life is a Miracle. Death is a Mystery.

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A longtime friend of Terry’s and mine, Doreen Bohrer, passed away last week. She was a pastor’s wife, talented musician, great polka dancer, dedicated educator, and gifted administrator. She loved the Lord, loved life, and loved her family.

Her memorial service was held earlier this week at Christ Lutheran Church in Austin. A good friend of mine, Dr. Bill Knippa, preached and led the service. I was also invited to participate by reading scripture, leading the prayers, and offering these pastoral comments:

It’s never easy to lose a loved one, either after a long illness or unexpectedly and inexplicably. Death is a part of life. Old Testament King David said: “We are here for only a moment, visitors and strangers in the land as our ancestors were before us. Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace.” 1 Chron. 19:14-15

Who can understand the miracle of life and the mystery of death? Life is a miraculous co-mingling of systems: circulatory, digestive, endocrine, exocrine, lymphatic, muscular, nervous, renal, reproductive, respiratory, and skeletal, each working with the others to sustain in the body what we call life.  

Death is a deep, dark mystery. One moment a person is warm, animated, conversant, mobile, alive. The next moment the body of that same person is cold, still, silent, vacant, dead. A beautiful woman or handsome man in a casket deteriorates into a pile of dust and a box of bones or is reduced in a cremation furnace into only a pile of ashes. Death is a reality of life that awaits us all. 

The most helpful insight I’ve ever heard about life and death came from Terry’s and my own daughter. When she was three years old, little Angie asked the thoughtfully perceptive question: “Daddy, when a person dies does he take off his body?”

For a moment I was completely stumped! After reflecting and recovering, I replied: “Yes. That’s exactly what happens when a person dies.” To this day, over 45 years later, I still turn to that insightful understanding when death occurs.

To me, the most easily understandable explanation of life is that everyone has a body in which that person’s soul or spirit, that person’s real being, resides as long as he or she is living on this earth. When death occurs, that person’s soul or spirit leaves the body and moves on. Angie had it right. The person who dies takes off his or her body and leaves it behind.

That’s what’s in the box in this sanctuary – the physical body inherited and inhabited by the soul, the spirit, the real being, the true essence of the woman we knew and loved. That body was baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That body was the home of a soul redeemed by the blood of Christ. That body was the temple of the Holy Spirit. That body contained the woman who lived her life as both saint and sinner.

Where has that real being gone, the soul or spirit that animated her body for over 79 years? Jesus answers that question: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

The real being that resided in this body has gone out of this world to eternal life in heaven. Eternal means everlasting, undying, perpetual, endless, ceaseless, timeless, infinite, immortal, never ending.  

It’s hard to comprehend how someone can go on living or existing forever, in a place where the pain and problems of this earth no longer exist. But that’s the promise of God, through Christ our Lord.

Believing that promise gives me hope. And I pray it gives hope and comfort to each of you as well!

Doreen had taken time in advance of her death to plan her memorial service. It’s tough for family to try to guess what their departed loved one might have wanted. Taking care of those important details is a great relief to an already grieving family.

We at Legacy Deo have a Funeral Planning Guide – Celebrating  Victory in Christ – available to you at no cost. Request your electronic or printed copy by emailing me GBJK@LegacyDeo.org.

God bless your day!

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Answered Prayers and Unknown Angels

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This is purported to be a true story by an author named Catherine Moore, found in my file. It’s longer than my normal articles, but worth the time to read. It was untitled, so I created the title above.

“Watch out! You nearly broadsided that car!” My father yelled at me, “Can’t you do anything right?”

Those words hurt worse than blows. I turned my head toward the elderly man in the seat beside me, daring me to challenge him. A lump rose in my throat as I averted my eyes. I wasn’t prepared for another battle.

“I saw the car, Dad. Please don’t yell at me when I’m driving.”

My voice was measured and steady, sounding far calmer than I really felt. Dad glared at me, then turned away and settled back. At home I left Dad in front of the television and went outside to collect my thoughts. Dark, heavy clouds hung in the air with a promise of rain. The rumble of distant thunder seemed to echo my inner turmoil. What could I do about him?

Dad had been a lumberjack in Washington and Oregon. He had enjoyed being outdoors and had reveled in pitting his strength against the forces of nature. He had entered grueling lumberjack competitions, and had placed often. The shelves in his house were filled with trophies that attested to his prowess.

The years marched on relentlessly. The first time he couldn’t lift a heavy log, he joked about it. But later that same day I saw him outside, alone, straining to lift it. He became irritable whenever anyone teased him about his advancing age, or when he couldn’t do something he had done as a younger man.

Four days after his sixty-seventh birthday, he had a heart attack. An ambulance sped him to the hospital while a paramedic administered CPR to keep blood and oxygen flowing.

At the hospital, Dad was rushed into an operating room. He was lucky; he survived. But something inside Dad died. His zest for life was gone. He obstinately refused to follow doctors’ orders. Suggestions and offers of help were turned aside with sarcasm and insults. The number of visitors thinned, then finally stopped altogether. Dad was left alone.

My husband Dick and I asked Dad to come live with us on our small farm. We hoped the fresh air and rustic atmosphere would help him adjust.

Within a week after he moved in, I regretted the invitation. It seemed nothing was satisfactory. He criticized everything I did. I became frustrated and moody. Soon I was taking my pent-up anger out on Dick. We began to bicker and argue.

Alarmed, Dick sought out our pastor and explained the situation. The clergyman set up weekly counseling appointments for us. At the close of each session he prayed, asking God to soothe Dad’s troubled mind.

But the months wore on and God was silent. Something had to be done. It was up to me to do it.

The next day I sat down with the phone book and called each mental health clinic listed in the Yellow Pages. I explained my problem to each of the sympathetic voices that answered in vain.

Just when I was giving up hope, one of the voices suddenly exclaimed, “I just read something that might help you! Let me go get the article.”

I listened as she read. The article described a remarkable study done at a nursing home. All of the patients were under treatment for chronic depression. Yet their attitudes had improved dramatically when they were given responsibility for a dog.

I drove to the animal shelter that afternoon. After I filled out a questionnaire, a uniformed officer led me to the kennels. The odor of disinfectant stung my nostrils as I moved down the row of pens.

Each contained five to seven dogs. Long-haired dogs, curly-haired dogs, black dogs, spotted dogs, all jumped up, trying to reach me. I studied each one but rejected one after the other for various reasons – too big, too small, too much hair. As I neared the last pen, a dog in the shadows of the far corner struggled to his feet, walked to the front of the run and sat down. It was a pointer, one of the dog world’s aristocrats. But this was a caricature of the breed.

Years had etched his face and muzzle with shades of gray. His hip bones jutted out in lopsided triangles. But it was his eyes that caught and held my attention. Calm and clear, they beheld me unwaveringly.

I pointed to the dog. “Can you tell me about him?” The officer looked, then shook his head in puzzlement. “He’s a funny one. Appeared out of nowhere and sat in front of the gate. We brought him in, figuring someone would be right down to claim him. That was two weeks ago and we’ve heard nothing. His time is up tomorrow.” He gestured helplessly.

As the words sank in I turned to the man in horror. “You mean you’re going to kill him?”

“Ma’am,” he said gently, “that’s our policy. We don’t have room for every unclaimed dog.”

I looked at the pointer again. The calm brown eyes awaited my decision. “I’ll take him,” I said.

I drove home with the dog on the front seat beside me. When I reached the house I honked the horn twice. I was helping my prize out of the car when Dad shuffled onto the front porch. “Ta-da! Look what I got for you, Dad!” I said excitedly.

Dad looked, then wrinkled his face in disgust. “If I had wanted a dog I would have gotten one. And I would have picked out a better specimen than that bag of bones. Keep it! I don’t want it!” Dad waved his arm scornfully and turned back toward the house.

Anger rose inside me. It squeezed together my throat muscles and pounded into my temples. “You’d better get used to him, Dad. He’s staying!”

Dad ignored me. “Did you hear me, Dad?” I screamed. At those words Dad whirled angrily, his hands clenched at his sides, his eyes narrowed and blazing with hate. We stood glaring at each other like duelists, when suddenly the pointer pulled free from my grasp. He wobbled toward my dad and sat down in front of him.

Then, slowly, carefully, he raised his paw.

Dad’s lower jaw trembled as he stared at the uplifted paw. Confusion replaced the anger in his eyes. The pointer waited patiently. Then Dad was on his knees hugging the animal.

It was the beginning of a warm and intimate friendship. Dad named the pointer Cheyenne. Together he and Cheyenne explored the community. They spent long hours walking down dusty lanes. They spent reflective moments on the banks of streams, angling for tasty trout. They even started to attend Sunday services together, Dad sitting in a pew and Cheyenne lying quietly at his feet.

Dad and Cheyenne were inseparable throughout the next three years. Dad’s bitterness faded, and he and Cheyenne made many friends. Then late one night I was startled to feel Cheyenne’s cold nose burrowing through our bed covers. He had never before come into our bedroom at night.

I woke Dick, put on my robe and ran into my father’s room. Dad lay in his bed, his face serene. But his spirit had left quietly sometime during the night.

Two days later my shock and grief deepened when I discovered Cheyenne lying dead beside Dad’s bed. I wrapped his still form in the rag rug he had slept on. As Dick and I buried him near a favorite fishing hole, I silently thanked the dog for the help he had given me in restoring Dad’s peace of mind.

The morning of Dad’s funeral dawned overcast and dreary. This day looks like the way I feel, I thought, as I walked down the aisle to the pews reserved for family. I was surprised to see the many friends Dad and Cheyenne had made. The pastor began his eulogy. It was a tribute to both Dad and the dog who had changed his life.

Then the pastor turned to Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it.” “I’ve often thanked God for sending that angel,” he said.

For me, the past dropped into place, completing a puzzle I had not seen before: The sympathetic voice on the phone that had just read the right article; Cheyenne’s unexpected appearance at the animal shelter; his calm acceptance and complete devotion to my father; and the proximity of their deaths.

And suddenly I understood. I knew that God had answered my prayers after all.

Now you know why I titled this story “Answered Prayers and Unknown Angels.”

God bless your day!

One of the Two Certainties in Life

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Yep. That’s right. Taxes. By the way, in case you didn’t know or recall, the other certainty is death. But today I’ll talk only about taxes.

April 15 is the traditional deadline for filing Internal Revenue Service Federal Income Tax returns. This year it’s April 17. So if you haven’t done yours yet, it’s time to git ‘er done! Or file for an extension, which allows additional procrastination till October 15. But you can only delay filing your return till then. You’re still legally obligated to pay estimated taxes by April 17.

We often hear people complain about paying taxes. On the one hand, it’s not exactly my favorite duty either. On the other hand, notwithstanding imperfections and abuses, the taxes we pay support the life, safety, and freedom we enjoy in these United States. Compared with life in many other countries of the world, the blessings and benefits we enjoy make filing and payment of taxes worthwhile.

Some of the complaints most often heard have to do with the inefficiency and corruption of tax revenue distribution and expenditure. While some of those perceptions are reality, others are not well founded. The challenge is to discern which is which, a task not easily accomplished by the ordinary U.S. citizen. Accordingly, for example, some simply criticize government entitlement programs in general.

Even Winston Churchill is quoted as having said: “We contend that for a nation to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket trying to lift himself up by the handle.”

Be that as it may, at tax time I’m always reminded of the question asked of Jesus by certain scribes and chief priests in biblical times who were trying to discredit or destroy him: “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Their plot was this. If Jesus said no, he would be considered a rebel by Pontius Pilate, governor (also known as procurator or prefect) of the Roman province of Judaea. If Jesus said yes, he would be accused of supporting the foreign rule under which Jews lived.

The answer Jesus gave, while looking at a Roman coin with the image, most likely, of Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar, was: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

So as you prepare to pay your taxes every year, don’t forget about your duty, privilege, joy, and still tax deductible opportunity (if you itemize your deductions) to “give to God what is God’s.”

That’s the primary reason I’m still working past normal retirement age. Terry and I love to give, joyfully and generously! If you haven’t yet made that discovery, try it. You’ll like it! In a special way, discovering the blessing of joyful generosity prepares a person for both the certainties in life!

The Precious Gift of Life

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“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” That’s how the book of Genesis describes the beginning of life on earth.

Since the time of creation, mankind has survived tragedy and trauma, death and devastation. People have experienced joys and sorrows, blessings and difficulties, victories and defeats.

Through it all, the precious gift of life has been passed from one generation to another. The normal cycle of life is for babies to be born and for old people to die. But things don’t always happen as predictably as that.

This week Terry and I attended a memorial service for the daughter of a longtime friend, Nita Horn. I buried Nita’s husband 33 years ago. In the past few years she’s also lost her son, son-in-law, and daughter. That’s not the way things are supposed to be, even for a 90 year old.

Also consider the seemingly countless number of recent incidences of unexpected violence. Yet another one occurred this past Sunday at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Like many of the 3,000 small towns in Texas, Sutherland Springs was virtually unknown until last Sunday. Now this small community about 30 miles east of San Antonio is etched into the memories of people around the world, all because of the demonic act of one man who killed 26 people in a church. Many of them were children, with most of their expected life ahead of them.

In all cases where life is lost, especially unexpectedly, I’m struck anew by the precious gift of life and how fragile that gift really is. So take a moment to call, write, or in any way possible to tell someone you love how precious he or she is to you. And thank God for bringing that person into your life.

Pearl Harbor and Hacksaw Ridge

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As you’ve no doubt gathered by now, the decision was made earlier this week to continue with another volume of Perspectives articles. Thank you for the encouragement expressed by so many of you for me to keep writing. It’s not a simple chore, so I do appreciate your appreciation!

This past weekend Terry and I watched two movies at home. Pearl Harbor was produced in 2001 with Ben Affleck as Capt. Rafe McCawley, a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot who bravely responded to the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Hacksaw Ridge was directed by Mel Gibson and released in 2016 with Andrew Garfield as Pfc. Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who was ostracized by fellow soldiers for refusing to bear arms. In the Battle of Okinawa Doss risked his life, unarmed, to save 75 men.

Both films graphically and gruesomely show horrific realities of war. One such reality, in real life and also in cinematic portrayal, is the traumatic injury and death inflicted upon young men. Many are still teenagers anxious to serve their country yet unprepared for the powerful persistence of the enemy.

In that context, a quote originally attributed to Greek historian Herodotus was repeated by a soldier in Hacksaw Ridge: “In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons.”

Though I am a son who has buried his father, I have not borne the pain of burying a son or a daughter or a grandchild. I have great empathy for parents or grandparents who have, including some of you.

As a Christian I’ve often marveled at God the Father’s experience of seeing his son buried. The song writer says it well:

How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure… that He should give His only Son to make a wretch His treasure.

Behold the man upon a cross, my sin upon His shoulders. Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers.

It was my sin that held Him there, until it was accomplished. His dying breath has brought me life. I know that it is finished.

An Airplane Captain’s Memorial Day Story

Dignified Transfer at Dover AFB

My lead flight attendant came to me and said, “We have an H.R. on this flight.” (H.R. stands for human remains.) “Are they military?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. I asked, “Is there an escort?” She replied, “Yes, I’ve already assigned him a seat.” I said, “Please tell him to come to the Flight Deck. You can board him early.”

A short while later a young army sergeant entered the flight deck. He was the image of the perfectly dressed soldier. He introduced himself and I asked him about his soldier.

The escorts of these fallen soldiers talk about them as if they are still alive and still with us. “My soldier is on his way back to Virginia,” he said. He proceeded to answer my questions, but offered no additional words.

I asked him if there was anything I could do for him and he said no. I told him that he had the toughest job in the military, and that I appreciated the work he does for the families of our fallen soldiers. The first officer and I got up out of our seats to shake his hand. He left the Flight Deck to find his seat.

We completed our preflight checks, pushed back, and performed an uneventful departure. About 30 minutes into our flight I received a call from the lead flight attendant in the cabin.

“I just found out the family of the soldier we are carrying is also on board,” she said. She then proceeded to tell me that the father, mother, wife and two-year-old daughter were escorting their son, husband, and father home. The family was upset because they were unable to see the container that the soldier was in before we left.

We were on our way to a major hub at which the family was going to wait four hours for the connecting flight home to Virginia. The father of the soldier told the flight attendant that knowing his son was below him in the cargo compartment and being unable to see him was too much for him and the family to bear. He had asked the flight attendant if there was anything that could be done to allow them to see him upon our arrival. The family wanted to be outside by the cargo door to watch the soldier being taken off the airplane.

I could hear the desperation in the flight attendant’s voice when she asked me if there was anything I could do. “I’m on it,” I said, and told her that I would get back to her.

Airborne communication with my company normally occurs in the form of electronic messages. I decided to bypass this system and contact my flight dispatcher directly on a secondary   radio. There is a radio operator in the operations control center who connects you to the dispatcher’s telephone. I was in direct contact with the dispatcher and explained the situation I had on board with the family and what the family wanted. He said he understood and that he would get back to me.

Two hours went by and I had not heard from the dispatcher. We were going to get busy soon and I needed to know what to tell the family, so I sent a text message asking for an update. I saved the return message from the dispatcher. Here is the text:

“Captain, sorry it has taken so long to get back to you. There is policy on this now, and I had to check on a few things. Upon your arrival a dedicated escort team will meet the aircraft. The team will escort the family to the ramp and plane side. A van will be used to load the remains with a secondary van for the family.”

“The family will be taken to their departure area and escorted into the terminal, where the remains can be seen on the ramp. It is a private area for the family only. When the connecting aircraft arrives, the family will be escorted onto the ramp and plane side to watch the remains being loaded for the final leg home. Captain, most of us here in flight control are veterans. Please pass our condolences on to the family. Thanks.”

I sent a message back, telling flight control thanks for a good job. I printed out the message and gave it to the lead flight attendant to pass on to the father. The lead flight attendant was very thankful and told me, “You have no idea how much this will mean to them.”

Things started getting busy for the descent, approach, and landing. After landing we cleared the runway and taxied to the ramp area. The ramp is huge with 15 gates on either side of the alleyway. It is always a busy area with aircraft maneuvering every which way to enter and exit. When we entered the ramp and checked in with the ramp controller, we were told that all traffic was being held for us.

“There is a team in place to meet the aircraft,” we were told. It looked like it was all coming together but then I realized that once we turned the seat belt sign off, everyone would stand up at once and delay the family from getting off the airplane. As we approached our gate, I asked the copilot to tell the ramp controller we were going to stop short of the gate to make an announcement to the passengers. He did that and the ramp controller said, “Take your time.”

I stopped the aircraft and set the parking brake. I pushed the public address button and said: “Ladies and gentleman, this is your Captain speaking. I have stopped short of our gate to make a special announcement. We have a passenger on board who deserves our honor and respect. His name is Private XXXXXX, a soldier who recently lost his life. Private XXXXXX is under your feet in the cargo hold. Escorting him today is Army Sergeant XXXXXX.  Also on board are his father, mother, wife, and daughter. Your entire flight crew is asking for all passengers to remain in their seats to allow the family to exit the aircraft first. Thank you.”

We continued the turn to the gate, came to a stop and started our shutdown procedures. A couple minutes later I opened the cockpit door and found the two forward flight attendants crying, something you just do not see. I was told that after we came to a stop, every passenger on the aircraft stayed in their seats, waiting for the family to exit the aircraft.

When the family got up and gathered their things, a passenger slowly started to clap his hands. Moments later, more passengers joined in and soon the entire aircraft was clapping. Words like “God bless you.” “I’m so sorry.” “Thank you.” “Be proud.” and other kind words were uttered to the family as they made their way down the aisle and out of the airplane. They were escorted down to the ramp to finally be with their loved one.

Many of the passengers thanked me for the announcement I had made. “They were just words,” I told them. “I could say them over and over again, but nothing I say will bring back that brave soldier.”

On this Memorial Day weekend I respectfully ask that all of you reflect on this event and the sacrifices many of our nation’s men and women have made to ensure our freedom and safety in these United States of America.

At such a time as this, the words of Jesus are amazingly powerful: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13

Death and Life

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Today’s quote is from Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970): “Who knows what death is? Maybe life is nothing more than a beam of light passing slowly over our changing faces. Maybe we had a face before we were born that will live on after all our perishable faces have passed away?”

Although I had never heard of this man, I discovered from a brief Google search that he was “a German novelist who created many works about the terror of war.” One of those works was All Quiet on the Western Front, translated into 12 languages and made into a 1930 Hollywood film.

His questions reflect the mystery of death, which I always address in funeral sermons. One moment a person is warm, animated, conversant, mobile, and alive. The very next moment the body of that same person is cold, still, silent, vacant, and dead. How can it be that the body of a beautiful woman or a handsome man can over time deteriorate into a pile of dust and a box of bones?

To me, the most easily understandable explanation of life and death is that everyone has a body in which that person’s soul or spirit, that person’s real being, resides as long as he or she is living on this earth. When death occurs, that person’s soul or spirit leaves the body behind and moves on to a different existence.

Simply stated, a person who dies takes off his or her body. A long time ago that metaphor was shared with me by our daughter who at that time was only three years old. To this day, over 40 years later, I still turn to that insightful understanding when death occurs. Thank you, dear Angie!

Christians believe that the different existence a person experiences after earthly life is eternal life in heaven, by God’s saving grace in the person of Jesus, Savior of the world. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus on a cross, the real being that resides in a person’s body for the duration of his or her lifetime on earth goes through physical death to eternal life. Eternal means everlasting, undying, perpetual, endless, ceaseless, timeless, infinite, immortal, and never ending.

“Maybe life is nothing more than a beam of light passing slowly over our changing faces?” I believe it’s more than that. I believe what David wrote: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:1, 13)

And I believe what Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)

That’s my hope! That’s my belief! That’s my comfort! That’s God’s promise!