Finding the Right Words

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This weekend our family will celebrate the life of our dear mother and will lay her mortal remains to rest. We thank God for her legacy and are truly thankful for the many expressions of love, care, and concern that have come from friends around the state and across the country.

What does one say when a friend’s loved one dies? At such times in my life, I think carefully, trying to choose the right words. Sometimes I think I succeed. At other times, not so much.

My thought is that what to say depends on the circumstances of the death of the person in question. What was the cause of death? The age of the deceased? Was it expected, after a lengthy illness? Or was it sudden? Did the deceased leave young dependent family members? Was it an infant who died? Had the person who died lived a lonely existence for many years?

My father died 36 years ago after more than a year of struggling with cancer. He was only 66. My mother and her four adult children weren’t ready for him to leave. Neither was he.

Mother died peacefully in her sleep at 102 years and 9 months, quite alert and fairly active till a few days before her death. She was ready to go. It would have been selfish for us to pray otherwise.

At Daddy’s death our family was grieving. His friends were also grieving. The words they shared with us reflected their sadness and disappointment following the death of a man who had only rarely been sick. Their words also focused on how much they knew we would miss him.

In Mom’s case, most people knew she had been praying that the Lord would take her home. So had her family. She had terminal congestive heart failure and had lived alone 36 years, the last 34 ½ months in assisted living. She wanted to go to heaven. Her death was a blessing.

Notwithstanding those circumstances, at Mom’s passing many friends of our family shared their love and concern in words expressing sorrow, condolence, and sympathy. My first words a week ago when I heard the news that she had passed were “God be praised! She’s now in heaven!”

Some of our neighbors brought a floral arrangement to our home with a card that said “May all your days be filled with the beautiful memories of your mother!” A second floral note said “May the certainty of the resurrection bring you joy even in the midst of your mourning.”

One thoughtful card said “We are among the multitude of saints rejoicing that Elda is now in the presence of the Lamb!” Another note said “We thank God for the mother who gave birth to you, a blessed woman of God indeed!  Now the cloud of witnesses just got stronger!”

Here are three points to consider when finding the right words to say at a time of death. First, put yourself in the shoes of the survivors and try to imagine what you might want to hear if it were your loved one who had died. Then say or write those words from your heart.

Second, try very hard not to let your anxiety and fear about what to say prevent you from saying or writing anything. Just knowing you care enough to express your love is priceless.

Third, don’t forget what Christians believe about the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Those are promises of God that bring hope, comfort, and joy!

Rest in peace, dear Mom. We all love you more than words can say!

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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!

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.

Aging

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Today’s quotes:

“It is not by the gray of the hair that one knows the age of the heart.”
– Edward R. Bulwer-Lytton

“To be 70 years young is sometime far more cheerful and hopeful than to be 40 years old.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes

This week Terry and I are attending a conference on aging. We’re spending three days with a number of pastors and their spouses, all within a few years of my age. Some are a bit younger but all of us are at or near the three score plus ten number.

Most people who reach that age have experienced their share of joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, difficulties and blessings. That’s the stuff of which life is made.

Sorrows, defeats, and difficulties tend to accelerate the aging process, sometimes leading to pessimism, depression, or despair. Joys, victories, and blessings often delay the obvious signs of age and produce a greater sense of optimism, appreciation, and generosity.

Physical health, emotional wellbeing, and spiritual maturity are very significant factors in the onset, delay, and effect of the aging process. Those qualities matter at all times, especially in the last quarter of life, particularly for those who may already have heard the two minute warning.

Regardless of your age or attitude toward life, consider God’s message to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah: “Even when you’re old, I’ll take care of you. Even when your hair turns gray, I’ll support you.” Is. 46:4

Here’s to happy and graceful aging!

+Vernon Dale Gundermann+

vern-gundermannAfter a valiant battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), more commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease, Rev. Vernon Dale Gundermann left this earthly life on Friday, September 16. He was 78 years, 11 months and 16 days of age.

Vern served for many years as pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood, Missouri. Among other positions, after retirement he also served as Chaplain at the International Center of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS).

My first contact with Pastor Gundermann was in 1991, when I was elected president of the Texas District of the LCMS. The 41 members of the Council of Presidents met at the International Center, near Concordia, so most of us walked to church for the 8:00 a.m. Sunday service.

We were privileged to receive assurance of God’s love and forgiveness from the heart, head and hands of Vern Gundermann, who had become Senior Pastor at Concordia that same year. He always seemed incredibly sensitive, spiritually mature and pastorally competent.

In addition, the man could preach! I’ve come to describe Vern as one of the best preachers in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. I never heard a bad sermon from this man and can think of few other preachers, including myself, about whom I can say the same.

Vern was also a sensitive and caring pastor. Particularly during some difficult days as national church president, I received communications from and attended meetings with people who my dear Terry aptly describes as “joy suckers.” They sucked the joy right out of life and ministry.

At such times, Pastor Gundermann had an uncanny, surreal, perhaps even supernatural way of knowing and feeling the struggles we were experiencing. Upon returning from such difficult meetings and encounters, I was almost always greeted with a phone message from Pastor Gundermann, assuring me, and Terry as well, of his prayers, love, support, encouragement.

Vern is survived by his beloved wife Betty, their four children, and 11 grandchildren. Memorial services will be held at Concordia Lutheran Church, Kirkwood, MO, on Sunday, September 25, at 4:00 p.m. and at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Fulda, MN, on Tuesday, September 27, at 1:30 p.m.

Well done, good and faithful servant!

The strife is o’er, the battle done; now is the victor’s triumph won; now be the song of praise begun. Alleluia!

Lord, by the stripes which wounded Thee, from death’s dread sting Thy servants free, that we may live and sing to Thee. Alleluia!

+Rev. Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann+

Ralph BohlmannWelcome to the eighth consecutive year of weekly Perspectives articles. I hope they are meaningful to those who read them and welcome your comments and suggestions.

This week I share the news that Rev. Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann passed away peacefully Sunday evening, July 24, 2016, at the age of 84 years. His memorial service was held yesterday at the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus on the campus of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Mine was the humbling honor and pastoral privilege to preach at that service.

Following several years as a parish pastor and professor, Dr. Bohlmann served as the seventh president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, from 1975-81, and as president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod from 1981-92. He was named president emeritus of both.

Dr. Bohlmann was found unconscious early last week on the floor of his apartment at Laclede Groves in St. Louis. The cause is unknown but indications are that he was in that condition for a few days before being discovered. He was hospitalized but never regained consciousness.

Terry and I were in St. Louis last week for a reunion of my former staff members and their spouses. On Tuesday we visited and prayed for Ralph in the hospital. His daughter Lynn was there, caring for her dear father. Her brother Paul kept in touch from his home in New York.

The medical prognosis at that time was very bleak. Later that day life support was removed. Medical personnel indicated their belief that Ralph’s life here on earth would be coming to an imminent conclusion, but we all know that no one can predict with certainty exactly when anyone’s life will end. The Lord alone is the one who numbers our days. Ralph continued to breathe independently for five days before joining his wife Pat, who died Sept. 14, 2012.

Our gracious Lord has received Ralph into his everlasting arms, reunited with Pat and many others in “the vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes and holding palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9) awaiting all who trust in Christ our Lord for life eternal.

Please join me in prayer that Ralph and Pat’s son Paul and their daughter Lynn, together with the rest of the Bohlmann family, will in the days ahead find peace and comfort in the promise of Christ: “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 11:26

Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann, rest in peace!