A Celebration of Life

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Credit: Wikipedia

Two weeks ago this morning my mother went to heaven. This past Saturday we laid her physical body to rest in the cemetery plot right next to my father. Most of our family watched as her casket was slowly lowered into its final resting place. Those who wanted to do so dropped a bit of sand onto her casket. “Earth to earth … ashes to ashes … dust to dust.”

Saturday’s memorial service was a wonderful mixture of sadness and rejoicing. Sadness because Mom will no longer be present in our lives. Rejoicing because she prayed for nearly three years that Jesus would take her home to heaven. Jesus finally answered her prayer.

During the week between her passing and burial, her children and grandchildren took care of the multifaceted details connected with death. Funeral home. Casket selection. Flower shop. Informing relatives and friends. Notifying pallbearers. Securing travel and lodging. Planning the family gathering. Communicating with pastor. Selecting organist. Editing photos. Finalizing and publishing obituary. Scheduling cemetery arrangements. Ordering headstone engraving.

Lots of important details needed to be taken care of. The result was a service of thanksgiving to God for our mother’s life and love, followed by a wonderful reception with food and drink, hosted by members of Mom’s church.

There were tears that day. There was also rejoicing. Most of our family members and many friends, both current and historic, paid their respects to Mother and shared their love with our family.

Many gave flowers or memorial gifts in her loving memory. Countless cards, letters, emails, text messages, and phone calls were received, all incredible outpourings of love. It would be nearly impossible to respond to each of those acts of care and concern. Many thanks to all of you!

During Mother’s 34 ½ months in assisted living, many friends and family visited her, almost daily. Many but not all of them signed the guest book near the door. After her funeral I counted the names in the book, a total of 2,080 visitors in slightly more than 1,000 days.

My comments near the end of the service included quotes from the Hymn I’m But a Stranger Here, Heav’n is My Home and concluded with the words: Goodbye, Mother Elda. You’re now home. In heaven. With our father Martin. Rest in peace. We’ll see you again. Someday. At home! 

Our final moments with our mother in that house of God, Cross Lutheran Church in New Braunfels, Texas, were a celebration of life for a woman who was blessed by God to be a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, great great grandmother, aunt, cousin, and friend.

To God alone be the glory!

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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!

I Wish I Could Wave a Magic Wand

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Not long ago I was waiting for a plane that would take me back home to Terry after a long weekend of preaching, teaching, and visiting with folks about estate planning and charitable giving. The plane was delayed two hours. I was tired and ready to get home.

After the plane finally arrived at the airport, an attendant announced that passengers on the flight should begin to line up according to the number on their boarding pass. Travelers reading this post probably know by now that I was traveling on Southwest Airlines. But I digress.

In the line for passengers needing additional assistance I happened to notice a young girl, probably six or seven years old, holding on to an adult male, probably 35 years old. She was crying softly but emotionally. He was trying to console her, without much success.

As the little girl cried, she wiped away her tears with her hands, apparently having no tissue or handkerchief. The man, whom I surmised to be her father, held out a corner of his jacket for her to use. She dried those tears, which were very quickly replaced by a new flood.

When it was her turn to board the plane, she clung more tightly to her father. After she had finally let go of him and walked down the jet bridge with the attendant, I passed him on my way to the plane, stopped, and simply said: “You’re a loving father. It’s not always easy.”

I had fairly quickly concluded that the young lady was visiting her father over the weekend, that he lived in the vicinity, and that her mother lived in Austin, the destination of my flight.

Those conclusions were confirmed after our flight landed in Austin. At the arriving passengers baggage claim I saw the same young girl. She was with an adult woman, probably 35 years of age. Their greeting at the airport of arrival did not appear to be nearly as tender as the one I had witnessed at the airport of departure. Yet it appeared that she was back with her mother.

The custody of a child shared by two obviously separated and probably divorced parents is not uncommon in today’s world. Yet the frequency of such custodial relationships in no way lessens the emotional tug-of-war that characterizes the lives of many such young girls and boys. It’s not easy for a child to move forth and back between his or her parents.

The natural relationship between a child and parents is for the child to live with and be raised by both parents. Divorce changes that natural order. In most cases a dependent child must share time with two different people in two different homes. Divorced parents most often still love their child deeply. And the child most often still loves both of his or her parents unceasingly.

In many cases, as in the one I’ve shared with you today, that love is often accompanied by tearful goodbyes. I wish I could wave a magic wand!

+George Herbert Walker Bush+

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On Friday, November 30, the 41st President of the United States died at the age of 94 years, five months, and 18 days. He was born in Milton, Mass., and died at home in Houston, Tex.

At the time of his death he was the third-longest-lived vice president, and the longest-lived president in U.S. history. Since the day he died, U.S. news sources have highlighted his career and family, including wife Barbara, who passed away earlier this year; son George W. Bush, 43rd U.S. President; and son Jeb Bush, former Florida Governor. George H.W.’s personal life was accentuated by boating and parachuting activities that extended into his ninth decade.

President Bush was raised in the Episcopal Church and expressed his faith publicly in numerous ways, including his Thousand Points of Light speech, his support for prayer in public schools, and his pro-life views. His faith was also reflected in the music he chose for the arrival of his body in Washington D.C. to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. The selections played by a military band were Beautiful Savior and A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

People of all ages and physical conditions waited for hours in the Washington cold to enter the Rotunda. Memorable sights were many, including a Boy Scout standing at attention and saluting for an extended period of time; 95-year old former U.S. Senator Robert Dole, in a wheelchair, with great effort standing and saluting the casket with a crippled left hand; and numerous world famous professional sports and political figures.

Yesterday the casket was moved to Washington National Cathedral for a memorial service clearly reflecting President Bush’s Christian faith. The service featured powerful Christ centered preaching, with numerous inspirational hymns and dynamic choral presentations. It was seasoned with both serious reflections and humorous comments from family members and political personalities.

Another memorial service will be held today at 10:00 a.m. CST at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston. From there his body will be transported to College Station, Tex., where he will be laid to rest at the Bush Library on the campus of Texas A & M University next to his wife Barbara and their three-year-old daughter Pauline Robinson Bush (Robin), who died of leukemia 65 years ago.

Of particular note to me this week have been the broad and non-partisan expressions of respect and even love for this man, particularly at a time of hugely partisan political division in America. It was also quite encouraging to hear again the clear expressions of his Christian faith.

The New York Times reported: His [Bush’s] longtime friend and former Secretary of State, James A. Baker III, arrived at his Houston home on Friday morning to check on him. Mr. Bush suddenly grew alert, his eyes wide open. “Where are we going, Bake?” he asked. “We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker answered. “That’s where I want to go,” Mr. Bush said. Barely 13 hours later, Mr. Bush was dead.

Fox News Sunday reported: Baker, who called Bush his best friend, discussed his peaceful final day. “He had a very gentle and peaceful passing,” Baker said.  “They made arrangements for all of his children to call in to in effect tell him goodbye. His son former President George W. Bush called in to say ‘Dad, I love you, I will see you on the other side’ and President Bush said ‘I love you, too’ and those were his last words. He had a very gentle and easy passing, the kind we ought to all hope we have.”

Guy Benson, Political Editor for Townhall.com, concluded: Death is an inevitability, so perhaps this is the best way to go: Saying final, loving goodbyes to everyone who matters in your life before dying at a ripe old age, after living an incredibly full and consequential life. Bush was a war hero, a Congressman from Texas, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Republican National Committee Chairman, Director of the CIA, Vice President of the United States, and President of the United States.

And I add: “George Herbert Walker Bush, rest in peace. Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Remembering September 11, 2001

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This week I’ll be sending two issues of Perspectives. Although it regularly comes on Thursday, I cannot let today pass without a remembrance of what happened on this day 17 years ago.

Terry and I had just settled into our home in St. Louis after leaving behind our family and friends in Texas. Three days earlier, September 8, I had been installed as the 12th president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, our national church body.

What happened September 11, 2001 occupies only a couple pages in the history books now being studied by high school students, most of whom who were not yet alive in 2001. But the events of 9/11 are indelibly etched in the memories of those of us who lived the experience.

Terry and I hold in our hearts and prayers all who were directly or indirectly affected by the events of this day 17 years ago. That includes children whose parents did not pick them up from school that day and parents whose adult children did not return to their homes that evening.

My prayer is that the memories of 9/11 will cause us to give thanks for the women and men who provide first response to disasters in our beloved country. Especially in times of catastrophe and chaos, these heroes unselfishly rush to the scene to do whatever they can to preserve the lives of those who survive and to honor the lives of those who don’t.

We also give thanks to God for the women and men of our military forces. They bravely confront the sources of evil around the world, leaving behind spouse, children, comfort, and safety in order to prevent a repetition of the events that catalyzed the memories of this day.

Evil men will always be inspired by satanic forces to inflict death and devastation wherever possible. September 11, 2001 is a prime example. Although the context is different from that in which these words were written by the apostle Paul, they are nonetheless appropriate for this day: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:21)

May the remembrances of this day, with the power of almighty God, inspire and encourage us to do exactly that!

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!

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!