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!

Resurrection!

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As most Americans are aware, this is Holy Week. The days ahead include Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Festival of the Resurrection of Our Lord, aka Easter.

Amid all the aspects of the secular observance of Easter, Christians focus on the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. It’s an awesome story, recorded in the New Testament in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20. I highly recommend you read all four accounts this week.

Lots of people will be in church this Sunday. Some are those lovingly referred to as CEO Christians: Christmas and Easter Only. Be that as it may, I hope and trust that pastors will focus not on the sporadic attendance of some but on the reality of death and our belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” (Apostles’ Creed: circa 390 AD)

This statement of belief in the resurrection provides hope and comfort, especially at the time of death of loved ones and friends. Earlier this week I wrote a letter to a friend whose wife passed away suddenly last week. Here are some of the words I wrote:

The author of Ecclesiastes writes: “There is an appointed time for everything  … A time to give birth and a time to die … A time to weep and a time to laugh … A time to mourn and a time to dance …” (Eccl. 3:1-2, 4) The times of dying, weeping, and mourning are not happy times.

That’s true whether a loved one dies after a lengthy illness or with no advance warning. At a time like this we echo the words of Simon Peter to Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68) That’s where we go at a time like this. We go to Jesus.

Many years ago his loved ones went to his grave, grieving deeply. They had lost the one who had been expected to change the history of the whole world. But he had died, as all men do, and his was a bitter and painful death.

Yet as those mourners came, by a miracle of the grace and power of God, their grief was turned to joy, their despair to faith and confidence! Jesus had risen from the dead!

Ever since that first Easter morn, believing people have come to the grave of their loved ones in confidence and trust … weeping, mourning, but not despairing, not lost, awaiting the promised resurrection of their loved one and the new heaven and new earth that lie ahead. (Rev. 21:1)

Terry and I pray that your times of weeping and mourning will be mitigated by the joy and hope that come from the peace of God that passes all understanding. We love you and thank God for you! A Blessed Festival of the Resurrection! That’s what I mean when I say: “Happy Easter!”

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.

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!

 

+Dr. Jean Garton+ and +Dr. Betty Duda+

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Near the conclusion of the Year of Our Lord 2016, I share the news of the passing of two very dear sisters in Christ, Dr. Jean Garton and Dr. Betty Duda. Jean went to heaven Friday, Dec. 23 and Betty followed on Saturday, Dec. 24. They now rest in peace, free from the illnesses that beset them, rejoicing eternally at the throne of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Each of these gifted women served The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod faithfully, tirelessly, humbly, and courageously in numerous capacities:

  • Jean became a world-renowned expert on pro-life issues, testifying before the U.S. Congress. She wrote the book Who Broke the Baby?and traveled the world speaking before royalty, government leaders and even at gatherings of three or four people to deliver the message God entrusted to her. Jean was the first woman to serve on an LCMS board — the Board for Public Relations, and chaired the LCMS Task Force on Women, President’s Commission on Women, Office of Government Information Advisory Council, and Task Force on Ministry with Families.
  • Possessing significant leadership and organizational skills, Betty served as president of the national Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, the Florida-Georgia District LWML, and as chair of the boards of Concordia College New York, Lutheran World Relief, and Lutheran Association of Missionaries and Pilots. She also served on the boards of Concordia University Chicago, Concordia University Minnesota, Wheat Ridge Foundation, Aid Association for Lutherans, People of the Book Lutheran Outreach, and Mill Neck Manor. In addition, she was a board member of numerous Florida civic organizations, chairing many of them.

Both Jean and Betty also served a number of years together on the Board of Directors of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Their support, encouragement, and dedicated service during my term of office as LCMS president were remarkable, especially during a time of stress and conflict in our beloved Synod. They steadfastly espoused an evangelical direction for our beloved Synod for which I will always remain deeply respectful and truly grateful.

At a significant point in his life Old Testament King David acknowledged in prayer to God: “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. 29:15)

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

Terry and I thank God for Jean Garton and Betty Duda. This year they celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus in a manner you and I can only imagine! It’s a celebration that knows no ending!

+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!