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Practicing What We Preach
All the passages below are taken from William H. Griffith’s book, “More than a Parting Prayer---Lessons in Care-giving for the Dying.” It was published in 2004.
The minister plays an important part on the caring team of persons who are in key positions to relate to the dying and their families. The minister's effectiveness in the hospital room with the dying and in homes with the grieving may depend on how well the teaching ministry has been developed in the congregation. In the context of preaching and educational classes in the program of the church, the theological foundation is laid.
-William H. Griffith
As I HAVE 0FTEN discovered during my thirty-five years of pastoral ministry in the local church, it is important for the preacher to "practice what is preached." It is not surprising that, over the past five years of providing hope and support for others who are going through the valley of the shadow, my family and I were also expected to take that journey ourselves. In a span of eleven months, three members of my family---my mother and two sisters-in-law---died. Our personal grief gave shape to our spiritual journeys.
Prior to these deaths and during the two years that I was writing this book, I was on several occasions asked to be a guest preacher. As a retired pastor I have a "barrel" of sermons from which I could have chosen, but I chose rather to use Scriptures that speak about living life in the face of unwanted circumstances. My choice was certainly conditioned by my weekly involvement with dying patients and their families.
As I was preparing one particular sermon, I was reminded of an old saying that is used in the training of young preachers: "Apply yourself closely to the text. Apply the text closely to yourself." I began to ask myself, "How will I apply the texts I have recently preached? What will my spiritual journey look like if I apply myself closely to the text and let the text apply itself closely to me?"
The sermon was called "When the River Rises" and was based on Isaiah 43:1-13,18-19. My intent was to focus on four guideposts that would enable a person to journey beyond grief to faith. Through my many visits with dying patients and their families, I had come to discover that what so many of them were attempting to do was to find their way back from the devastating despair of losing what they valued most in life. I was drawn to the Isaiah text because for more than thirty years I had shared a poem at funeral services that was based on the text, and I wanted to know the truth of the text and not just the truth of the poem.
The text is a glimpse into the grief of Israel. The malignant hope of the people of Israel had caused them to conclude that their dreams were terminal. Those who once experienced "showers of blessings" were now experiencing the floodwaters of despair. They had been taken into exile and felt overwhelmed by their loss. That's exactly what my family and I felt when faced with a doctor's terminal diagnosis of one of our loved ones. I concluded that if this text was once meant to be a good word for others under these circumstances, then it must also be a good word for me. So I began my personal journey, stopping long enough at each guidepost to reflect and hope.
Guidepost #1: God Knows Us
The first guidepost is a reminder that God knows us personally. Verse 1 says, "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; / I have summoned you by name; you are mine" (NIV). We are so much like Israel in that we are not always as obedient as we ought to be about living a good life. I have found that people who are dying often review their lives and remember the things they have done that they should not have done. They suffer from the guilt and the fear that they have gone beyond God's ability or willingness to redeem them. People with such a hopeless feeling need to hear again the word spoken in this text: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine."
There is no one I know who has believed this text more than my mother. It's not a verse I ever heard her mention, but I know that she valued it because she had it underlined in her Bible. Her spiritual journey was shaped by her devotion to reading and understanding the Bible. At her memorial service, tributes were offered by her great-grandson, her grandson, and me. The common theme was her tattered, worn Bible. It was from that Bible that her grandson read the Scriptures, and he was quick to mention that it was at least the third Bible she had worn out during her lifetime.
My mother died at age eighty-eight while being cared for in a comfort care facility. During her final years, I traveled from Arizona to Rochester, New York, three or four times a year to visit with her. It was never difficult for me to leave her bedside and make my return flight home, because I knew that the hope by which she had lived had prepared her to die. She knew the truth of Isaiah's words, which affirmed for her that God had redeemed her. Knowing that gave me comfort and hope.
Guidepost #2: God Is with Us
The second guidepost in the journey from grief to comfort is the assurance that God is always with us. God is actually in the middle of our despair. Verse 2 reads,
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
I am the first to admit that it's much easier "to talk the talk than to walk the walk." It's much easier for me to sit by the bed of a dying patient who is struggling with the unfairness of her situation and offer her some words of hope and consolation than it is for me to remember those same words when I am told that one of my own family members has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Being told by someone at such a time that God hasn't deserted me may be a true and important reminder, but it doesn't magically make the sense of unfairness or overwhelming despair go away.
Having two sisters-in-law, Clarice and Sarah, die less that a year ago from the time of this writing caused me to be more aware of how very inadequate mere words can be to ease and soften the ache and void that is felt when a loved one is dying. Loss of life cannot be verbally massaged and explained into becoming more acceptable.
For me, I knew God was in the midst of our despair because there were people who were "with us," and by their presence we knew that we were not alone. My spiritual journey had prior experiences of loss, and by remembering them I was able to put the present loss into the larger picture. This helped me see that God had been there in the past loss, and therefore I was able to be confident that God was somewhere in my present despair. When I came to understand this, the promises from the Scriptures began to reshape my present, and I began to accept them as comforting words. The biblical image of being in a river that is overflowing its banks and needing to be reassured that there's someone in there with me who's going to get me through it becomes an image of hope that helps me proceed on my journey.
As my family and I were experiencing the rising waters of grief and sorrow, we experienced a godly presence in the form of two Episcopal priests who were the pastors of the church that Clarice and Sarah attended. They were there at the bedside during both our loved ones' dying hours, providing words and sacraments to affirm each of their spiritual journeys. Their presence and prayers also provided the needed comfort and support for each member of our family. It is that ministry of a godly presence that reassures us that the waters will not overflow.
Guidepost #3: God Loves Us As We Are
The third guidepost is the reminder that God loves us as we are. Verse 4 says, "You are precious and honored in my sight, / and because I love you ..." (emphasis added).
Experiencing loss creates an anxiety and stress that often causes us to direct our anger toward God. I've counseled people who expressed that anger in harsh words; some have even cursed God. It's an honest expression of what a person feels, and it is good for those feelings to be expressed. God is big enough and has been around long enough to handle our anger. What is amazing is that anyone against whom we are expressing such hostilities would want us to know that we are still loved. God doesn't seem to take our anger personally and is mostly concerned about our wellbeing. In spite of our perception of a distant God, God is nearer than we dare believe, and God loves us.
Guidepost #4: God Calls Us Onward
The fourth guidepost reminds us that God calls us to a future that is brighter than the past. Verses 18 and 19 say, "Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See I am doing a new thing!" Here again, it's easier said than done. It's easier to believe such a statement for someone else's situation than it is to claim it for one's own situation. It is always easier to mouth platitudes and clichés in an attempt to ease someone else's pain than to believe them for ourselves. How much we are willing to believe those words depends on how fully they were proven to be true after our last experience with loss.
However, having a "pity party" hinders our ability to discover the new thing that God wants to do for us. That new thing will not just show up while we lock ourselves in our bedrooms. The new thing demands that we do our part to invest in something outside of ourselves. We do so not to deny our pain but to see our pain within the larger perspective of life. This proclaims trust that God will help us see it as he sees it. The goal is not so much to minimize our pain but to reclaim and maximize our potential.
It was good for me to have prepared and preached a sermon from this text, not only because someone in the congregation may have been encouraged by hearing it, but because the time would come when I would have to practice what I preached.
Lessons for Caregivers
I have always been amazed at how often the text I chose for a particular Sunday sermon ended up addressing an issue that I also had to face that week in some area of my relationships. It demanded honesty and vulnerability to stand in the pulpit and proclaim a word from God that I had to practice myself.
In this final chapter, I have attempted to share how I have practiced what I have preached. Preachers, teachers, and caregivers may easily conclude that the message they offer is good for others, but fail to discover and apply the same truths to their own lives. My thirty-five years of preaching and teaching about death, grief, faith, and end-of-life issues were rarely personally tested until I was completing the writing of this book. Being required to practice what I had been preaching has reaffirmed the value of understanding how faith can be proclaimed and even renewed amidst the reality of death and grief. [117-122]
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