“Oh, how my own father and I struggled to say good-bye. I sat at his bedside throughout his last night, holding his hand, stroking his head, administering morphine under his tongue. Knowing his death was imminent, my brother Rod had chosen to stay the night and was asleep in an upstairs bedroom. I have sat with so many dying people that I knew when it was time to wake my brother. After several hours passed, I asked Rod to take a turn in my chair to give a break. Within a few minutes, Rod called me: ‘Robin, he’s awake!’”—Robin White
Wing + Prayer
By The Reverend Robin White
ANDERSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—15 May 2020—This beautiful May morning, as I consider the 80,000-plus Americans who have died, just thus far, of COVID-19, I want to talk about death.
In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche writes:
“For all its technological achievements, modern Western society has no real understanding of death or what happens in death or after death. I learned that people today are taught to deny death and taught that it means nothing but annihilation and loss. That means that most of the world lives either in denial of death or in terror of it. Even talking about death is considered morbid, and many people believe that simply mentioning death is to risk wishing it upon ourselves.
“Others look on death with naïve, thoughtless cheerfulness, thinking that for some unknown reason death will work out right for them, and that it is nothing to worry about. When I think of them, I am reminded of what one Tibetan master says, ‘People often make the mistake of being frivolous about death and think, “Oh well, death happens to everybody. It’s not a big deal, it’s natural. I’ll be fine.” That’s a nice theory until one is dying.’”
I remember as a young pastor visiting a parishioner who was in the last stage of cancer. I sat quietly with the woman and her daughter, and it was the woman’s daughter who finally broke the silence: “Mom, do you want to ask Robin anything? Do you want to talk to her about dying?” Her mother, the stoic, hardy wife of a farmer, grunted with what I perceived back then as disgust, but what I now recognize as denial. Exhaling loudly and shaking her head, the dying woman proclaimed, “Robin doesn’t know anything about death. She’s never died!”
I left the hospital that day feeling as though I had somehow failed that mother and daughter while, at the same time, recognizing how accurate the mother’s statement was: I knew absolutely nothing about death.
Two decades later, after I had encountered death after death in my ministry, the experience was . . . brought home.
As my father and I approached his death, I remember making several attempts to talk with him about dying. During those last months of his life, when he was terminally ill with leukemia, the end certain, he and I spent a great deal of time alone and I longed to explore with him his thoughts about death. But he resisted, refusing to speak, at all, of what he was feeling and what was ahead. The matter was too intimate a subject. Instead, he told me stories of his boyhood days on the dairy farm: learning at a very early age how to drive the antique International Harvester McCormick Deering tractor; waking up at 5:00 a.m. and watching the cows parade through the pasture, across the creek and up to the barn for milking; hunting deer and pheasants and rabbits on the White Homestead; fishing the many rivers and streams that snake through our glorious upstate New York state valley. I could sit and listen to that man tell stories until the cows came home . . . and I did, until he became so ill that he couldn’t speak of all that he had cherished throughout his 70 years.
Some of the most intimate moments of life are those spent by a death bed, when family and the closest of loved ones gather around someone on the verge of dying. The emotions experienced, whether verbalized or not, during these times range across the deepest and widest human places.
Throughout my many years of pastoral ministry, I have spent countless hours holding vigil at the bedsides of the dying. It is one of the privileges that comes with my vocation. I have had many moments with people who straddle the chasm, one foot in each world. The conversations that occur at these transitional times are rare and memorable.
Pediatrician and Professor Emerita of Pediatrics at Yale University’s School of Medicine, Dr. Diane Komp, in a “Theology Today” article titled “Hearts Untroubled,” writes:
“Whether atheist, agnostic or firm believer, pediatricians must learn to listen. One of the bitter-sweet privileges of caring for seriously ill children is to grow to love them and to bask in a love returned. Part of that love, for an oncologist, is, on occasion, to share the road toward death. At that point in time, I felt I couldn’t provide any handy theological solutions, but I could be a friend on the way. I listened to parents who groped for God in their most painful hour. I respected them all for their journeys, but heard no convincing evidence in their revelations. I required reliable witnesses without culturally determined expectations of death or ‘I-can’t-afford-not-to believe’ views of the hereafter.
“The first time I sat at the bedside of a child dying of cancer, I sat from duty rather than anticipated joy. Before she died, this seven-year old, who had suffered for five years with leukemia, found the final energy to sit up and say: ‘The angels—they’re so beautiful! Mommy, can you see them? Do you hear their singing? I’ve never heard such beautiful singing!’
“Every time I hear the angel prologue of Boito’s ‘Mephistopheles,’ I think of this child. Her parents reacted as if they had been given the most precious gift in the world. The hospital chaplain in attendance was more comfortable with the psychological than the spiritual. He left, and the existentialist was alone with the family to face the numinous.The thought that stuck in my head for weeks to follow was: ‘Have I found a reliable witness?’”
I had a similar experience very, very early on in my ministry. I was twenty-six years old and in my first position as a solo pastor. It was late at night and I was called to the hospital where members of my congregation, a young couple, had just given birth to Karl, born prematurely with a severe heart defect. This was my first, ever, visit to a neonatal unit. I have never in my life seen such a small and frail infant. The hospital was about to transfer Karl and his parents to Atlanta, where he would have major heart surgery. In our germ-free gowns, masks, and gloves, we surrounded the incubator like angels in white. Terrified, as I prayed with Karl’s family, I reached out and touched his tiny fingers and I swear, felt a surge of loving energy that brought me immediate calm. At that moment, I recognized that, despite this infant’s critical condition, he was perfect in every way.
After recovering from his first operation in Atlanta, Karl came home to with his parents and three-year-old sister, Krista. Within a year, he was to have another open-heart surgery. During the months that followed, the church and community pulled together to gather money and support for Karl and his family. Meanwhile, Karl grew in size and personality. I watched him reach out to people with smiling eyes, a toothless grin, and very wet and sloppy kisses. This baby boy was pure love. Between his first and second surgeries, Karl ministered to our entire congregation and surrounding community.
“Baby Karl” always had a red, heart-shaped, Mylar balloon within his reach. The balloon became a symbol of his physically flawed but spiritually perfect heart.
After nine months, Karl and his parents returned to Atlanta. We were all praying, but feeling positive, as Karl had an 80-percent chance of surviving the second procedure. A few hours after the surgery, Karl’s heart stopped, and he died.
Karl’s funeral was only the second I had ever conducted. It remains, still, one of the most. During the visitation, I watched and wept as Karl’s three-year-old, “big” sister touched his feet and hands while the red heart-shaped balloon hovered over the tiny casket.
At the graveside, we had bunches of red balloons and little Krista held the one heart-shaped Mylar balloon. (In those days, we didn’t know any better, and released them after the committal.) We stood in silence, weeping, watching as they floated upward. When the heart-shaped balloon was nearly out of sight, Krista broke the silence with a squeal. “Look! Look!” she exclaimed! “There he is; there’s Baby Karl. I can still see him!”
It was as though she knew something we did not.
I have held on to that image for years, and it has comforted me during many other times of tragic death.
In Mitch Albom’s popular Tuesday’s with Morrie, the dying Professor Morrie explains to his former student turned friend why people clamor to hear his words. “I’m on the last great journey here,” he says, “and people want me to tell them what to pack.”
In our passage today from John, Chapter 14, Jesus is about to make that same trip. Jesus begins his good-byes in Chapter 13 with the intimate act of washing the feet of his beloved inner circle of disciples—setting an example of love and servanthood. Jesus also seeks to prepare them for the difficulties ahead by informing them of his betrayal by one of their own, Peter’s denial of him, and of his own immanent departure—his death.
As we enter Chapter 14, the disciples may not understand what the future holds for them, but, surely, they hear the rumblings of impending danger. Their leader has been accused of serious offenses and, no doubt, they fear for their own safety as well as his. Jesus offers them words of comfort. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
The first form of comfort is to be found in God and in Jesus, who are side by side. “Believe,” Jesus says. “Put your faith in God and in me and do not be afraid.”
The next source of comfort comes in the image of God’s house, where there are many rooms. Jesus tells those closest to him to remain faithful because there is, indeed, a place for them. The promise, again, is that, no matter what else happens, they will be with God . . . with Jesus; and they are promised not only a place in God’s house, but a place prepared especially for them, by Jesus, himself.
Think of how it feels to be invited to a place where you are known and where your arrival is both rejoiced over and prepared for lovingly, with just you in mind. Jesus says this is the kind of place he is preparing for us.
Jesus follows these important words of farewell with words that I don’t want to dwell on here, but I do think need to be addressed: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.”
It is so important for us to understand that the goal of these words is not sectarian triumphalism. Jesus’ words were not spoken to crowds from all faith traditions but, rather, in the intimate setting of his closest and chosen followers. Here, Jesus claims that there is no other way for them to come to God. There is no way for these intimates to get to God without dealing directly with the very human presence of Jesus, who is about to die, in their midst. This is in no way justification for an exclusive claim that denies God is to be found anywhere else. Rather, these words justify the claim that we find God wherever God is recognized by such words and deeds. This special “death-bed” moment with his inner circle of friends is not designed to be forced upon all others: it is a moment only for those who choose to be in the room with him. Jesus is preaching to the choir here; his choir.
Jesus’s last words, spoken to his nearest and dearest, can speak directly to us as well. The disciples’ confusion, fear, and distress about Jesus’s, and even their own, death, mirrors our emotions at times of death. Jesus has lived a human life and has experienced the reality of both our suffering and our joy. His words to those gathered with him come from firsthand knowledge of how difficult life is and how hard it is to say good-bye.
Oh, how my own father and I struggled to say good-bye. I sat at his bedside throughout his last night, holding his hand, stroking his head, administering morphine under his tongue. Knowing his death was imminent, my brother Rod had chosen to stay the night and was asleep in an upstairs bedroom. I have sat with so many dying people that I knew when it was time to wake my brother. After several hours passed, I asked Rod to take a turn in my chair to give a break. Within a few minutes, Rod called me: “Robin, he’s awake!”
I rushed back to his bed and cradled my father’s head in my hands. His look was one of terror. “It’s OK, Dad. You can let go. I promise—you are going to a beautiful place,” I whispered. Then, looking at the clock, I saw that it was five a.m., and I blurted out words that in that moment seemed inexplicable: “Dad, it’s five o’clock! It’s time to get up to milk the cows!”
What I believe happened is that I needed to find some way of acknowledging the comfort of the place where he was going. And, suddenly, that dying man, my father, became a boy again. He looked into my eyes one last time, and then focused on a place just above and behind him. He was clearly looking at something, someone. The fear on his face was replaced with the calm of peace, his loving eyes gazing beyond my brother and mother and me. And then he let go and I watched his spirit leave his body.
In those moments or grief, something else happened to me. My father was gone, and I was devastated. Yet, I felt I knew him more deeply than ever before. In the midst of shock and unimaginable sorrow, I somehow felt bigger, fuller, expanded. It was as though he had taken up residence in the deepest, safest, most beautiful place—in me.
I wonder if the disciples, only after separation, were able to experience the full implications of their relationship with Jesus. Perhaps it was only in his death that they were capable of understanding who he was. Only then could he truly be made known to them and become part of them. This, I believe, is a statement of the power of what comes—after.
“In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? I will come again and will take you to myself.”
My Beloved Friends, during these days, as thousands upon thousands die seemingly senseless deaths, I confess I know very little more than that twenty-six-year-old, in a hospital room with a dying woman declaring that I knew nothing of death. I confess that I still struggle with tough and unanswerable theological questions. But this I believe: when we walk through dark and shadowed valleys of death, we do not walk alone. The one who became a co-sufferer with us stays with is through it all. And what comes after is a place prepared especially for us and it is a place of beauty and love.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
At every committal service I have presided over, I have offered these words, written by my friend Michael Perza:
“May the angels carry you.
May they lift you to our God.
May they take you to the holy place of saints’ and martyrs’ song.
May you rest for evermore,
And be bathed in living light.
May the angels sing in welcoming
You home to paradise.”