Night Is Coming

When death draws near for loved ones, we comprehend the truth God whispers to his people. “Work as long as it is day. Night is coming when no man can work.”We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day;
night is coming when no one can work.
While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.
John 9:4–5

Hiram and I are back from visiting family in Arizona. The weather was perfect, and knowing we’d escaped the sub-zero temperatures in Iowa made it feel even better. Part way through the week, my sister and I road-tripped to southern California to visit an elderly relative. I’ll spare you the description of our barefoot walk on a sunny beach in January the morning after we arrived, and skip straight to Muriel, the elderly relative.

She’s 87, sharp as a tack, and an amateur historian who has researched and compiled the story of her grandfather (my great-great-grandfather) during the Civil War. But, her sight is failing rapidly, as is her stamina and mobility. All three of us knew this might be our last visit together, so our hugs were extra long and hard when we said good-bye. Muriel was still waving when our car turned the corner. Leaving her was hard, but she is a woman of deep faith, not afraid of walking through the door from this life into the next.

The Monday after Hiram and I returned to cold and snowy Iowa, an email arrived from a friend in a nearby town. She’s also a writer, and I thought she was confirming the let’s-talk-about-writing coffee date we’d scheduled. Instead, this active, fit mom of three boys (ages 8–13) wrote to cancel because she had just been diagnosed with cancer. She and her husband hoped to know more after meeting with the doctor later in the week. Her note ended with these words. “We’re trying to just do the normal life things, and trust that God knows what he’s doing. I don’t doubt him. I really don’t. I don’t like what he’s doing, but I don’t doubt him.”

The tears that never came while saying good-bye to Muriel fell hard and fast after hearing from my young, talented, and very dear friend. My heart broke for her husband, for her sons, for the fight she faces, and for the words she will not be writing during her treatment. Even though my friend and I are certain of the glory waiting for her if she loses her fight, I am praying she will live to see her boys become men and husbands and fathers, and to experience the joy of being a grandma before she walks through that door.

Like Muriel and my young friend, I don’t doubt what God is doing. I know that though his thoughts are not my thoughts and his ways are not my ways, he can be trusted. I know we pay more attention to God’s voice when health fails and life grows short. We better understand his truths when we realize our days on this earth are numbered. The work he has for us to do on this side of death’s door will end.

When death draws near for those we love, we finally comprehend the truth God whispers into the ears of all his children. “Work as long as it is day. Night is coming when no man can work.” As we cry out to him in our grief and through our tears, we realize that our time on earth is precious and finite. And we redouble our efforts and redeem the time by doing his work with passion and purpose. Until the day he calls each of us to walk through the door of this world into the next.

Smelling the Lilacs While They Last this Fantastic Friday

LilacsThis post that first appeared in May of 2008 speaks for itself. Uncle Ralph, you are dearly missed.

On Sunday, the swiftness of death and the uncertainty of life touched me twice. Mom called after lunch with the news of her brother’s death. His son had called Saturday and said Ralph was failing. “Within a week,” he said. We thought we had a few days.

But Ralph didn’t mess around. He died like he lived – fast and full-steam ahead. The swiftness of his passing surprised but didn’t shock us. After all, he was in his late eighties and had lived a good life. Once we received funeral details, we crowded a trip to Minnesota  into the upcoming week’s plans and moved on.

In the evening, my husband and I helped at a graduation party for our friends’ daughter. During the festivities, word came that a tornado had destroyed a high school in Parkersburg, where the uncle and aunt of the graduate teach. Next we heard seven people had died in the storm. Then word spread that some of the deaths occurred at graduation parties. No one said the words, but we read them in one another’s eyes. It could have been here. It could have been us.

This morning I walked down our road. The grass glittered, washed clean by gentle rain in the night. The birds sang. The trees swayed gently in the breeze. The first iris bloomed in the ditch. The lilac branches drooped under the weight of blossoms at the height of beauty. Tomorrow, they’ll begin to fade. If the wind comes up, they’ll be gone.

I did the only thing I could in the face of the fading beauty of this life and the swiftness of death to come. Today, I smelled the lilacs.

Two Moments

sweet-nap-873331-mIn the past 7 days, I helped Mom move into assisted living on Monday, traveled to Wisconsin on Tuesday to help out with the our 2-year-old grandson and brand new granddaughter until Saturday, and joined our church Connection Group on Sunday afternoon to make 32 pans of scalloped potatoes and ham for an upcoming fundraiser.

After a week in the whirlwind, I am home alone today.
Catching up on neglected tasks.
Sitting in my comfy chair writing.
Reflecting on the many changes our family has undergone in a few short weeks.

2 moments stand out amongst the tornado of moments that swirled around and above and under and through my heart in 7 short days. The first moment came after my brother and I had moved Mom’s furniture, arranged her room, and returned to take her to her new home. When I announced it was almost time to leave and asked her to wait until I was done in the bathroom. While I was otherwise occupied, Mom grabbed her walker and headed out the door.

A few minutes later,
I found her in the garage,
standing in the 7 degree weather,
waiting to begin her new life with the grit and determination that is her hallmark.

The second moment came during my Wisconsin sojourn. I was sitting in the rocking chair holding our newborn granddaughter while her mommy spent some time with her big brother. I looked down at this little one’s tiny perfect face, felt the soft rise and fall of her breathing against my chest, and breathed in her sweet baby aroma. And there, in the center of a month marked by the gale force change, a calm descended upon my windblown heart.

Time evaporated,
my heartbeat slowed,
my body relaxed,
and I thanked God for wrapping my arms around the gift on my granddaughter’s new life.

My Aunt Lois

Aunt Lois

The call came last week. Lois Benson, Mom’s oldest sister, had died. She’d been failing for several months, so the news wasn’t unexpected. But it was unwanted by those of us left behind. But I suspect, as do others who loved her, that Lois was not sad to go. Not after enduring cruel losses in her immediate family.

The loss of her son Gary shortly after his high school graduation.
The loss of her son, Vernie, who was a young husband and the father of 3 little girls.
The loss of her husband Ivar in the 1990s.
The loss of her great-grandson Spencer a few years ago.

Gary died when I was five, and her sad smile laces my early memories of this dear woman. Her smile grew achingly, heart wrenchingly sad seven years later when Vernie died. But this is what I will always remember about Aunt Lois: though the smiles grew more fleeting and rare with each loss, she never stopped smiling.

When she talked about her faith, she smiled hopefully.
When she talked about her hobbies, handiwork and baking (if you never tasted one of Aunt Lois’s pies or traditional Norwegian baked treats, you are to be pitied), her smile was animated and bright.
When she talked about the accomplishments of her living children and her grandchildren, she positively beamed.

Today, as our family gathers together to say good-bye to Lois Benson, we will all be hoping and imagining the reunion:

Aunt Lois smiling without a hint of sadness.
Rejoicing to see Gary, Vernie, Ivar, and Spencer once again.
Her Savior leaning down to wipe her tears away.
Her faith fulfilled. Her hope secured.

Oh, Aunt Lois, we will miss you. But knowing you are home again makes us smile…but sadly.

And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.
Revelation 21: 4

No More Good-Byes

Good-by

We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
praying always for you,
since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus
and the love which you have for all the saints;
because of the hope laid up for you in heaven,
of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel.
Colossians 1:3–5

Sometimes, I don’t like being a grown up. Last week, when it was time to say good-bye to dear South Dakota friends and head home, was one of those times. A piece of my heart remained with them as I climbed in the car and drove away from the little town filled with people who loved and supported us during the early years of our very sick baby’s life.

But I had to leave because another piece of my heart lives in Iowa, in the town where Hiram and I raised our kids, where we have many friends who supported us during the trials and joys of life for almost three decades. Other bits of my heart are scattered all over the country and the world, wherever beloved rellies and friends now live. And every year, my heart cracks anew as I say final good-byes to dear ones God used to bless my life before he called them home.

With each good-bye, a bit more of my heart chips off. These good-byes makes it impossible to hold onto my foolish childhood belief that everyone who populated my secure world and loved me would be with me forever.  Life…and death…continually prove that my childhood belief isn’t truth. The truth of the matter is this:

People change.
People move.
People die.

In the shadow of that reality, my grown up self longs for and seeks after Someone who is true and loving and secure. Someone who never dies. Someone who can repair my heart, and the hearts of all who seek Him, for eternity. Who can that be but Christ, the One Paul calls “the hope of heaven?”

Christ is our hope on earth and in heaven. He is hope a person can cling to when saying good-bye. Hope to share with those God uses to bless our lives. Hope to encourage us to pray for those we love who don’t yet know Him. Hope to makes mature believers rejoice, knowing they are drawing ever closer to the Hope laid up for them in heaven.

Hope to make us eager to join Christ and the cloud of witnesses surrounding Him in a heaven where there are no more tears.

No more sorrows.
No more pain.
No more broken hearts.
No more good-byes.
And no more grown ups.

Just children of the Father, His saints reunited with one another and worshipping God’s Son forever and ever.

Amen.

Three Somber Thoughts for Thursday

Short grass prairie SD

  1. Last Thursday, word came that a high school friend had died of cancer. On Friday, the mother emailed to say her son with special needs had died during corrective surgery. On Monday, a friend was killed when a car hit his bicycle as he trained for RAGBRAI.
  2. Yesterday I listened to the debate in the wake of the Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling, some reasoned, some fearful, some angry.
  3. Life is brief. Cultures shift. Laws change. But in the midst of loss and storm, take comfort in this truth:

All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Isaiah 40: 6–8

Three Card-Giving Thoughts for Thursday

  1. These days, we seem to run out of sympathy cards faster than any other variety of greeting cards. Most of the recipients are people of our parents’ generation rather than our own. Even so, this is not a happy trend.
  2. On the other hand, baby cards are running a close second since people of our kids’ generation are being fruitful and multiplying with gusto. Babies are always a happy trend…for those who get to send cards but don’t have to stay up all night with little ones who get their days and nights mixed up.
  3. Members of the Baby Boomer generation are wondering what this year’s trends for and against sending Christmas cards so I can decide they can decide whether to send them, too.

Leave a comment to help me members of the Baby Boomer generation settle the issue once and for all.

photo credit: www.freedigitalphoto.net

How Can Uncle Harold Be Gone?

Some people give the impression they will live forever, and my husband’s Uncle Harold Walker was one of them. So when the news arrived on Wednesday that he died of a stroke last weekend, we could hardly believe it.

Not Uncle Harold…

who climbed up and down the mountains in the Idaho panhandle as a boy,
who trained to try out for the Olympic track team in the 1940s,
who as a WW2 pilot saw the Enola Gay take off with an atom bomb in the cargo bay,
who gave the silk parachute that saved his life to his fiance for her wedding dress,
who loved his wife, children, and grandchildren beyond measure,
who, with his bride, spent a year homesteading in Alaska,
who gave selflessly to the students he taught in school and guided in youth groups,
who coached countless youth in basketball and football,
who loved to hike, bow fish, and hunt,
who earned a doctorate in administration,
who served as a church administrator and school superintendent for decades,
who logged in the Idaho woods well into his 70s,
who created, along with his wife and children, a family camp on a mountainside,
who wrote books about his long and storied life,
who helped coach his granddaughter’s basketball team just last year,
and whose life was a testimony of what it means to love God and others.

How can he be dead? This precious man…

who touched our lives by welcoming us into his family circle,
who made us feel as if we’d always been part of it,
who welcomed us, with his wife, into their home last March,
who took us to lunch at Red Lobster, his favorite restaurant,
who a few weeks ago sent an email describing corn harvest during his childhood,
whose bright eyes and smile in the last photo we have of him now move me to tears.

How can we not simultaneously…

weep for our loss,
rejoice to have known him,
thank God for his swift departure,
and imagine with joy his reunion with the Savior he loved so dearly?

And That Is Dying

Yesterday morning’s date, March 4, kept niggling in my brain. But until an email arrived from my youngest cousin Dan, the significance of the date escaped me. It was the anniversary of my father’s death. The fifteenth anniversary, to be exact.

Fifteen years since Dad’s soul left the body that imprisoned him for so many years.
Fifteen years since his wide grin graced my day.
Fifteen years since his family said good-by to the bravest man we knew.
Fifteen years later, my cousin Dan remembered the loss by sending this passage. I hope resonates in you as deeply as it did in him and in me.

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle each other.

Then someone at my side says: ‘There, she is gone!’
‘Gone where?’
Gone from my sight. That’s all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear the load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says: ‘There, she is gone!’ There are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout: ‘Here she comes!’

And that is dying.
~ Henry Van Dyke

In memory of Harlan John Stratton: May 11, 1929 – March 4, 1997
Here he comes!

 

October Moon

My heart was heavy Sunday morning. Our dear friend Lyle died Saturday afternoon, leaving behind a wife and two high school-aged sons. My heart grieved for them, even though Lyle’s Christian faith had been his confidence, hope, and joy since his lung cancer was diagnosed a year ago.

When my mind wasn’t on Lyle and his family, I thought about another dear friend. Her birthday was Saturday, the day her daughter was supposed to get married. But the previous weekend, her daughter called and said there were problems. My friend and her husband rushed to the city where she lived to counsel the young couple. In the end, they called everything off. My friend spent her birthday helping her daughter move into a new apartment.

Why did God allow such suffering and disappointment, especially to people like these, good people who serve Christ wholeheartedly? Why is he allowing young people such heartache so early in their lives? Angry questions whirled inside my brain as I trudged down the road. My head bowed under the weight of my doubts. My eyes stared at the muddy road, soft after three grey days of almost constant drizzle and rain, and my feet slipped.

Then a noise, I don’t know what, maybe a bird or a car driving by, lifted my head, and I saw the moon. It waited, full and bright, on the east horizon in the clear, pale morning sky, and it’s sad beauty spurred me to prayer.

Lord, let my friends see this moon, too. Show them the beauty behind their storms. Show them your face and heal their broken hearts. Be their ever-present hope in times of darkness. Amen.

Did God answer my prayer? Did the widow and her sons, the couple and their jilted daughter see the October moon? Did he show them his face? I don’t know. But one day, when God wipes away their tears and collects them in a bottle, the moon will still be there. And they will look up.