This morning before church I received a call that gave me that sinking feeling. You know the one…when it feels like every organ in your body is being pushed up into your throat. It was my sister with the sad news that our sweet Becky was in her last moments. This will sound odd to some, but it was heartbreaking and at the same time heartening. Becky had fought hard these past weeks to stick around as long as possible. But today, she would be reunited with her twin Andrea. I hung up the phone and was immediately cast back to our friend and professor Bob Giuliano from Huron College. “There will be days when your world is upside down people,” he would bellow. “And you still have to go and lead worship with the people of God.” How true. So I found myself in church unprepared to be there – but in entirely the right place. I had not looked at the lectionary readings for today and I was astonished when Art Shields stood to read the first reading. It was from the prophet Isaiah.
Here is what he read:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.
I was not ready to be in church this morning. My mind was about 3600 km away. But God found me in that place. God found me in the words that were read by a man I admire and respect. Hearing those words from a man who has lived his own heartache, knowing as I heard them what was happening so many miles away was for me a deeply spiritual experience. I found that to be a powerful reading this morning. God prepares ‘a feast’ for the elect. “Rich food!” A feast! I am heartened by the idea of Becky and Andrea feasting! In the face of feeding tubes, those words bring great comfort. “God will swallow up death forever.” Imagine that. “God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” “This is the God for whom we have waited.” In these past weeks and months and in the past three years there has been too much waiting. Today brought heartache and at the same time today brought peace, a peace that has been long awaited. Last Sunday I preached about the Advent theme of keeping awake and ready. I preached about how difficult the night watch can be. I think that those who have spent many hours awake at a bedside being caregiver in palliative situations know all too well how difficult this waking, watching and waiting can be.
The psalm today, by the way, was Psalm 23. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil. For, you are with me. Your rod and staff, they comfort me.” We have all watched as Gary and Annette and Leah have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. They have done so with dignity and with great love. I am so very proud of them for their courage and for their strength. I know that God has been with them in the midst of this most painful of journeys. You see, that is the promise of God. ‘You [God] are with me!’ The promise is manifest in the story of the incarnation which we are all preparing to celebrate. That is what Christmas is – God with us. God – one with us. The beauty is that God is with us in all manner of life – even the hardest parts of it. Emmanuel – God with us. In advent we sing with great enthusiasm the great Hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: Hear one of the verses;
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
All day, I have been singing in my mind as a prayer mantra for Gary and Annette and Leah, for my sister Helen and for Gary Sr., for Frances and Don, and for all who grieve Becky’s death – “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadow put to flight.”
There is a Jewish saying – “God is closest to those with broken hearts.” I know that there are a lot of broken hearts tonight. When we are bereaved we can be sure that we are not alone. While my family mourns, millions more mourn as well. What is more, in the midst of all of the broken heartedness God is to be found consoling, caressing, embracing, and comforting. Emmanuel – our God is with us!
We need to be with my family. Pray for us as we travel and pray for us as we say our final farewell to Becky. We began 2008 saying prayers of comfort for Andrea and now we bring 2008 to a close by saying farewell to her sweet twin sis Becky. Pray for all with broken hearts.