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A Holy Journey - April 2012

by Karen G. Bockelman

It was during the Sunday morning worship service, at the time set aside for sharing joys and concerns. Henry, a retired pastor, a widower in his mid-90s and a member of the congregation, stood up. “I have been diagnosed with congestive heart failure,” he said, “and my death is just a matter of time. I want you to know I would appreciate cards and visits.”

Those present were a bit startled; usually Henry spoke with humor and this level of seriousness was something new. And it was unexpected to hear the news of terminal illness, not from a spouse or close friend, but from the person who was dying.

But Henry had always been forthright. When asked why he had announced his own impending death, he replied “You are my friends and I wanted to tell you myself. I thought it might provide the opening for some good conversation.” And so it did. Henry had given his friends and family the gift of a holy journey, time to walk together in faith. It is never easy to hear that someone you know and care about is dying. And the hearing is not any easier when the news comes directly from the lips of that someone. If you hear bad news second or third hand, from a family member or mutual friend, you can share your dismay, offer your assistance, promise your prayers, but without the worry of saying just the right words. Face to face with another’s certain death, it is easy to get tongue-tied or fall silent all together.

In the End

There are times when we are blessed to have the opportunity to set out on this holy journey, to walk with the dying; but again that is not always possible. Not everyone who is dying can be a Henry, able to acknowledge finality and welcome the presence of others. There are the dying whose very young age or level of dementia requires a holy imagination for the holy journey. Death can come suddenly, without warning.

Death can be violent, even self-inflicted, leaving no chance to share the journey. And with all the best intentions in the world, we human beings will be imperfect in our journeying. We will miss opportunities, we will say the wrong thing, we will make promises we can’t keep. We will be like Jesus’ disciples.In the face of this reality, there are two things that keep me going—the certainty of God’s unfailing presence and the promise of Easter. May this Holy Week, and all your holy journeys, be accompanied by those assurances.

Karen G. Bockelman is a retired ELCA pastor, living in Duluth, Minnesota. She is trying to bring extravagance, meaning, and presence into her father and stepmother’s holy journey with Alzheimer’s.

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