Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 – The 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time – for November 6, 2011

“…it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….” (Joshua 24:17)

I remove the phone from its cradle and press numbers on the keypad.

Tap-tap-tap . . . quite often I’ll stop before the seventh digit. I pause. I pray (sometimes silent, sometimes a few muttered words) for the one I’m about to talk with even though I’ve never met them. What will I say to this person—a spouse, parent, child, friend—who has experienced the death of a loved one?

Like so many places within the Bible, I’ll repeat again and again the same story. For example, the tale of trusting God and casting off the bonds of slavery is told and retold ad nauseam in scripture. No, that’s not a fair description; exodus is repeated with abundance and fidelity for it is a central story in the human and Holy relationship. Few aspects of what it means to trust God, to choose a hopeful future over a hurtful past, are demonstrated as well as retelling the escape from the Egyptians and the journey through the wilderness. Joshua 24:17 declares, “…it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….” Psalm 78:4 emphasizes, “…we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord…” These readings appear as two of the four scripture lessons on the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time. Indeed, they seem “ordinary” since exodus is the oft-told memory and promise in two hundred—or two thousand—other Biblical accounts.

Since last August my volunteer work at a Fresno-area hospice has focused on bereavement calls. I am a small voice in the team of professionals and volunteers supporting a family before, at, and following a loved one’s death. Bereavement begins when a client/patient has died. A first contact is made weeks after the last breath. A final call comes prior to the first anniversary of the death. A series of regular mailings—with reassuring comments and suggestions for self-care—conclude in the month after the anniversary.

Quite often I don’t talk to the client.

The phone is disconnected. After all, death frequently sets in motion radical changes for an individual or family.

No one answers the phone. Since calls are made during “work hours,” the person is away at job, school or errands . . . and I’ll leave a message.

Many people these days either have no answering machine (tired of all those computer-generated requests for money) or never answer because they screen calls. Occasionally I suspect the person I’m seeking chooses not to answer. It’s too painful, too unsettling, and so my voice echoes in a kitchen or bedroom while another listens, unable to leave the sound of my voice.

I call and hear a cheerful recorded greeting made by a grandchild for their grandparents. One of those grandparents is now dead. I call and the voice of a young mother or father invites me to leave a message and I know she or he is no longer alive.

I call and the person answers. She gushes about how helpful hospice was during that most awful time. I call and a man mumbles only a few responses because he can’t talk about the worst wound in his life. I call and she’s so glad her father is no longer suffering. I call and he admits he’s lost twenty pounds and doesn’t know if he can make it to the next day or week.

Recently I called a client. Her sibling’s death—eleven months before—had been tough, but the chaplains, social workers and nurses all reported she had accepted the death and “grieved appropriately.” The moment she heard I was calling from hospice, she wailed. Though headed to a mortuary for her spouse’s “viewing,” she decided to answer the phone. Her spouse had died only days before. Suffering and death buffeted her life like winter storms without end.

Tap-tap-tap . . . I know if I leave a message, I’ll say nearly the same thing to each person: We are thinking about you; Hospice is here if you need any help; We know this is a difficult time. I’ll repeat those sentences five or ten or twenty times in an afternoon of calling.

Tap-tap-tap . . . I know if someone answers, I’ll say nearly the same thing to each one: Is this a good time to talk?; We want to check on how you are doing; Are you receiving our mailings?

And yet it’s never the same. In an awkward, unsatisfactory way, I record a message that is a prayer, knowing a person will soon push “play” and listen to my words. When I converse with another—maybe they’re across town or across the country—I’ll share the basics about our support, alert to their silence or hurt or memories or loneliness.

Exodus is repeated over and over and over, Old Testament and New. In the Torah. By the prophets. Through the Psalms. It is tucked inside parables about prodigal sons and accompanies a woman on her hands and knees searching for a tenth silver coin. Healings declare it. Miracles symbolize it. Visions long for it.

God listens to cries of misery. God delivers people to freedom. God will always be with them. With us. With me. With you.

Tap-tap-tap . . . we are thinking about you; we care about you; you are not alone.

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  1. Death seems so natural, but when it happens , it singes our soul to the core. We never expect it until it is upon us, even though it is inevitable. Is there another way of wrapping our ingrained brains around this transformation? Has living in the United States brought a different view of death to us that has not to other countries? Do we block the thought of it out and secretely live in fear? where, perhaps, other countries embrace it?

    1. Thanks for the comments, Jenny. In all the churches I’ve served I’ve known folks who won’t write a will because they think it will inevitably lead to their death. You know: eat dessert, gain weight. Make a will, doctor will soon announce you only have a year to live. We humans are as splendid as we are odd.

  2. I always wonder how the professional dispensers of consolation and hope deal with grief when it hits their lives. I wonder that because as a Seminary student, I have one step in that world and one step out. That will not change when I graduate because I am not getting an MDiv, only a Masters in Theology. I’m not bothering with all the counciling and preaching and pastoral care stuff. But tell someone that I have a seminary degree and they will see the foot in and not the foot out.
    This goes along with one of the very few things over which I was angry with the three people I loved, all now gone. They all had the impression that I depended on them, and could not be a whole person without their help. In the end, I buried all three of them, being a strong support for both my fiance and my mother up to the time they died. And, I did not need a whole lot of help from hospice folks. In fact, I was kinda annoyed when they came around offering help with grieving. My mother annoyed me especially because she always kept close contact with some old friends as a source of help (for which she paid with gifts), in spite of the fact that I was living with her. She said I didn’t love her, which was one great big passive aggressive charge (I think) all the time I was cooking her meals, managing her pills, taking her to doctors, finding new doctors, and driving her wherever she wanted to go. Even worse, before I retired, she was afraid that after raising me and putting me through college, she would have to “take care of me” when I retired, expecting that I would get sick before she did. Of course, that has all taken on a new light now that I have my long-awaited diagnosis of prostate cancer (caught early). I now have a far better sense that I will probably last only a few more years than my father (maybe 10) rather than live as long a my mother (22). That adds an extra urgency to graduating this spring and doing something worthwhile in the next 10 years….All of this seems a lot more important than worrying about anyone supporting me through the loss of my mother. I can deal with it very well, thank you. Two years of seminary would have seemed to be a waste if that were not my reaction….Phew, where did that all come from.

    1. Sorry to hear about the prostate cancer. And isn’t it true how people react to finding out you’re in seminary. In one of Frederick Buechner’s books, he reports a family member’s question: “Was going to seminary your idea or were you poorly advised?” Same with reactions to hospice. Some have positive experiences, some not. Take care Bruce!!

    2. Bruce, life is just full of unknowns..I graduated with my Masters and the same month I was disabled..hmm..BUT, I remember someone telling me that it was the end results I should be looking at and I told them that it was the journey..I still believe this

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