“I’ve graduated from Physical Therapy class.” Eileen said on a recent speaker-phone visit. “Good for you, Eileen”, I praised. “As Valedictorian,” she added proudly and continued, “When I told Lynette the same thing, she asked, ‘How many in your class. Mom?’ I said, just one--me.” This gives you an idea of Eileen’s good humor despite her unexplained blindness at such a young age and how our ensuing conversation turned out to be an excellent follow-up example on the origin of my blog subjects. After finishing the Jealousy-Envy blog the night before, I had no inkling of the next subject.
Mac, Eilleen and I chatted about food, family, garden and counseling. Mac shared how he dealt with a client’s questions about the afterlife of loved ones by telling her that there’s a thin line between death and life and he believes that a person’s last breath on earth, in essence, is their first breath in heaven. This led to our reminiscing about Mom, one of our favorite topics, and the comfort that comes from sharing stories about our loved ones who’ve preceded us, and our confidence that they are happily settled in their heavenly home.
“When Mom was nearing her 100th birthday, I asked her if she still prayed for me,” Mac said. ‘I don’t do that anymore,’ she admitted. “It was around that time when she began refusing our phone calls which obviously conveyed that mom was done with physical life and was eager to move on”, Mac surmised.
We continued discussing the possibility of sensing the presence of a deceased loved one, gathering information that would encourage his client. We agreed that we don’t understand all that is involved with the spirits of people who have gone ahead of us except that after bodies die, according to scriptural accounts, spirits live on is about all we know. We chatted about the near-death experiences that we’d heard about and how some people receive a premonition that they’re going to die. “My dad, who was in good health, predicted that he was going to die in three days. Eileen shared. “And just as he predicted, he died on the anniversary of my mom’s death.”
Eileen’s story reminded me about Jim’s granddad’s final days. When we pastored the mission in Verhalen, Texas, Papa Ward, 93 years old, spent the weekend with us. On Saturday morning, Papa and I were visiting and snapping beans at the kitchen table when he calmly said, “I talked to Sally last night”. “What did you say to her,” I asked. “I told her I’d be seeing her soon,” as he wiped a tear away with the back of his gnarly hand. Even though his deceased wife had been gone for more than 30 years, talking about Sally had always been first on Papa’s conversation-agenda.
About that time, Jim came through the kitchen, gave me a kiss and said he was going to make a quick butane run. Papa straightened up and said, “I’m going with you.” He knew he’d have to climb into the truck but he always jumped at the chance to be with Jim.
On Sunday, Papa accompanied us to church, proud to hear his grandson preach. After a quick lunch, we spent a quiet afternoon. When we were getting the kids dressed to return for the evening service, Papa said he’d prefer staying home. Upon our return, as usual, Jim and I got busy dishing out our routine Sunday evening ice-cream treat and asked the kids to alert Papa Ward that the ice-cream was ready. They came downstairs with the message “Papa wouldn’t talk”. We went up to check and found him lifeless in bed. “He kept his promise to Sally.” I said with a sigh of relief.
“I don’t recall ever hearing that story, Ruthie,” Mac said. “What we’ve been talking about this morning would make a good blog,” Eileen said. I wasn’t thinking of a blog at all, but asked “What title would you suggest?” With barely a pause, “Cloud of Witnesses,” Eileen suggested.
As I continued to gather notes for the blog, Eileen’s memory about her dad’s premonition reminded me about a conference leader who was prominent in Jim’s and my spiritual growth and the unbelievable story that one morning after he had spent much time preparing and praying for the day of ministry with young people, he told his wife that he had a strong impression that he was going to die that day. He detailed many things that she would need to know and they virtually kissed goodbye. Later that afternoon, in a boat on the conference center lake he saw a person struggling in the water and jumped in to help. He drowned. These are unusual experiences for sure but it says to me that we are wise to look ahead for when our physical life might end. Obviously, advance notice is very rare.
My notes centered on Mac’s statement ‘there’s a thin line between death and life’ and my own experience in parting with Jim, assuming that because we were happily entwined for so many years that I could more readily sense his spiritual presence at times. When I look at his pictures, it’s natural to say, “Good morning, Jim.” And later I hear myself saying, “Ok, Jim, how do I fix this?” When I journal, I am surprised that instead of recording events as usual, I notice that I’m actually writing to Jim. “That is excellent healing”, my brother, John, reminds me. I recommend to any of you who are still grieving to dedicate a notebook to your loved one and address them as often as you please.
Remembering conversations and special times had with loved ones who have passed often accompanied by tears is also comforting and healing. Both contribute significantly to healthy grieving. I’ve learned from others, and then by experience, that the grieving process varies widely with people. Some never shed a tear; others cry for years. I’ve known several people who even though they dearly loved their spouses did not begin the grieving process for a year.
The background for the cloud of witnesses that Eileen suggested comes from Hebrews 11 and 12 where just five of the Old Testament characters are chosen to make up the Faith in action group. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance... v.13 --Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Heb. 12:1-2
I believe that based on the verses in Hebrews, that Mom, Papa, Eileen’s dad, the conference leader, Jim, along with others who have died in faith have all become part of the cloud of witnesses giving those who remain a sense of their presence. I trust that if you are in the same ‘grieving boat’ that you will be intrigued, encouraged and comforted.
Father, thank you for your constant unconditional love, peace and your promise of eternity in your presence. Help us to live and speak wisely to glorify you.