Blessed are the Merciful

I’ve told some of the women in my Bible study group that my favorite word lately is “mercy.”  It does keep popping up everywhere.  Two of our pastoral call candidates used the word “mercy” when we interviewed them, and I knew they were good pastors, compassionate and kind.  My friend Debbie and I restarted the Mercy group at church after Pastor Matt left, to organize more of us to go visit our homebound and to look after our sick and struggling.  My blog is named “Mercies and Joys” because it seems like everything that God gives us falls under one or both of those categories.  I am so dependent on God’s mercy every day, every hour, every minute.   He gives it to me in abundance.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 

And then there is the Mount of Beatitudes.  I’ve saved the Mount of Beatitudes in my heart all this time since our Holy Land trip.  It really was my favorite place in the Holy Land and so special to me.  After we left Jerusalem, we stopped at Mt. Tabor and Nain, but then came to the Mount of Beatitudes to stay a few nights.  Catholic nuns run a “hospice” on the Mount, and there are nice hotel rooms, a conference center, a church, and the most beautiful grounds overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

IMG_0750

We were tired and went to bed pretty quickly after Compline the first night.  Due to jet lag, I had been waking early every morning (luckily I only woke really early–3am–the first morning in Jerusalem, otherwise it was usually dawn).  The first morning on the Mount of Beatitudes, I woke up to the sun rising over the Sea of Galilee.  Because we arrived in the dark, I was pleasantly surprised that our room was facing it.  Every morning after, I looked out the window for as long as I could. And if I hadn’t had to get the kids up, I would’ve been out there.  They were still, peaceful mornings, full of grace.

IMG_1694

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

I walked along the grounds one morning after breakfast and took in the beautiful plants and the plaques and tiles.  Our last night there, we ate St. Peter’s fish for dinner (apparently it is tilapia, who knew). I’ve never had a whole fish before– it was good!

IMG_1360

Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.

The next morning, we had our last Divine Service with Pastor Matt.  We read the whole Sermon on the Mount, taking a section each, and when we had communion, we all drank from the common cup.  I had already spent his last Divine Service at Gloria Dei crying my eyes out, so I tried to just enjoy the moment and receive God’s mercy into my mouth and my soul.  Our Lord’s Supper was, as it should be, the culmination of everything.  Every moment was cherished.

IMG_0777

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

God is close to me everywhere, but He was palpably close there.  He gave me mercy, comfort, and a deep joy that has not left. Since then, my desire to help people, to befriend them, to be kind and encouraging to them has strengthened.  I am blessed.

IMG_1346

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

We left the Mount of Beatitudes and went to Cana, Nazareth, and ultimately, Tel Aviv, where we said goodbye to some of our pilgrims who were not going on to Jordan with us the next day.  It was a beautiful pilgrimage.  I hope I get to go again someday.  But if I don’t, it was enough.

IMG_1340

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  

IMG_1362

IMG_1364

IMG_1358

IMG_1350
IMG_1341

IMG_1372

Echoes of Heaven

As a hospice nurse, there were patients and families that I always remembered long after they passed.  I always worked per diem, so I didn’t usually see patients more than once.  One patient in particular really affected me when I first started working as a hospice nurse.  I had only been trained for about four months when I started working in the evenings as an admission nurse.  There were several reasons we admitted patients after hours: sometimes patients had family members who couldn’t be there except in the evenings.  Many times, these were last minute calls that day, and they really needed hospice right now.  This was one of those cases.

Her life seemed perfect.  She was about 39 years old, lived in a very nice house, and was model-beautiful.  She had a very nice husband and three little boys, and the youngest was about two years old.  But she was dying.  She had an aggressive cancer called cholangiocarcinoma, which starts in the bile ducts.  When I got her diagnosis from the office, I didn’t even know what it was.  I had to look it up.  She was being discharged from a well-known hospital after having undergone a procedure to keep her bile ducts open and the bile moving, but it didn’t work.  She developed an infection.  There was too much cancer, and her liver was obviously failing.  She was jaundiced, vomiting, confused, and had ascites (fluid building up in the abdomen).  She was so confused she thought she was pregnant.

One of the things that struck me is that she spent fifteen months on chemotherapy continuously, but she never talked with her family about the possibility she would die.  She probably never anticipated that she might die while not being lucid for some time before that.  She was a strong Christian, and so was her family, but her mother and father didn’t want to talk about dying.  They wanted her to live–they wanted a miracle.  I wanted her to live too, but unfortunately, I’ve never seen that happen.  Yet they needed our help, and she was admitted to hospice.

I think the reason that she has stayed with me is not because we had much meaningful interaction; I did the difficult tasks of getting her set up as best I could for the night (not always easy after hours).  I had another nurse coming with her medicine, and her regular nurse and a nurse practitioner would see her the next day.  But I think it was because I saw myself in her–mostly the age, not the beauty!  🙂

At some point as a hospice nurse, I had to face my own mortality.  For awhile, I had dreams that I was the one dying (sometimes they were closer to nightmares).  Sometimes I dreamed it was someone close to me who was dying.  And then after awhile, it all went away.

It wasn’t anything that I did to deal with it.  I think it was God working on me.  We had a pastor who would talk quite frequently about Jesus’ view of death.  In the Gospels, Jesus calls death “sleep.”  He makes it clear that He has authority over death, so that calling someone awake from death is no more difficult to Him than waking someone up from a deep sleep.  Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is especially poignant now, in a very practical way.  Jesus rose and, through that, defeated death for all of us.  Death is not permanent–life is.  As Gandalf says in Return of the King, “death is just another path, one we all must take.  The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass… And then you see it…White shores… and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”  Heaven.

In C.S. Lewis’ last book of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, Narnia passes away and the Pevensies and the rest of the children are all in heaven at the end.  Aslan is there, with loving and kind eyes.  He ushers them in and leads them on to show them his true country, the one that Narnia was only an echo of.  And the unicorn neighed and cried, “I have come home at last!  This is my real country!  I belong here.  This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.  The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this…Come further up, come further in!”  And they ran and ran without getting tired.

I don’t fear death now.  I see echoes of heaven all around me.  I see the echoes most distinctly at church.  The Lord’s Supper, the communion of the saints, the fellowship of those who are not related by blood but by something much more important.  I see it in the things that bring me joy–my kids, the love between a husband and wife, the innocence and loyalty of a dog.  I see it in the beauty of creation in my favorite wild places of the world.IMG_3232  I see the echoes of heaven in the love expressed and tears shed for a member of our church who recently died.  I see it in the work of the pro-life movement: the work of people who value all life, no matter how small, no matter how disfigured, old, or diseased.  I see echoes of heaven in love, and I imagine that someday we will be almost overwhelmed with it, when we go to heaven and meet our Aslan.

There’s nothing wrong with you if you do fear death, and I can’t say with any certainty that when I am truly faced with my own death, I won’t feel a bit of fear.  But keep your eyes fixed on Aslan, on the light instead of the darkness.  He will see us through to the other side.

Sublime

One thing that I learned about Israel is that they always straddle the line between the mundane and the sublime.  They go about their daily lives in a very productive way, and yet they live in the midst of ancient holy relics, amazing yet bloody history, and just a couple hundred miles away, there’s a war going on. There’s always been a war going on in the Middle East.  But still, a person has to work, eat, sleep, and try to carry on.

IMG_0712
chicken schnitzel in pita bread

In the middle of our Holy Land pilgrimage, we were going from Jerusalem to Mount Tabor, and we stopped to have lunch.  The bus driver took us to a town called Beit She’an, to this little place he knew about, which looked out onto a children’s playground, just down the street from some ancient Roman ruins.  We heard about the owner’s son who was shot and left for dead during a terrorist incident in the town some years back.  Then we got a choice between chicken schnitzel or sausage (which turned out to be big hot dogs).  🙂    And the one who was shot served them to us.  He was fine.  

After we were done eating, my daughter Rachel went over to play at the playground just across the street to stretch her legs, and the rest of us lined up to go to the restroom before proceeding back on the bus.  All of a sudden, a large flock of sheep, with a shepherd and two sheepdogs, swarmed around them.  The sheep were very peaceful and didn’t really even notice Rachel (whose name means “innocent lamb”). IMG_1243 The shepherd led them there, and they ate the bountiful, healthy green grass.   We gathered to watch, and I stood near my shepherd, and thought about shepherds and sheep.

Since then, I have spent a lot of time thinking about shepherds and their sheep.  That tends to happen when you’re on the call committee: you spend a lot of time thinking about what a shepherd means to you and what kind of under-shepherd you want.  One thing that under-shepherds do is straddle the line between the mundane and the sublime all the time.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and our pastors work under Him to serve His flock.  Our pastors are sinners, just like us, and yet they are “stewards of the mysteries of God.” (1 Cor 4).

IMG_0713Our pastors are responsible for delivering Christ to us: through His Word, through His Body and Blood, and through the waters of Baptism.  These men give us Jesus in a very earthy and physical sense, but combining that plain water, that plain bread and wine with God’s Word, makes it sublime and powerful.

IMG_0714
the shepherd leading his flock

Choosing a pastor is a strange thing, because as Lutherans, we also believe in the Divine Call.  We believe God is working through us on the call committee and the congregation to call a pastor to our beloved church. “The call is divine in that God has taken the initiative to establish the office. It is God who calls an individual to serve the ministry of the Word within the office. And it is God who promises to bless such work. But the call also has a human dimension in that God entrusts the task of calling to human beings.” * This is so true.  We must remember that though God is working through us to call a pastor, God is still the one who is doing the calling.  We are sinners working on the call committee, having disagreements, getting frustrated, ultimately coming to an uneasy consensus.  But we trust that through the joys and the mercies, ultimately God is bringing us who we need to be our shepherd.

IMG_1252
the sheepdogs

We are nearing to extending a call to a pastor, and we are getting ready.  I sure hope he accepts our call, whoever he is.  There’s a verse in the Bible that I found after I wrote my original post “Joy and Sorrow.”  It says, “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”  (John 16)  I’m not saying everything is going to be perfect when we have a new pastor.  He’s still going to be a sinner.  We’re still sinners. And things are not even bad now; we have a great vacancy pastor who is doing a wonderful job, and the sorrow I had from losing a pastor has turned into anticipation of another.  But it will be a real joy to taste that wine from Cana with him.  We will be sheep with a shepherd again, embarking on an adventure through the mundane and the sublime together. IMG_1250

*from “Theology and Practice of the Divine Call,” LCMS

He is Risen

The day after we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we went to the Garden Tomb.  It is an interesting contrast to the Holy Sepulchre: it is outside of the Old City of Jerusalem, it is a beautiful garden, and it is run by Protestants.  😉

IMG_1099
A spot next to the Garden Tomb that looks like a skull
IMG_1098
Our guide

Our guide was a pastor from the Anglican church in England.  The first thing he did when we arrived was sat us down across from the place where Golgotha may have been and preached the Gospel to us.  It was delightful.  He told us that the people who run the Garden Tomb are not claiming that this IS the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried, but that it could have been, and that, at the very least, it looks a lot like what it must have looked like at the time.  In this garden was a very old wine press (now restored), from about Jesus’ time, and tombs carved out of rock.  It is thought that someone wealthy owned the tombs because they are so big, and they would be for the whole family.  That would be consistent with the Gospel account of Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent wealthy Jewish man, giving his tomb to Jesus.

Old winepress
Old winepress

IMG_1190After our talk with the guide, we got to walk around for some time, then came back together to have a little Divine Service with Pastor Matt.  My daughter, Rachel, was confirmed during the service, and we received the Lord’s Supper.  Rachel got her first taste of Christ’s body and blood.  It was a beautiful morning together.

IMG_0724
Inside the tomb
IMG_0708
Rachel’s confirmation
IMG_1200
With Pastor Matt after Rachel’s confirmation in the Garden Tomb
IMG_1124
Time for contemplation
IMG_1194
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth…”
IMG_0726
The door of the empty tomb

IMG_0723IMG_1117 IMG_1127 IMG_1139 IMG_1187