Preparing for that Last Breath

Throughout the year I hold worship services in various places offsite. One place I go to regularly is a retirement community in a nearby township. I’m there the third Tuesday of every month. I suppose, technically, I’m not necessarily obligated to go there, especially because it’s been five or so years since anyone in my congregation has been a resident there (although I should say that within the last year, family members of folks from my congregation have moved into the place).

Still, members or no members, I continue to go. I do this, first, because of the attachment. I’ve come to know the people there and it would be really hard to just sheer those lines, especially since most of them don’t see or hear from their own churches for what seems to be years at a time. However, I’ll admit to feeling a bit conflicted knowing that there are so many other things to attend to during the week here in my own congregation, and doing what I do there takes an irretrievable chunk out of one morning a month—a chunk I can rarely spare.

But still I go.

I suppose another reason I keep doing this is because of what I, as a Christian man, am so often privileged to behold there.

Take for example Helen. She’s 98. She’s completely blind. When she comes into the little room, she knows her way to the back left corner where she always sits. She can’t see the order of worship or the hymn page that I hand out before the service, but she asks for them anyway. And then all through the service, her head somewhat lifted up, an obvious happiness about her, she sings along with the liturgy, being sure to give the appropriate responses, singing the stanzas of hymns she knows, speaking the confession, praying the prayers. She knows it all. I love seeing just how deeply the Word of God by way of a memorized order of service can be embedded in a human heart and at the ready when the senses are failing.

Then there’s Margarete. She’s a 95-year-old German. Literally. Her accent is thick. She was born and raised in a village outside of Berlin. She came to the United States after World War II, so as you can probably guess, she lived through some of the worst of times in history. She’s a dear woman who will sometimes call me just to make sure I’m coming for worship as scheduled. She got my number in a roundabout way. I didn’t see her one month at worship, and because she never misses, I asked the facility director about her absence. I discovered that she’d broken her leg and was in a rehabilitation facility nearer to where her son lives. Later that week after visiting one of my own members in the hospital, I made a quick trip down to see her to say hello. She was so happy for the visit, and she expressed an incredible sadness for missing worship and not telling me. No big deal, of course. She’s 95 and her leg was broken. The fact that she was so concerned was heartwarming, and so with that, I gave her my number to ease her worry.

What a sweet lady.

Then there are the married couples who attend. We have a few. One couple in particular (relatively new in the last year) is Wally and Edna. Wally is 88. Edna is 95. They’ve been married for 63 years. This past week they sat side by side so humbly in the less-than-spectacular setting of the little room in which the service occurs. Always a kind thing to say, Wally makes small talk with the folks around him. Edna smiles. The service begins and their reverence follows along in stride. They are absolved together. They pray together. They listen to the preaching together. They receive the Lord’s Supper together. This past Tuesday I saw the Christian togetherness of this couple take another form—a beautifully human and yet still Godly form—as Wally reached over and took Edna’s hand, even if only for a moment before letting go. A simple touch, a reminder from a loving husband to a dear wife that God continues to bless them with the joy of being together in worship.

I like seeing those things. They are revealing moments.

For me personally, they stir a holy jealousy. I want what they have. If I live to be 98—like Helen—I want to do so knowing my place in the Lord’s house. I want to be able to lift my head and rise up into the Lord’s immersing grace in the liturgy, still retaining its eloquence, still holding onto all of it within the innermost chamber of my heart. I want to continue to love it so much that, like Margarete, if I’m ever unable to be present there, I want the uncomfortably nagging sensation of the absence. I never want to become comfortable with being away from worship. I want to thirst for Word and Sacrament. And like Wally and Edna, I want to be before the Lord, sitting beside the ones I love and leaning into the forthcoming decades with hands close enough to grasp if the moment requires it.

The Athenian poet Solon said so plainly, “I grow old ever learning many things.” As I get older, I’ve learned to want the things that the Christians hovering near the century mark down at Independence Village in Brighton have. If I stop going to see them, I fear I might be distracted by other, less consequential things.

And so I keep going, because these people are continual reminders to me of the prominent rank that the regular receiving of God’s grace in worship is to have. They emit the essentiality of being together as a Christian family to receive God’s gifts of forgiveness. They beam the stamina that these gifts have for meeting the twilight hours of one’s life.

It might sometimes seem like the worship here at Our Savior in Hartland is not all that important, let alone impressive, at least not in comparison to so many other things. But when I’m with these gem-like people who dwell in the midst of humanity with the rest of us, I get a brief glimpse into just how important and impressive for the soul all of it truly is. Every last bit of what we do here is preparing us for the moment of our last breath—the moment we will step into eternity to be with Christ forever.

What could be more impressive or important than that? Not much, that’s for sure.