As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
2 Corinthians 6:4-10
We seem to be in one of those pivot moments with COVID. The numbers of new cases and hospitalizations are going down by about half, and the most common greeting these days is “Have you been vaccinated yet?” I’m hearing from our local retirement communities that all residents and staff have received both doses of their vaccinations, to their and our great relief. It feels like the gloom of January has alleviated somewhat, and I just hope that we stay vigilant and careful, even as the numbers go from horrifyingly high to just bad.
As the blanket of death has lifted somewhat, I was struck by hearing from Stephanie Kang, who is a chaplain supervisor at a hospital in Whittier. During a committee meeting that she faithfully attended even in her stressful life, she shared the burden of caring: for patients who die in isolation, for their families who cannot adequately say good-bye, and for the healthcare workers who continue to work in war-like conditions of long hours and overwhelming death, exemplified by the four temporary morgues parked at her hospital. I have not asked enough for prayers for our chaplains and health care workers in our communities, as they are focused on their life-saving work now, but also as they transition to the time when they will have enough time for the waves of grief to come in. Our chaplains for retirees, Lauren Evans and Diane Frasher, have been thinking about ways to address the grief that will be welling up in our retirement communities, but also in all of us, and we hope to be able to share more soon.
In the life of the church, Ash Wednesday—this Wednesday—is a time for us to remember our own mortality. I have never known a year when our mortality is so apparent, as we contemplate the frailty of our existence on this earth. It has certainly been a time for us to reflect on our need for God, and the great love that God has, so much that God can love each of us enough to enter into our own brokenness in Jesus Christ. I was delighted to receive the gift of a “Lent in a Bag” kit from my family church, First Presbyterian Altadena. I think they were partly inspired by some ideas shared at WinterFest (which is so thrilling to me), and their thoughtfulness truly touched me.
As it happens, this coming Saturday is the 10-year anniversary of my father’s death. Like Stephanie’s sharing, this came to me during a committee meeting, and my first reaction was just reflecting on how old I am now, because a friend responded by being shocked that it’s been that long since he died. But then I remembered another time the Altadena church folk came to our house. Dad had just come home under hospice care, and my sister and I went to Altadena that Sunday morning, as much as anything to let them know that he was near death. Several members of the church asked if they could come visit him, and so they came that afternoon and surrounded his bed with their love and prayers.
At the time, Altadena had a young man playing piano for worship, and he brought his portable keyboard so they could sing for my dad. The young man’s father (who happens to be Fuller professor Mark Lau Branson) whispered to his son, reminding him that Mr. Tajima preferred hymns rather than praise songs. Noah said “yeah, Dad, I know.” And so they sang some hymns, prayed, and said farewell. Dad went on to the Lord shortly after they left.
Yesterday was Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before Lent. I tend to think of the Transfiguration as a moment when the curtain between eternity and mortality was pulled back, giving Jesus and his followers an image of the life that never ends, as Jesus neared the end of his earthly days. That day 10 years ago was an image for me of how church can give that glimpse of heaven, as my father’s soul was lifted up to eternity by the songs, prayers, and love of his church family.
As I share this precious memory, I am heartbroken that not all deaths can be experienced in the loving embrace of family and friends, especially during this pandemic. Perhaps this is why I am so grateful to the nurses and other healthcare workers who have taken on that added role as human bridge to loved ones who cannot be physically present. I can only pray that just as we can know the love of God without God appearing to us in the flesh, all those who transition into eternal life are drawn forward by God’s grace, and the temporary pains of this world are quickly forgotten.
And for those of us left behind, I am grateful beyond words for our churches who are finding ways to love our people, especially those who are grieving. Even if we are apart, even when we lose loved ones, we are not alone, we are not forgotten, and thank God we are all loved by God, and each other. Mortal as we are, in Christ we are saved forever.
In the quiet of this Lenten season, may we know peace,