Before I entered seminary, I volunteered as a chaplain at Valley Medical Center in Renton. Every Friday night I went from room to room listening to and praying with individuals and family members that requested a chaplain. My constant companion was a little book by Ron DelBene, called Into the Light: A Simple Way to Pray with the Sick and the Dying. Ron DelBene developed the breath prayer. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It is a prayer tool that is very helpful when you do not have the strength to pray. You start by naming God or Jesus in the way you normally pray, then sum up your deepest need in a few words. That’s it. For instance, if peace is what I need, my breath prayer might be: Loving God, give me peace. It’s that simple. It’s a prayer that can be said in one breath. When Ron DelBene was a chaplain, he would write a patient’s breath prayer on a card and ask nurses and visitors to pray the patient’s prayer for them. I’ve helped many people write breath prayers and used them myself from time to time. I want you to remember breath prayers when I come back, at the end of the sermon, to a story that changed Ron DelBene’s understanding of death.
Our scriptures this morning are concerned with what happens after we die. That’s a huge question for human beings, and not one for which we have a very good answer. The Sadducees in the gospel lesson were Jews that did not believe in an afterlife. They tried to mock Jesus by setting up a ridiculous scenario to embarrass him. It was Jewish tradition for a woman who was childless at the death of her husband to marry one of his brothers or another kinsman to provide offspring for her late husband and children to care for her in her old age. So the Sadducees proposed a woman who married each of seven brothers trying to get a child, only to have each one die. To whom then was she married in heaven? Jesus’ answer is not one that is very comforting. He says that we will not marry in heaven—not what those of us who long to be reunited with loved ones want to hear, but that is not Jesus’ point. Jesus uses the question to assure us that our lives go on in God.
He wants to say that the children of God are children of the resurrection. And we need to live like we believe it. Jesus goes on to say that God is God not of the dead—that’s the heresy that the Sadducees proclaim. No, God is God not of the dead, but of the living. Moses speaks of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Not only is God alive, but Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive with God. Jesus serves the God of Life for whom death is not the last word.
One of my chaplain friends visited in the room of a four year old cancer patient several years ago. Her little head was bald, and there were big dark circles under her eyes. She is so sick, but listen to her spirit. She said, “My body is sick, and it looks bad, but inside, my spirit is dancing.” Her spirit dances! This little one is a child of the resurrection in this life. We are children of the resurrection—just as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who lived and died long before Jesus.
Jesus claims that our eternal life has already begun. All of us will experience death. No one escapes. Not even the comedian who claims he will live forever—so far so good. We will all die. But we don’t need to be afraid of death. Brian McLaren suggests a way to think about death. He writes:
We often speak of God as the one who was, who is, and who is to come. The God who was holds all our past. The God who is surrounds us now. And the God who is to come will be there for us beyond this life as we know it. . . .Death simply means leaving the presence of God in this little neighborhood of history called the present. Through death, we join God in the vast, forever-expanding future, into which both past and present are forever taken up.
Our bodies are mortal, but our spirits are eternal. Those of us who are older know that our bodies begin to let us down. Knees and hips and internal organs simply wear out. But the Holy Spirit tells us that we are always God’s beloved children who are known in every way by our Creator and whose spirits never die.
I am often asked what we can expect when we die. I don’t know. I have not had that adventure yet. And I’m happy waiting for a whole lot longer to experience it. But I am not afraid because of the stories I have heard and the peace I have seen. Remember Ron DelBene and his breath prayer? I have heard enough stories from people I know and love to trust the veracity of the story he shares about journeying with Karen and Jim. Karen was dying of cancer. She had chosen a breath prayer, “Let me come to you, O God,” and shared it with her husband, Jim, and the rest of her family. One day Ron’s wife met him in the driveway to say that Jim had called from the hospital. When Karen woke up that morning her pain was unbearable. They went to the emergency room, but the hospital would not do anything for her unless she was admitted. DelBene writes:
The three of us had talked at length about Karen’s wanting to die at home while sitting in her recliner and looking out the window at a familiar scene. Now that was impossible. . . .
Ron called Jim at the hospital. He writes:
Briefly I recapped what needed to be done: “Remember what we’ve talked about, Jim. When it’s time, Karen will tell you. Although it’ll be hard for you, begin to say her breath prayer out loud. Maybe she’ll say it with you and maybe not. Whatever, just keep saying it. After saying her prayer for a while, ask her to look for Jesus. When she sees him, tell her to take his hand and go with him. You got all that?”
He said that he did. I asked him to give Karen my love and hung up.
Later that same afternoon, I had a call from Jim: Karen had died.
I met with Jim the following day and asked that he tell me what happened. “It was really something,” he said and shook his head, still a bit bewildered. After you called, Karen whispered, ‘What’d he say, Jim?’ I repeated what you told me on the phone. No sooner had I finished telling her than she jerked a little and touched her heart. ‘Jim,’ she said, ‘I think this is it.’”
Tears filled Jim’s eyes as he told how he felt as if the floor had fallen out from under him. Even though I had just talked to him about what to do, his mind went blank. “I just grabbed her hand,” he said. “I was desperate! Then—honest to God, Ron—the strangest thing happened. It was like a power I had never experienced before came over me. Almost without my being aware of it, I was saying, ‘Let me come to you, O God. Let me come to you, O God. Look for Jesus, Karen. Do you see him?’
“ ‘No,’ Karen said weakly.
“I kept on saying, ‘Let me come to you, O God. Look for Jesus, Karen. Let me come to you, O God. Let me come to you, O God. Do you see Jesus yet, Karen?’
“She just shook her head.”
Jim spoke as if every detail of the scene was being replayed in his mind. “Let me come to you, O God. Let me come to you, O God. Do you see Jesus, Karen?
“ ‘Y. . . yes,’ she said softly. ‘Yes.’
“ ‘Y. . . yes,’ she said softly. ‘Yes.’
“ ‘Take his hand, Karen,’ I kept saying and repeating her prayer. Then Karen turned to me; her eyes were open wide, and there was a kind of astonished look in them. ‘Oh, Jim,’ she whispered, ‘it’s more than I ever expected!’ And at that moment she died. For a long while I just sat there holding her hand and saying her prayer.”
Karen’s earthly sojourn was over. She had made to passage to risen life and was not disappointed. Her experience is a reminder to all of us never to hold onto what we think is the wholeness of God. In the end, it is always more than we expect.
Your life and my life are safe in God’s hands. We do not need to fear the time when we enter peacefully into the heart of God—the God of the living. Our eternal life has already begun and will not end. Such is God’s love and grace.