A week ago Tuesday evening my 89 year old mother had a stroke. The next morning I drove the two hour drive to the assisted living community outside Philadelphia where she lived, and when I saw her, I knew immediately that she was dying. My sister Alison soon joined me, having rented a car to drive from New York. I called my wife Sarah and asked her to come, along with Kate and Bobby. I called my brother Mark in North Carolina and told him that the nurses were saying that if he wanted to see Mom before she died, he’d better come by the next day.
My mother would open her eyes occasionally, but beyond that there was very little indication that she knew we were there, though we trusted she did. Her breathing was labored. The nurses assured us that she wasn’t in pain, but it was nonetheless hard to watch. Kate and Bobby drove back home that evening, while Alison, Sarah and I stayed to keep a vigil at my mother’s bedside, taking turns napping on a cot the staff had brought for us.
On Thursday little had changed in our mother’s condition. David Turner arrived late morning bringing bagels and fruit with which to nourish us. My brother arrived mid-afternoon. I hadn’t been sure Mark would come. There was a period of about twenty years when it was as if we weren’t a family at all. A wall had come up between my brother and me as a result of the sorts of misunderstandings that are unfortunately common to families, and he was aloof from my mother and sister as well. During those years my mother, my sister and I never say my brother. And then about seven years ago the wall started to come down some. I brought Bobby, a nine year old goalkeeper at the time, to watch Mark’s nineteen year old son, Brian, a more seasoned goalkeeper, play in a semi-professional soccer game. From then on Brian was Bobby’s hero.
Two years later Mark invited us all down to North Carolina to share in celebrating his daughter’s wedding. At first my aging mother wasn’t sure she could make the trip; at that point she walked with a cane and her eyesight and hearing had already begun to fade. But in the end Mom, Alison, Sarah, Bobby and myself all piled into a rented van to make the trip. My brother welcomed us warmly, and we were very pleased to share in the joy of the occasion.
In the subsequent five years I’d only seen Mark three times — once a couple of years back at my father’s house, and then twice in the past year when Mark had flown up to visit our mother. So as I said, I hadn’t been sure Mark would come. It wasn’t clear that Mom was conscious. Just five months earlier, knowing that our mother was fading Mark had made a special trip up to visit Mom; perhaps that trip would suffice for the saying of goodbye.
But he did come, and when he walked into the room he gave us each heart-felt hugs, and then took his place beside Mom to let her know how much he loved her. He cried when I handed him some pictures I’d found of our Mom with Mark’s children when they were young. We were, once more, a loving, united family.
The vigil continued into the next day. At one point, watching our mother labor so for breath, my sister said to me with tears in her eyes, “I don’t understand why she should have to struggle so. What is the lesson to be learned that requires this?”
In the morning, a doctor came in and told us that it might be another 24 to 48 hours before our mother finally passed. It seemed as if she had settled into a relatively calm rhythm in her breathing. Two nurses came in and said they needed thirty minutes with our Mom to bathe her and such, so all three of us stepped out of the room and stretched our legs.
It was an exquisite lovely day outside, and Sarah and I began to go on a walk on the beautiful grounds of the facility. We were maybe a ten minute walk away when my sister called me on my cell phone urgently telling me to “Come back now!”
Apparently while the nurses had been working with my mother, she suddenly gave a great gasp. They recognized the sign that the end was at hand, and called my sister and brother into the room, who sat with her for the remaining few breaths of her life.
I hurried back to the room, but by the time I arrived she had already taken her last breath. My brother and sister were kneeling beside each other, weeping, clasping our mother’s hands. I joined them on the other side of the bed and we clasped hands together around her. Soon Sarah joined us, and we said the 23rd psalm and sang a weepy version of “Amazing Grace.” I imagined my mother’s resurrection body rising up above us as she began her ascent to heaven, looking down with pleasure at the sight of her children connected so deeply in love. In heaven there are no walls separating people, and in that moment our family was a reflection of heaven.
I had wanted to be present at the precise moment when my mother let go and departed this world. But in the end, it didn’t seem to matter. It was the only time all three of us had been out of the room in the past 48 hours, and perhaps my mother needed this to be the case to let go.
We spent another three hours together in our mom’s room. Midway through the undertaker came, and we followed him as he rolled our mother’s body to the hearse. We returned to the room and divided what little worldly possessions our mother had between us – mostly photos and a few small odds and ends. By the end of her life our mother had let go of most of what she had, materially speaking.
The four of us went out to a nearby diner for an early supper, sharing memories and a few laughs. It was as if we had always been a close family. It was lovely. Afterwards we hugged each other goodbye and each went on our way, returning to our homes.
In our epistle lesson this morning, this simple but powerful declaration occurs twice: “God is love.” Despite the impression some will convey, God’s nature is absolutely loving. Whenever love is experienced in this world, it is a sign of God’s presence.
We were made out of love. Our essence is love. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and you are the branches.” We arise organically out of the love that gave birth to the universe. We are connected to this love, like a branch is connected to a vine.
As we all have experienced in a whole host of ways, there is a power at work in this world that is in conflict with love, and traditionally this power has been called “sin.” Even at our best, every one of our expressions of love in this world is tainted. There is love present for sure, but there are other things mixed in as well that are not of love. When Jesus says that there are branches that need pruning, he is referring to the process by which we let go of those things in our hearts that taint our love.
There can be parts of our lives that are altogether devoid of love. These are the branches that don’t need simply to be pruned; these are the branches, as Jesus said, that need to be simply thrown away.
It is possible over time for people to reach a point where love altogether disappears from their lives. These are those who have truly lost their souls. I don’t know what happens to such people in death. I put my hope in what Jesus said about the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep in the wilderness until he finds it. The implication here is that God keeps seeking every lost soul throughout eternity.
My mother was a very loving person; I knew that love first hand. I can’t recall her acting unkindly towards anyone, ever, though I’m sure she must have. I know that like all of us, she had unkind thoughts, because she told me so.
There are other ways, however, for the power of sin to be manifest in a person’s life besides acting unkindly. For my mother, the power of sin was experienced as a certain self-consciousness that she was rarely able to shed; a self-consciousness that held her back from fully engaging life. My mother was a gifted author who wrote many poems, and this theme is one that shows up in many of her poems. She told me once that she heard a voice say softly to her one morning, “Are you going out with your paper hand cuffs on today?” She took it to be the Holy Spirit. The words called attention to the way she often lived life as though she were incapacitated by hand cuffs, rendering her powerless, when, in fact, the hand cuffs were merely made of paper. It was possible for her to break free.
I was delighted when I heard the bell choir play “This Little Light of Mine” at the start of our worship, because I had planned to reference the words of Jesus upon which the song is based. Jesus said to us, “You are the light of the world!” God’s love shines through us, because we are branches arising out of the one true vine – the source of all love. Jesus went on to say, “Don’t hide your light under a bushel!” My mother often felt the need to hide her light under a bushel, as I think most of us do. And her light was mighty bright.
For most of us, it is in dying that the final pruning takes place that makes us ready to enter heaven.
My sister had asked, Why does dying have to be such a struggle? Perhaps it is because the pruning of branches is never painless. It hurts when the knife cuts the fruitless branches to make more room for the fruit bearing parts. For most of us, it is in dying that the final pruning takes place that makes us ready for Heaven. Heaven is the place where there is nothing but love, and in order to enter heaven, we have to leave behind everything that has been a part of us that isn’t of love, and that includes a lot of stuff we’ve grown to be quite attached to over the years. We can’t imagine existing without some of this stuff. It seems like a part of who we are, but its not, really.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite hymns, “How firm a foundation.” The fourth verse goes like this:
“When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”
The gold is the love; the dross is all the other stuff. A fire must be passed through — it’s another way of saying that a pruning is necessary.
“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus said. In her own way, my mother had tried to abide in the light of Christ as best she could. As she had shed herself of her worldly possessions, so she had tried as best she could in her life to shed herself of the other kinds of heart-possessions that block love. In the end, her dying could have been a lot worse. I’d like to think that because she had spent her lifetime trying to learn the lessons the Holy Spirit was trying to teach her through the twists and turns of her life, it allowed her final pruning to be relatively gentle.