Present at Their Passing

When I was present at the first death, I was 17.

At the second, I was 32.

At the third, I was 44.

At 17, I sat by my grandmother’s hospital bed at the end of a long and painful recurrence of her cancer. My aunt held one hand and I (her only grandchild) held the other. We wept silently as her breathing became more ragged, until she was mercifully released from her prison of disease at about one in the morning. She was the matriarch of our family and had a great influence on my entire childhood. Losing her, at the age of only 59, was a tremendous blow; our family shattered after this event and never really recovered.

At 32, pregnant with my second child and having spent the last year and half caring for my grandfather after his stroke, I arrived breathless at his bedside about 11:00 a.m., where my mother was already present. I could hear in his breathing that he wasn’t long for this world. Although he had been sedated for pain relief (thank you, hospice care), he became unusually lucid moments in his last moments. As we watched and held his hands, his eyes opened wide and he gave a startled gasp—not of pain or fear, but of surprise. Then he was gone … the dear man who had been like a father to me for my whole life.

At 44, I left the four kids with my husband and drove one last time to the hospital where my mom had been admitted more than a dozen times in the past year. She was very sick—worse than usual, even for her—and I (her only child) asked the hospice doctor if we could possibly move her across the parking lot to the more comfortable hospice building. He said she would likely go into cardiac arrest during the transport and the EMTs would be required by law to restart her heart, no matter what the consequences to her frail and dying body. So I chose to stay with her in the hospital room instead. I sat by her that Thursday evening, and then, thinking I was in for a long night, I moved to a more comfortable chair across the room. If I could undo one thing from that evening, it would be that move … my mom breathed her last around 8:00 p.m., without me right next to her, without her hand in mine. I regret it to this day.

I honestly don’t know how common a life experience it is for a person to be present at the actual passing of a loved one. Because I’ve been in this situation three times, it seems a natural part of life to me, to help usher family members from one world to the next. And the experience has been both a privilege and an honor every single time. But looking back, I realize now that it could, and perhaps should, have been more—and not just for me, but for the person whose hand I was (or wasn’t) holding.


Who Chose Whom?

A long time ago, I made a choice.

I chose to follow Jesus. I chose to ask God into my heart. I chose Christianity over all of the other religions out there.

Or did I?

After discovering God and Jesus on my own at a very young age, I drifted far from the faith for about twenty years. When I returned, I took a very methodical, logical, and well-thought-out path to God, through a few good books and a class I was required to teach on the Bible as literature. Along with 1990s Christian talk radio, those things convinced me that Christianity was true, and that I ought to follow it in my life.

So I chose. Out of all the religions out there (including new age spirituality and “none,” both of which I’d tried), I chose Jesus and turned my life over to him. I understood the truth that we all are going to worship something in this life, and I decided that for me, it would be Christ.

That’s what it felt like, at least. Because as I experienced my conversion process, I felt very much in control of it. Even as it unfolded over a period of more than a year, I was under the impression that each step toward or away from God was mine alone to take, that I could at any point choose to reject this religion altogether and go back to my old ways. But I chose to stay, and here I remain today.

For a long time, I understood my conversion as my decision, my choice. I had been raised to be independent, pro-choice in every possible way, and in control of my own destiny, so the idea that I had simply made a purposeful choice to follow Christ was an easy intellectual transition for me to make. I suspect it’s easy for most Americans to think of conversion in this way, born and bred into a pro-individualistic, pro-autonomy culture as we are. A culture that fully believes “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul (“Invictus”), and, as death approaches, has “not the words of one who kneels … I did it my way” (a huge hit by Frank Sinatra in 1969).

But a few years after I became a Christian and after I had become much more familiar with the whole Bible, I saw that I didn’t actually choose Jesus at all. Instead, he chose me (Eph. 2:8-9, Rom. 8:29-30, Eph. 1:3-6, John 15:16). I saw that from the beginning (the beginning of my life, and even before the beginning of time—Psalm 139:13-16), God had known and pursued me. Even though it seemed to me that I was seeking him out, he was actually calling me to himself, at the exact moment that he’d determined was best in my life. Here’s a key question: did I have free will to choose or reject him, or was it all under his control from the start? The answer is yes to both.

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The Blessing of Forgiving Our Parents

One conversation changed my relationship with my mom forever.

“…forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

These are hard words that Jesus gives us in the Lord’s Prayer. As Christians, we know we ought to forgive—in fact, we’re commanded to do it. But often it’s easier said than done.

To emphasize the point even more, immediately after saying those words, Jesus has one further, critically important comment to make: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:9–15).

Jesus later clarifies the consequences of unforgiveness after telling a parable about a master who forgave a servant a very large debt. When the servant did not show mercy to another as his master had shown toward him, he was thrown into prison. Jesus then says, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:21–35).

Paul encourages believers in Colossae to bear with one another “and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13). And James reminds us that “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

Are you convinced yet that you need to forgive?

I’ve had some trouble with these verses in the past—not because I was unwilling to forgive, but because I seemed unable to forgive. Especially when it came to those who had inflicted deep wounds in my childhood.

As Christians, we understand that if someone apologizes for doing us wrong and asks for forgiveness, we are to forgive them. But that’s a “best case” scenario compared with the all-too-common situation of a family member who has sinned against us, sometimes in childhood when we were young and defenseless, sometimes repeatedly, and they admit no wrongdoing. And we know with almost 100% certainty there will be no apology forthcoming in our lifetime.

Do we still need to forgive? And how do we do that?

I struggled with these questions for years. After I became a Christian, I fervently hoped to hear a sermon on this topic, but to this day I never have. It was a conversation with my mom, an unplanned talk we had many years ago, that opened the gates of forgiveness for me, and healed my heart of the bitterness and resentment surrounding much of my past. I see God’s hand in that conversation in so many ways, and I thank him for setting in place for me a path of understanding and reconciliation before my mom passed away.

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The Case Against “Do the Next Right Thing”

Why adding one word changes everything—and not in a good way.

I first heard it in a Disney movie a few years ago, in a song from Frozen 2: “Do the next right thing.” More recently I’ve seen this phrase on posters, t-shirts, and used by addiction recovery groups.

In Frozen 2, “Do the next right thing” is sung by a character in despair over her bleak future: she is trapped in a cave and has just lost a good friend. I was empathetic to her plight … but when she sang that line, my mind instantly rebelled.

What? Somebody got that wrong! Somebody added an unnecessary word! Disney, you ruined it.

Because to me, the original, shorter, and far better phrase was, “Do the next thing”—something I’d said to myself many times over the years. I first heard it from Elisabeth Elliot and Oswald Chambers, two Christian authors who helped form my faith twenty-five years ago. Those four words had helped me get through difficult times of every possible description.

But what’s the difference, really, between saying, “Do the next right thing,” and “Do the next thing”? Does it really matter?

Yes, it does. It matters quite a bit.

Think about the times you’d be likely to tell someone (or to tell yourself) to just “do the next right thing.” It’s likely to be when the listener is in despair, confused, and possibly paralyzed by fear or uncertainty. They are so unhappy that they literally don’t know what to do—so you might say to them, “Do the next right thing.” Here’s what could be wrong with that advice.

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“I Must Decrease” … But How?

To hear the world tell it, it’s all about me.

Being true to myself.

Doing what makes me happy.

Following my dreams.

Living my best life.

Speaking my truth.

Becoming the best version of myself.

Listening to my heart.

It’s pretty clear: the world’s loud, incessant voice tells me that in order to be happy, I need to spend more of my time, money, and attention on myself. You’ve probably heard the same message about your need for this, as well.

But knowing the human heart as I do, and correlating that to what the Bible has been telling me all along, it’s also pretty clear that for true fulfillment in life, we actually need just the opposite. In most ways, we don’t need more of ourselves. We need less.

Less need for approval. Less dedication to self-indulgence. Less striving for self-actualization.

Less of ourselves. But oh, how hard a concept this is. How difficult to adopt this lack of expectation in everyday life.

Two thousand years ago, before he was sent to prison for speaking truth to power, John the Baptist was very popular among the people. So popular, in fact, that he repeatedly had to remind and convince his adoring public that he was not the promised Messiah: “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’” (John 3:28)

I can see John now, standing beside the river on the dusty ground … weathered skin, tangled hair, a wry and gentle smile on his face: “People. This is about Jesus. This is not about me.”

Or in his own, more eloquent words: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) In this he speaks for all of us.

What does it mean that we, as Christians, must decrease so that Jesus can increase? It’s easy to see the “why” of this statement when the person speaking it is a rock star like John the Baptist. (Think: a celebrity preacher, or a wildly popular Christian author, or an internet sensation.) When the focus is too much on a particular person, they become an idol for their fans, followers, or parishioners and the focus strays from Christ. And sadly, the person who has tasted fame, even through promoting Jesus, can become addicted to the positive rush of their own self-importance.

Now, the vast majority of us are not rock star Christians. Yet we are susceptible to the very same temptations of focusing too greatly on satisfying our own desires, receiving applause for our God-given talents, and maintaining sovereignty in our own little Kingdom of One.

John tells us that we must decrease, and that’s so hard for us to do … yet Jesus himself goes even farther. He minces no words: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23–25)

How do we decrease? How do we lose our lives for Jesus’ sake?

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“Sore Afraid” at Christmas

Who doesn’t love “A Charlie Brown Christmas”? Who doesn’t smile at Charlie Brown’s sad attempt to put on a meaningful Christmas play, Lucy and Schroeder at the piano, Snoopy’s festive doghouse, and Vince Guaraldi’s unforgettable music?

But the part of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that everyone (every Christian, at least) especially loves is the scene where Linus, on stage in a spotlight, recites the King James version of Luke 2:8–14 from memory. For several years now, the internet has been extremely excited over one particular aspect of this scene: when Linus quotes the angel as saying, “Fear not”. Because at that very moment, Linus drops his security blanket—something the average viewer (that would be me) completely missed over nearly 50 consecutive years of watching this Christmas special on TV.

And that is certainly something, that dropping of the blanket, that symbolic moment of separation from our fears, of no longer needing false security when we cling to the one true Savior. (Here’s a good explanation of this scene, along with a video clip.)

But there’s another part of that scene that has always tugged at my word-loving heart over the years, ever since the first time I heard it. As a child, I wasn’t familiar with the Bible, and Linus’s speech in  King James English sounded exotic and thrilling to me. While it was all pretty exhilarating, I had a favorite part; in fact, I still do. For this reason, and this reason only, do I strongly desire every Christmas day to hear the story of Jesus’s birth read aloud from a King James Bible.

Does anyone else love the phrase, “sore afraid” as much as I do?

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Faith · Parenting

Light of the World, or 120 Watts of Jesus

Originally posted on Dec. 22, 2020

When each of my children was around 5 years old, we did a “Names of Jesus” unit together during our Advent homeschool time. Each day we would focus on a different name that Jesus is called in the Bible, such as shepherd, king, Alpha and Omega, or light of the world. Each lesson had an activity, craft, or lesson associated with it, most of which I’ve forgotten now … except for the object lesson I used for “Light of the World.”

To begin this lesson, we would look at Bible verses together such as John 9:5, where Jesus says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” It was very clear to even a young child that Jesus understood his role in the world as a light to shine in the darkness. I then proposed that we go into the darkest room in the house, a small bathroom with no windows. Always eager to get up and move, and intrigued by continuing the lesson in the bathroom (of all places!), each child would eagerly comply.

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Faith · Reading

Why Read Devotionals?

Have you ever been cautioned to not read a daily devotional? This advice seems a little counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we, as Christians, be urging each other to gain daily encouragement from a trusted author, to make it a habit in our time spent with the Lord each day?

Over the years, though, I think I’ve more often been discouraged from reading devotionals than encouraged. The reason that is almost always given is this: The danger in reading a devotional is that it may take time away from (or completely replace) your Bible reading for the day. And the goal of daily Bible reading, even just a few verses, is one that every Christian should aspire to. “Daily time in the Word” means just that: in the Word itself.

I agree with that—when it comes to what you read, what you put inside your head and heart on a daily basis, the Bible itself is the most important thing. Many people struggle to read the Bible every day (I certainly did, for years), but there are many ways to do this even when your schedule is packed or you have small children or a demanding job. (See here for letting go of certain Bible reading expectations that might be making things harder for you.)

That said, though, I really love devotionals.

Why read devotionals?

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