“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15 NRSV).
Then you changed my despair into a dance—
you stripped me of my death shroud
and clothed me with joy.
That’s why my heart sings to you,
That’s why I can’t keep silent—
YHWH, you are my God,
And I will thank you forever.
(Psalm 30:11-12 The Inclusive Bible).
Sing to God a brand-new song.
He’s made a world of wonders!
He rolled up his sleeves,
He set things right.
God made history with salvation,
He showed the world what he could do.
He remembered to love us, a bonus
To his dear family, Israel—indefatigable love.
The whole earth comes to attention.
Look—God’s work of salvation!
Shout your praises to God, everybody!
Let loose and sing! Strike up the band! (Psalm 98:1-4 The Message).
Until COVID shut down most churches’ in-person services in Indianapolis, i had preached at least one sermon each year at Garden City Christian (Disciples) Church, which kindly gave me office space for my Leap of Faith Counseling Ministry from 1998 to 2004. That year, i retired to stay home to write and to take care of Earl, recently diagnosed with Lewy body dementia.
Mostly, i preached on Mother’s Days since the early 2000s after noticing that the church’s minister, the Rev. Tom Smith, and his family could not head to Cincinnati, where Tom’s mom lived, until after Tom conducted his Sunday morning service. Upon his return, i told Tom that in future years i would be happy to preach for him on Mother’s Days so that he could drive to Cincinnati to be with his mom on her special day.
This post is based on the sermon i preached in 2015. As Mother’s Day approached each year, i sometimes read, over the telephone, a forthcoming sermon to my mother. A few times Mother, who lived in Orlando, asked me to convey her greetings to the congregation, whom she knew i loved, appreciated, and considered friends. After all, for years, i taught their weekly adult Sunday School class, made presentations on grief and other topics, and regularly attended their Wednesday morning women’s prayer group, their Memorial Services, and other events.
While preparing my 2015 sermon, i was aware that the congregation would receive no greetings from Mother that year, because she had died in January. After i informed the congregation of Mother’s death, i valued their sympathetic body language as they sat in their pews. Next, i stated the focus of the day’s sermon: what i had learned since January about God’s “Indefatigable Love” during times of grief, as mentioned in The Message version of Psalm 98:1-4, with which this post begins. In addition, i would present examples of how God orchestrates comfort to those who mourn, as in “Blessed are those who are mourning; they will be consoled” (Matthew 5:4 The Inclusive Bible).
Some might wonder why only three and a half months after my mother’s death i had chosen to talk publicly about grieving her. The internationally renowned Dutch-born Catholic priest, professor, and writer Henri Nouwen expressed some of my experience in his 1980 In Memoriam, a small volume about his mother’s death:
“I want to write about these last days with my mother. So much happened […]. I fear it will escape me in the whirlwind of everyday life unless I can find words to frame my experience. I want to express […] her love, her care, her faith and her courage. But it is so difficult and painful. Every word seems to be the wrong word, every expression seems to do violence to what I feel, every page of praise or gratitude seems to distort that gently built network of love that was her life. Yet, not writing is worse; not writing is like not mourning, not feeling the pain, not tasting the bitterness of her farewell.” (In Memoriam. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, © 1980, 8.)
Grieving my mother has included plenty of tears and much sadness—especially during the first few weeks—and, also, times of joy. i was grateful to know that before Mother’s final year, her 91st, when she broke her hip and underwent emergency hip-replacement surgery, she had been in mostly good physical health. Plus, her adroit mind was in very good shape: razor sharp! Moreover, i thanked God that about six hours before her last breath, i had told her “i love you” during an uplifting telephone call which she had initiated.
Her call had surprised me. During her final year, Mother told me that she did not understand why she could not seem to make long distance calls to family members or friends anymore. Because in previous years she had enthusiastically called numerous people in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, and various other states, Mother found this change puzzling. Thus, during her last year, i was the one who called her, usually several times a week, though sometimes daily. Even after Mother turned 90, i often noticed her soothing, comforting voice continued to sound ever-so young. i liked that and found it encouraging.
Mother’s final phone call to me came to mind on May 27, 2015, when i was listening to five-time Emmy winner Candice Bergen read her superb and refreshingly honest second memoir. i felt sad when Bergen admitted that it took 57 years before she heard her mother, Frances Bergen, who was an actress, fashion model, and wife of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, say “i love you” to her only daughter. It happened during the last year of her mother’s life, when Candice was assisting her to walk across the room using a walker:
“I love you very much,” she said simply, patting me on the shoulder.
“I love you, too, Mom.”
This would be unremarkable for most, but for us it was historic. Fifty-seven years in the making, to be able to tell each other, simply and sincerely, that after all the turmoil, we loved each other. (A Fine Romance, New York: Simon and Schuster, © 2015, 280.)
i praise God that in contrast, my mother became comfortable telling me that she loved me decades earlier than Bergen’s mother. Thinking of Mother’s call hours before her death also reminds me that she and i had many, many long telephone conversations, when i could feel Mother’s presence though physically she was about a thousand miles away. The timing of the surprise January 27 call makes me glad, too, that when i apologized for not flying to Orlando more frequently to see Mother in person, she said she understood that my being Earl’s caregiver did not allow for many trips. Moreover, she emphasized how much she liked our frequent conversations on the phone. Long-distance telephone visits were satisfying to her, she insisted.
Since living through a global pandemic, when in-person visits are often not safe or realistic—and, instead, relying on Zoom and telephone calls with family and friends—i now agree with Mother’s assessment: such calls can be extremely satisfying.
Most comforting of all is the realization that Mother is home in God's everlasting arms in Heaven. i remember well, a couple of years before her death, reading to Mother, over the telephone, the beautiful words of the stirring hymn “God of the Sparrow God of the Whale.” She and i had talked about how we both particularly liked the last verse, which includes singing the last line slowly and with a dramatic pause before the final word “home.” Here’s that final verse:
God of the ages God near at hand
God of the loving heart
How do your children say Joy
How do your children say … Home. (Vajda, Jaroslav J., “God of the Sparrow God of the Whale,” in The New Century Hymnal, Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, Ó 1995, #32.)
Mother now clearly knows how God’s children joyfully say “Home.” Moreover, while writing this post, i linked the hymn’s title to a YouTube video, a beautiful, powerful rendition sung by members of the First Plymouth Church of Lincoln, Nebraska. Since doing so, i have enjoyed clicking the link and visualizing Mother and me singing the hymn together, along with the members of the Lincoln, Nebraska church. How fitting: mother spent her first 21 years in Omaha, about 60 miles from Lincoln. Then, when my sister Gloria and i were a high school junior and sophomore, respectively, we lived in Omaha until i graduated from high school and began college in Atlanta. (The previous year, Gloria had started college in Orlando.)
For the last 25 years of her life, Mother looked forward to being reunited with her dear husband Robert, my stepfather, who died in February 1990 when he was 68. Each year afterward, Mother dreaded and found absolutely traumatic waking up on the anniversary of his death. The entire day was always emotionally painful for her. i felt relieved that in 2015 Mother no longer would have to deal with the agonizing February 5th anniversary or other heart-rending dates.
To remember and honor Robert on the anniversary of his death, for years before COVID changed so many churches to online services, Earl and i have joyously provided flowers to our church in Robert’s memory. After each service, i transported the flowers home and, then, usually telephoned Mother to describe the color, size, and type of each flower, fern, and other floral accents. She loved flowers and hearing about the ones in memory of Robert gave her joy. The day after Mother’s death, i suddenly realized that in 2015 the already scheduled flowers in memory of Robert, could be in Mother’s memory, as well as Bob’s. Next, i arranged the details with our church’s administrative assistant. The day after i flew home from Mother’s memorial service in Orlando, seeing Robert’s and Mother’s names together in the Sunday bulletin was a powerful, symbolic reminder that Mother and Robert were both joyously Home in Heaven with their Maker.
These thoughts also remind me of the intense, joyful dream on which i focused my March 29, 2022 “Pew Reflections,” titled “Mourn, Let Go, and Let God,”
Just like writing about Robert and his death have been significant to me, writing about Mother has been a beneficial part of grieving her death, which felt sudden even though she was in her 90s. That realization caused me to recognize that even though i was almost 70 years old when Mother died, i seemed to assume she would live forever! Whether composing emails, journal entries, scribbled notes to myself, additions to pieces previously written, or brand-new “Pew Reflections” posts like this one, the process of writing—and tearfully reading aloud what i had written—has become a valuable part of grieving my mother’s death.
In my sermon, i told the Garden City congregation yet another way God’s Indefatigable Love had offered me much comfort after Mother’s death. Because my stepfather had come to me in such a powerful dream after his death, by the end of March 2015, sporadically i realized that i had not remembered my mother being in any of my dreams yet, even though during dreams i had told other dream characters that Mother had gone home to God. Then, in the early morning hours of April 9th, i had my first dream about Mother after her death. As i did in my March 29, 2022 “Pew Reflections,” i use the present tense, “as if the dream is happening here and now,” as the instructor of my Gestalt Therapy class at Indianapolis’s Christian Theological Seminary had taught us to do:
i can’t find Mother. i quietly go through various rooms of a house, wondering where she is. Finally, i see her. Her eyes are closed as she lies on a couch, as if taking a nap. i sit quietly and wait for her to awaken. Mother opens her eyes and is surprised to see me. She smiles, and she looks beautiful and happy. She looks like she did in her 30s and 40s when i was a child and teenager. i very much like seeing her looking so happy, healthy, and without the pain that she had suffered at times during her life, especially during the last year. i wake up, pleased to have had a dream about Mother.
After praying to learn all that God wanted me to learn from this dream, i thought about Jesus’ words in a Bible passage. Soon i located it and read the verses in several versions. The Good News Translation of the passage seemed especially fitting:
“Do not be worried and upset,” Jesus told them. “Believe in God and believe also in me. There are many rooms in my Father's house, and I am going to prepare a place for you. I would not tell you this if it were not so. And after I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to myself, so that you will be where I am (John 14:1-3 Good News Translation).
During my Mother’s Memorial Service in Orlando, two of numerous comments i made about Mother and me were how we had frequently prayed together on the telephone and how we both loved Jesus. i am so joyous that my April 9, 2015 dream about Mother made it clear that Jesus had, indeed, prepared a place for Mother and then took her to be with Him in Heaven. After the Memorial Service, more than one of Mother’s friends made a point of telling me how happy Mother would have been to see my sons, Rob and Mike, wearing suits and ties when they, also, stood up and shared memories of their “GranBetty.” “Young men nowadays just don’t get dressed up anymore,” they bemoaned. “Betty would have been so proud to have seen and heard her grandsons today. They look so handsome!”
Thus, i end this post in the same way i ended my Mother’s Day 2015 sermon by telling Garden City Christian Church’s congregation, “Though i first thought that my mother had no greeting for me to convey to you this year, i believe that God’s Indefatigable Love orchestrated a message for you through my dream and through Jesus’s reassuring words to his disciples.”
O God of all, including all who mourn, thank You for the gifts of prayer, dreams, Your Indefatigable Love, and Your guidance. Thank You for Your magnificent orchestration as You provide comfort to us during times of grief, sadness, and other challenges. Thank You for families and for the support which family members provide. And when others need our support, may we willingly give plenty of loving support to them. Thank You for the gift of tears. May we cry whenever we need to cry. When grieving, may we refuse to try to avoid the pain through unhealthy options, such as addictions and staying busy for the sake of staying busy. We pray for all who mourn. May we let go of our tendencies to worry. Thank You, O God, for the reminder that Your house has many rooms and that Jesus has prepared a place for us there. Amen.
Possible Questions to Ponder
1. When have you noticed that God’s love is indefatigable? In what ways?
2. With what do you most identify in the quoted passage of Henri Nouwen’s In Memoriam?
3. Who, if anyone, have you sometimes thought would live forever? Why do you suppose you have thought that?
4. What dreams, if any, have you had that reinforce one or more of the themes of this entry? What are details of the dreams? What did you learn from each dream?
5. i considered four other titles for this post before choosing “God’s Tender Care of Those Who Grieve:” “God’s Indefatigable Love,” “A Place Prepared for Us,” “A Place Jesus Prepared for Us,” and “A message Sent After All.” Which title do you prefer? Why?
6. What, if anything, in this post gives you hope? Why?