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Dr. Able Ginzeman moved the equipment away from Hayden’s eyes and sighed. As an ophthalmologist with more than 20 years of experience, he had seen all manner of pediatric eye disease, but it was never easy breaking the news to parents, especially when he knew that treating the issue was likely going to cost more than the family’s annual income. Dr. Dornboss had already told him that if the diagnosis was what he suspected that the Waterbury’s would not be able to afford the necessary surgery. Still, there was little question that the family doctors’ suspicions had been correct.
“There’s really no easy way to put this,” Dr. Ginzeman started as reached over and took a prescription pad off a nearby counter. “Hayden has pediatric cataracts and is going to require surgery.”
Glynn and Marve looked at each other, horror-struck. They had walked into the exam knowing that a common childhood problem, such as near- or far-sightedness, would require glasses and that alone would have strained their meager income. But surgery? Cataracts?
“I thought cataracts only developed in older people,” Glynn said, feeling lost and confused by the diagnosis.
Dr. Ginzemen had anticipated the shock. No parent was ever ready for anything more than, “your child needs glasses.” He pulled over a stool and sat down so that he was at eye level with the parents. “You’re correct, normally cataracts are something our eyes develop as we age. Pediatric cataracts are reasonably rare but definitely not unheard of and you’d probably be surprised at how often it comes up. Chances are reasonably high that he has had them since birth, they were just too small to notice until now. Dr. Dornboss was not being neglectful in missing them at his last exam.”
“So, he was born with them?” Marve asked, a growing feeling of desperation coming over her. “Why are we just now noticing? And why only at school?”
“Unlike adult cataracts, children can develop cataracts in two ways. One can be like a gray cloud forming over the eye all at once. That would have been noticeable quickly. In fact, you would have seen it at home without any need for medical devices.” The doctor paused to make sure the parents were following. News like this often came with a level of shock that made it difficult for people to follow long explanations. “Hayden’s are more like little pieces, tiny dots that are slowly growing. They’ve not been a problem until now partly because they were too small to interfere with what he was doing. He’s also at an age where he’s just now being asked to focus on smaller details. What didn’t bother him when he was outside playing with his toys is now an issue because the cataracts are blurring those details. They’ve not reached a point yet where they completely obscure his vision, but it makes things like numbers and letters blurry around the edges.”
Glynn looked over at Hayden sitting in the exam chair, the little boy’s still-dilated pupils wide with wonder. “So, what exactly are we looking at? You said surgery. What’s that going to involve?”
Dr. Ginzeman took a deep breath. “It means he’ll have to see a specialist in Oklahoma City. They’ll have to confirm the diagnosis and then they’ll schedule the surgery. There’s currently only one place in Oklahoma that does this kind of work, so we don’t have any real choice, but from an insurance perspective, that’s ultimately a good thing. They’re likely to cover more than they might otherwise. Depending on how busy they are, we can probably get him an appointment in two or three weeks, and they’ll probably schedule the surgery a week or two after that.”
Marve and Glynn looked at each other. Oklahoma City. Surgery. Insurance. They were both overwhelmed, their minds spinning off in different directions, imagining worst-case scenarios that would never come true but would continue plaguing the back of their minds until the whole ordeal was over.
For Marve, the mere mention of surgery was frightening. She had been frightened of the concept since her own botched tonsillectomy when she was seven years old. Hearing that her young son was going to be subjected to something significantly more dangerous left her shaking. She held onto Glynn’s hand tightly, fighting the urge to rush over and snatch up the little boy and run out of the room as if she could physically remove him from the danger. “Surgery sounds so dangerous,” she finally said. “Is that the only way they can be treated? We can’t put some kind of drops in his eyes to dissolve them?”
“I’m afraid the medicine hasn’t reached that point yet,” the doctor said, doing his best to sound compassionate. He knew the surgery was challenging and contained no small amount of risk, but that wasn’t something he was ready to discuss with the Waterbury’s at this point. They were still trying to process the diagnosis. They didn’t need to be scared more.
“About a month after the surgery, they’ll want to see him in Oklahoma City again,” Dr. Ginzeman continued. “They’ll check and make sure everything’s healing okay and that they got all the little pieces. Then, you’ll come back here and we’ll get him fitted for glasses.”
“So, this isn’t going to be a short and easy process,” Glynn said. “I hate to ask this question, but how much of this do you think insurance is going to cover?”
Dr. Ginzeman had been waiting for this question. Every parent eventually had to ask. Glynn had shown more restraint than most. “Fortunately, the severity of his diagnosis means it falls under the heading of medical necessity. That means that if we don’t address the situation right now, with some measure of urgency, that it will cost more to fix later and could seriously impact other health issues. I’ve already talked with Dr. Dornboss and I think we can get insurance to pay for close to 90 percent of the bill. What they don’t pay, we’ll look to foundations like the Lion’s Club and some other places that help specifically with pediatric eye care.”
As he was talking, Dr. Ginzeman watched carefully as Marve and Glynn considered what he was saying. Again, he found himself trying to soften the edges on topics that were complicated and involved. The truth was that a lot of paperwork would have to pass between the various doctors involved and the insurance companies. There would be routine denials that would have to be challenged and clinical justification written for everything that needed to be done. The volume of bureaucracy was so severe that he employed two people full time in his office to do nothing but try and keep it all straight.
“I want to warn you,” the doctor said, “You’re going to see a lot of invoices and statements and letters that are going to have some very frightening numbers on them. Let me suggest you just file them away and pay no attention to them for now. Don’t throw them away or lose them because you may need them later, but don’t dwell on them. Just put them in a file. You won’t get a final bill from any of the doctors or the hospital until after everything is over and every option has been exhausted. Given the time frame we’re looking at, that’s likely to be January or February of next year. I have people here and they have people in Oklahoma city who do nothing but work with insurance companies. You don’t worry about that. You focus on this little guy, keep him healthy, make sure he eats well and gets plenty of exercise, which I doubt is going to be a problem.”
Dr. Ginzeman scribbled on the prescription pad and then handed the script to Glynn. “Take this to your pharmacy at home. They’re drops you’ll want to put in his eyes each morning. It just helps clear up any goop or film that might develop overnight while he’s sleeping. It doesn’t directly affect those cataracts, but it might help slow their growth while we finish looking at everything. My office will check with Oklahoma City and then they’ll reach out to you to set an appointment.” He pushed the stool back, stood up, and helped Hayden down from the exam chair. The whole conversation had taken less than five minutes but he knew that for Glynn and Marve it felt like an eternity had just passed. “I’m going to waive your co-pay for today,” he said. “You’ve got a lot coming up, and I know it’s scary. Just remember, it’s everyone’s goal to make sure you’re little boy is as healthy as possible. You’re not in this alone.”
Glynn picked up Hayden and gave him a squeeze. He and Marve thanked the doctor and walked out into the bright September sunshine still trying to process everything they’d just been told. The first part of the trip back was fairly quiet. They found a place to eat lunch and headed back to Adelberg as quickly as possible. They had made arrangements for Claire to walk Lita home and stay with her until they returned, just in case, but they both preferred to be there by the time school was out.
As they passed through Washataug, Glynn said, “Maybe I should cancel that thing at the Pastor’s Retreat this week. This is a lot to process. It doesn’t feel right for me to run off and leave you and the kids.”
Marve was silent for a moment, which caused Glynn no small amount of anxiety. Normally, he could read her face and tell what she was thinking, but there was no way to look at her and focus on driving at the same time. Finally, she said, “No, I think you should go. You’ve been working on that sermon too long and, let’s be honest, Glynn, the exposure could pay off long-term. Besides, if you stay home you’re just going to stew and worry about things you can’t control. Go. Spend some time with your preacher buddies. Maybe make a new friend or two. You need the break.”
Glynn tried to object, but Marve had made up her mind. She’d pack his bags and put them in the car herself if necessary. He was going and there was no point trying to get out of it, no matter how much he really didn’t want to go.
Sure enough, two days later Glynn was in the car, having said goodbye to his family, headed into something he had no idea how to anticipate. The state convention’s campground served as a conference center the remainder of the year, and Glynn was surprised by the rugged terrain he encountered as he drove South from Oklahoma City. Here, the rolling hills were not green and lush as they tended to be in the Northeastern part of the state. Instead, they were rough and raw with sprouts of dried prairie grass growing between outcroppings of rock and scraggly pines scattered across the terrain. Glynn thought this was a slightly unusual place to put a campground but was aware that it had been in place for so long now that to even mention moving it would have been offensive to most of the churches in the state.
Clement and Bill had offered to let Glynn ride down with them, and initially, he had agreed to do so. After the trip to Bartlesville, though, he apologized and told the other pastors he needed the flexibility to return suddenly if a church member needed him. Not that there was a church member that had mentioned such a thing. Glynn simply didn’t like the feeling of being trapped, reliant on someone else’s transportation. Instead, he enjoyed the solitude of driving by himself, going over his sermon in his mind, still attempting to process everything that was going to be required to take care of Hayden’s eyes. He felt the pressure growing and he wasn’t convinced he was up to everything that was being set before him.
Arriving at the campground, Glynn was pleased to be assigned to one of the hotel-like rooms in the facility normally reserved for convention staff and visiting dignitaries. He would share a room with another of the retreat’s speakers, a pastor from one of the Oklahoma City suburbs whose church was growing at a surprising rate. Not that Glynn would ever see his roommate outside of the few minutes before and after sleeping. The schedule was packed and his roommate was popular. There was no time for lounging about in the room.
Calvin, of course, greeted Glynn enthusiastically. “I’ve put you on the schedule for Friday at 11:00,” Glynn was told. “I know, right before lunch may not seem like the best spot to talk about death, but you’d be surprised how many of the guys don’t stay past the Friday afternoon ballgame, especially those who live the furthest out. I wanted to make sure you had the largest audience possible.”
Glynn immediately felt his anxiety increase 300 percent. He still wasn’t convinced that his sermon was as good as it could be and now the pressure was on to deliver something close to perfection. His mind started racing with all the corrections he needed to make. Normally, he would carefully practice delivering a sermon this important but there wasn’t the time nor a place that he knew would be unobtrusive.
After unpacking, Glynn walked down to the cafeteria where the pastors were gathering for coffee and donuts. Several pastors, including Clement, Bill, Carl, and Herb, were already there, chatting and laughing. He was about to walk over and join them when Joe Ingram spotted him and rushed over.
“Glynn! It’s so good to see you again!” the executive director said with a big smile and strong handshake. “Calvin’s been keeping me up with everything going on up your direction. It’s been a rough year up there. How are you doing?”
“We’re doing well, thank you,” Glynn responded with the expected answer. “This certainly has been a huge learning experience. A lot more has happened than I would have ever expected.”
“This has been an unusual year,” Joe agreed, “but then, it seems there’s always a crisis going on somewhere. That’s why we need events like this. They’re not only educational and informative, they give us a chance to be encouraging to those who are struggling.”
Glynn laughed. “I’m not sure my topic is the most encouraging.”
Joe smiled. “You might be surprised. Death is an interesting topic and affects people in different ways. I have no doubt that your message will be exactly what someone needs to hear.” He paused for a moment then added, “Has Calvin talked to you about the response letters?”
“No, are those something we send out later?” Glynn asked, curious as to what was meant.
“It’s one of the side effects of speaking at large gatherings like this,” Joe answered. “Anytime you get this many preachers together, it doesn’t matter what you say, someone will disagree. Take the rapture, for example. You could preach on the second coming of Christ and 85 percent of the pastors here will agree and shout you on. However, those who went to seminary at Southern or Golden Gate, or if they went to college at one of the Ivy League schools, we have a couple of those, they’re going to disagree and at least a couple of them would write you a letter about it.”
Glynn’s eyes widened with surprise. He never had considered that someone might respond negatively to his sermon, at least not in a physical manner.
“Now, with a topic like that, they’re going to be pretty nice about it, take the academic approach of telling you why they think you’re wrong,” Joe continued. “But if you were to, say, challenge the dominant concepts of the deity of Christ or the reality of the resurrection, you’d get some rather harsh mail.”
Glynn felt his stomach do a flip. He felt he has definitely challenging some of the myths around death. Could his concepts possibly offend someone? “I never considered that. Not that I would expect everyone to agree with everything I say, but to go so far as to write about it seems a little extreme.”
“Don’t let it factor into what you say,” Joe said, his voice cheerful and encouraging. “Everyone gets two or three letters. Most of the time you can just ignore them and go on. If you get one that’s disturbing or if you get more than you expected, let us know and we’ll help handle them. It’s sometimes surprising what these guys get upset about.”
Joe gave Glynn a pat on the back and walked over to talk with another pastor who had just walked into the cafeteria. Glynn went over and sat down at the table with Clement and the others. He was greeted by a chorus of good-natured ribbing about being a celebrity and hob-knobbing with the convention elites. He was pleased that, so far, the atmosphere here was much more relaxing than the associational pastors’ conferences had been.
“Have you seen anyone else here from the association?” Glynn asked, looking around the room.
“I think Herschel Vandemeer from First, Washataug is here,” Clement says. “He likes this type of meeting because it gives him a chance to hang out with the guys from Oklahoma City as if he isn’t down there half the time anyway. Don’t expect him to say anything to the rest of us, though. He doesn’t even acknowledge the other pastors in town, let alone the association.”
Bill nodded. “That tends to be true for the pastors of almost all the larger churches. First Tulsa, if Dr. Hultgren wasn’t speaking he wouldn’t be here. He’s friends with Billy Graham and Oral Roberts and prefers hanging out with guys like that. The rest of us don’t even register as existing.”
“I tried introducing myself to Herschel Hobbs, once,” Herb said. “There were so many people around him, though, he didn’t get a chance to respond before someone else was asking another question and pulling him away. It was rather frustrating.”
Bill nodded toward the far corner of the cafeteria. “He’s over there now holding court. He’s retiring from pastoring First, Oklahoma City at the end of the year, but they’re giving him the title of ‘Pastor Emeritus,’ and keeping him on the payroll. It’s probably for the best. He’s a dynamic preacher but he’s always left the ministry of the church to his staff.”
Carl looked over at the group surrounding the fabled theologian who had authored The Baptist Faith and Message some nine years earlier. “What does ‘Pastor Emeritus’ even mean? I’ve always looked at him as a kind of spiritual Superman. He pastors the church, writes articles and books, records that broadcast for the Radio and Television Commission, is on a dozen different boards and committees at both the state and national levels. I think of ‘emeritus’ as another word for retired. I don’t see Dr. Hobbs retiring anytime soon.”
Clement chuckled. “Are you kidding? They’re just making it easier for him to do what he’s already doing, minus the bothersome task of having to preach every Sunday. He’ll keep on doing all the convention stuff. He stopped being a real pastor years ago.”
“Have you heard who’s taking his place?” Herb asked to no one in particular.
“My money’s on Gene Garrison,” Bill said. “When Emmit first left, he was one of the top names the convention recommended to be our Director of Missions, but his name was almost immediately withdrawn after they sent us that list. The explanation was that he was expected to take on a significant pastoral responsibility.”
Glynn sat back in his chair and sighed. “Do you think the people in our churches have any idea of everything that goes on behind the scenes like this? I mean, here we are fawning over pastors with big names and big churches, but it doesn’t sound like they do much pastoring at all. They’re more like the Baptist version of politicians; they show up on Sunday to hog the spotlight, but the rest of the time they’re off padding their pockets with book deals and speaking engagements, completely ignoring their churches.”
“Careful, you could end up being one of them,” Clement teased. “You’re the one invited to speak after being here less than a year. Next thing we know, they’ll have you at one of those big Oklahoma City churches.”
“Are you kidding?” Glynn countered. “I have enough trouble being pastor to 100 people. A big church would kill me!”
The men laughed and continued their light-hearted banter on through dinner. By the time the evening session started, the speakers seemed like more of an interruption than an inspiration. Glynn felt he was getting more benefit from sitting around tables talking with different pastors than anything he heard from the small podium the preachers were using. He couldn’t help wonder if other pastors would feel the same way about his sermon as well. Was he anything more than an interruption, a break in the camaraderie most of them seemed to need?
Glynn excused himself from the after-session coffee and returned to his room to give his message a few more tweaks. He had reached a point of accepting that he wasn’t going to be the most dynamic or popular speaker there. Neither did he hope to build up his own reputation among the pastors. He wanted to make a statement, though, and to do that he was going to have to take a different approach than he had planned.
Friday morning’s schedule was divided into two sessions, one at 8:00, which seemed a bit early for several of the pastors, and the second at 10:30, following an hour’s break. Each session had two speakers with a couple of hymns before each one. The format gave the session some sense of being a worship service only slightly less formal and without anyone passing an offering plate.
Working from a theme of “Confronting Pastoral Fears,” the speakers for the early session had been assigned the topics of “Dealing With Rejection,” and “Surviving Success,” topics Glynn found interesting but the substance was less than helpful.
“The Pastoral Paradox” was the topic of the speaker preceding Glynn. He’d had a chance to visit with the veteran pastor the night before and was interested in the consideration of balancing preaching responsibilities with ministerial responsibilities and the fear of doing neither well.
Glynn wouldn’t have a chance to hear the message, though. They were nearing the end of the break time when Dr. Ingram’s secretary found him and handed him a note instructing him to call home immediately. The secretary told him where the camp’s office phone was located and how to get an outside line.
Without any context to the message, Glynn panicked, nearly running to the camp office to place the call. He knew that Marve wouldn’t have called unless the situation was more than she could manage, and he knew Marve could manage just about anything. That meant either something catastrophic had happened to one of the children or there had been a significant death, someone other than one of the older church members perpetually on what Glynn sarcastically referred to as the Death Watch List. He worried about his parents. He worried about Marve’s parents.
Marve seemed to anticipate Glynn’s angst. She answered the phone with, “The kids are fine, our parents are fine, nothing’s on fire. Take a second and catch your breath.”
“You know me too well,” Glynn said. “There seemed to be a bit of urgency when they delivered the message, though.”
“There is,” Marve answered quietly. “Joanne Lyles died this morning. Apparently, she had a stroke while fixing breakfast. Horace was there, of course, and he called Hub immediately, but there wasn’t anything anyone could do. She was gone before Hub could get all the way out there.”
Glynn took a deep breath, trying to weigh the significance of the news not only for Horace but for the entire church family. “Do I need to jump ship and leave now?” he asked, concerned both for Horace but also not wanting to leave Calvin in the lurch, especially given how unusual it was for someone like Glynn to have the chance to speak.
Marve was silent for a moment, an uncomfortable silence that made it difficult to know whether she was hedging her answer or trying to figure out how to put it delicately. “Horace knows where you are, of course, and to some degree, he understands how important it is. He said to tell you not to rush back. Between you and me, though? He’s a basket case, Glynn. He called, then Hub called and, of course, Hub didn’t know where you were and actually sounded a bit angry that you weren’t available to go out there immediately. Is there anything keeping you there after you speak?”
“Not that I know of,” Glynn said. “In fact, judging from the actions of some of the others, speaking then leaving seems to be part of the routine. I doubt anyone other than the guys from around here would miss me. I can leave right after, grab lunch in Oklahoma City, and be home before five, I think.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Marve responded. “I won’t say anything, just in case you do get delayed, but if you can be here by the time Rose is done embalming and all, I think that would be good. Horace certainly doesn’t need to go to the funeral home without some support.”
For the first time that day, Glynn felt comfortable with the decision he was making. “It’s settled then. I’ll leave as soon as I speak and get there as quickly as I can. Do me a favor and keep tabs on any plans any of the ladies are making. This is going to be a jolt to the entire church. The women can’t help but respond”
“Will do. Drive safe, and remember I love you,” Marve answered as she hung up the phone.
Glynn walked slowly back to the small chapel where the sessions were being held, taking in the enormity of what had just happened. Joanne’s presence was deeply woven into the fabric of the entire church. There was no one whose life she hadn’t touched in some significant way, from taking food to someone who was ill to teaching Sunday School, to running both VBS and church camp. Losing her was as though the whole church had lost its collective mother.
Outside the chapel, he came across Calvin and Joe standing a few feet away from the door. Calvin saw the deep expression of anguish on Glynn’s face and knew something was wrong. “Brother Glynn,” he called somewhat softly, motioning for him to join them. “Is everything okay? I noticed you had a phone call earlier.”
“The wife of one of my deacons died earlier this morning. Her presence in the church was significant. I’ll be leaving just as soon as I finish speaking,” Glynn said, trying to keep his voice from wavering.
Joe and Clavin both placed an arm around the pastor’s shoulder in comfort, drawing him closer into their circle. “Listen, you are not under any obligation to speak under these circumstances. Every pastor in there will understand if you need to leave,” Calvin told him.
“For all the pretense of importance we put on these things, your church family comes first,” Joe said. “I’ll cover for you myself if you wish.”
Glynn tried to force a smile, but it came out more like a grimace. “I appreciate the flexibility,” he said, “but I think I need to preach this as much for myself right now as for anyone else. I need to remind myself of who God is in the face of death. I wouldn’t mind a little prayer, though,” The statement was meant more rhetorically than anything; it was one of those religious phrases that just came out when there wasn’t anything concrete to be done. What happened next caught him by surprise.
“Absolutely,” Joe said. He knelt where he had been standing and Glynn and Calvin followed suit. With their hands on Glynn’s shoulders, they each prayed, asking God to comfort Horace and his family, the church in Adelberg, and to give Glynn strength to know what to say. While they were praying, Glynn felt a third hand on his shoulders. He didn’t look up, but when Calvin finished praying, Glynn recognized the voice of Herschel Hobbs. Soon, there was a fourth hand, then a fifth, and more as convention staff members who had been outside the chapel came and joined them. Each knelt in the dusty Southern Oklahoma sand. If they could reach Glynn, they put a hand on him. They took their cue from the person praying before him and continued the near-mantra that Joe had started.
When the last person stopped, 23 men stood around Glynn, assuring him they would be praying as he spoke, and as he drove home. He felt both emboldened and oddly embarrassed at having unexpectedly drawn so much attention. Inside, the group was singing the second hymn before Glynn was to speak.
“I’ll keep my introduction abbreviated,” Calvin said. “Take as much or as little time as you feel led. The clock’s off.”
The group was standing as they sang, making it easier for the men to enter and make their way to their seats. When they finished the hymn and sat down, Calvin made his way to the podium and after making a couple of announcements concerning the afternoon’s softball game, he said, “Our next speaker, unlike some others, needs an introduction. Glynn Waterbury is new to us, having been only been pastor of First Baptist, Adelberg since February. Coming from a bi-vocational position near the Detroit area, he’s still getting accustomed to the way we do things down here and the challenges of being a full-time pastor. He’s speaking this morning, though, because he’s had to deal with some significant deaths in the short time he’s been here and his manner and method of approach to the topic is one I felt appropriate to be shared here, given our theme. Please welcome Reverend Glynn Waterbury.
In traditional Southern Baptist fashion, there was no applause. Clapping was considered to promote vanity, something that plagued many despite no one thinking it was their own problem. Instead, a chorus of hearty Amens came from the group and Glynn stepped behind the lectern that now seemed too small and too wobbly to support the weight he desired to place on it. He looked across the audience and saw Clement and the others from his association sitting together, smiling in anticipation. For the most part, the faces of all the men were encouraging. They were eager to listen and Glynn wondered how quickly the smiles were about to fade.
Placing his hands on either side of the lectern, he began: “Death is such a fun topic to be assigned, isn’t it?” He paused for the smattering of chuckles that passed through the group of pastors. “Unlike I might with some other topics, though, I want to warn you from the outset that I did not come here armed with jokes. I do not intend for the next few minutes to be filled with amusing anecdotes. If you feel good when you leave this chapel for lunch, I want it to be because of the surety you have in the absolute awesomeness of God’s transcendent immanence and faithfulness, not because I’ve found some magical way of making a difficult topic something less than the frightening monster it is.
“Death is an absolute. I received word earlier that a dear soul, perhaps the one person who might be considered the mother to all of our church, suffered a stroke and died this morning. She was making breakfast for her family, something she enjoyed doing, and in that flash of a moment, she ceased to be.”
Murmurs of shock and concern waved across the group and Glynn gave them space to react before continuing. “Do you know what happens when you have a stroke? I know it’s a common medical term and as pastors, we hear it often as a cause of death. We know it has something to do with the brain, but do we really understand what it’s like to have a stroke? Maybe some of you do, but for the rest, please let me briefly explain.
“A stroke is caused when something, usually a blood clot or a hemorrhage, blocks the flow of blood to the brain. That’s the nice, clinical definition that we get from doctors trying to explain to grieving families what just happened to the person who 30 minutes ago seemed perfectly alive and well.
“But for the person experiencing the stroke, there’s a lot more. For Joanne Lyles this morning, she likely woke up with the headache that was signaling that there was a problem. Some people describe it as a lightning strike, like biting into ice cream and getting that brain freeze we all dread. And Joanne, like most of us who live busy lives, ignored that headache and began her morning routine. She made coffee. She cooked bacon. She was working on scrambled eggs. Then, the left side of her brain, the part that keeps us present, focused, and in control, stopped working. For a moment, Joanne likely felt wonderful as the right side of her brain filled her with a sense of euphoria. She wouldn’t have felt the pain of her brain shutting down. She would have more likely had what some people might call a moment of oneness with the universe. She smiled, not because she was seeing Jesus, but because the part of her brain that processes reality was gone. With blinding speed, as she was consciously experiencing this almost out-of-body feeling, other portions of her brain were shutting down. She lost muscular control of her body and slumped to the floor. She lost the ability to recognize speech or respond in any verbal manner. As her husband rushed to her, his face was no longer recognizable.
“Then, all too quickly, before anyone had time to call for help, the euphoria was turned off like a light switch, and there was nothing. No bright light. No sudden whoosh of her soul leaving her body. Just black, lonely, disarming, frightening, nothing. She was dead.
“Right here is where we as pastors make our first mistake because our instinct is to mitigate that solid, dark, painful reality of the absoluteness of death. So, we don’t use the word. Instead, we say that Joanne has passed on or passed away. She is no longer with us. She has entered into the arms of God. She has crossed the river. She has met her maker, her God, her Savior. She has gone on to her eternal reward.
“Outside of our religious context, people say that someone has bought the farm, kicked the bucket, fallen off the perch, assumed room temperature, cashed in their chips, and quite poetically, shuffled off this mortal coil. For the entirety of humanity, we have looked for ways of describing death without actually using the word because the meaning and inference that comes with saying that someone is dead drives home just how dark and bleak that reality is.
“Death is the final end, and that scares us. Death is the emptiness of being forsaken, it is a rupture to our reality, a discontinuity, sheer blankness, and absolute poverty. In death, our lives are cast into a human void with no inner view, no period of self-reflection, and no explanation. Whatever sense we try to make of death comes not from death itself because death is always senseless. So we attempt to make some leap from this senselessness by ignoring the reality with a selected reading, some artificially imposed hope from something other than death’s complete and unwavering bleakness.
“Death is so frightening, so radical, that it puts us in a position as pastors to try and find some softer way to explain the unexplainable. And in trying to pull that punch, we too often resort to folklore, tradition, and nursery rhymes in place of what the Bible lays out for us. Oh, we can stretch and bend and try to make different pieces of scripture fit all those little stories, but not only are we not being faithful to scripture when we do so, but we are also simultaneously diminishing the power of God.
“As unintentional as it may be, we are frequently engaged in deceit when we approach the topic of death, starting with its origins. We look at the book of Genesis and tell our congregations that it is the sin of Adam that brought death into being, that before Adam and Eve disobeyed God, everyone and everything was immortal and that was good. I am convinced, however, that that’s not the truth.
“Remember how in the very beginning of the book of Genesis, where God is looking at this mess of void, formless swamp of deep darknesses and over that primordial mess he says, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good so he separated the light from the darkness and right there, as he was creating the first day, establishing this thing we call time, in the deepest, furthest reaches of darkness, where there isn’t even the slightest hint that light exists, there is where God created death. It has been with us from the very beginning because without it we cannot begin to fully understand the transcendent glory of the God who defies that darkness.”
Glynn paused to let the statement sink in. The smiles were gone, a serious, almost stern expression taking its place as the pastors began to realize that this new guy was challenging their theology. He looked at Clement, who met his gaze and nodded. He looked to the front row and saw Dr. Hobbs furiously writing on a scrap of paper. A couple of rows behind him, Warren Hultgren, surrounded by his staff, had leaned forward, his hands folded on the back of the chair in front of him. Toward the back of the chapel, the one pastor who had not gotten the memo about dressing casually, Gene Garrison, had his Bible open in front of him, checking the validity of what Glynn was saying. He continued.
“Bad theology comes in many forms with many different excuses. Over time they have mixed and intermingled with each other to the point that we cannot recognize what is Truth until we compare the mythology we’ve created around death with the reality of God. Perhaps the most common is the idea that the soul, immortal, never experiences death, that when the earthen container of life is broken, the soul somehow floats right on up to the presence of God. There are two problems with that concept.
“First, it’s a hoax not supported by original scripture. There is no soul in the Hebraic tradition of the Old Testament. Neither Jesus nor Paul would have understood what we were talking about. Instead, the concept on which they operated was the reality of something they called Sheol, an absolute nothingness. Only when popular philosophy finally embraced Aristotle’s idea of the soul being a separate existence from the human body, some 300 years after Christ, did church leaders go back and actually re-write scripture in an effort to support this belief that originated in secular thought.
“But even apart from this strange embrace of Greek philosophy, if we preach that the soul just somehow automatically disjoins from the body and is spirited away, what is it, exactly, that God is resurrecting? If what we’re saying is that the soul is capable of making its own way without actually experiencing death for itself, then why did Christ need to die? Are we daring to say that death is now somehow different than it was 2,000 years ago? There’s nothing in scripture to support that and it’s a dangerous presumption to make. If the soul does not experience death for itself then we are inherently diminishing if not completely negating the power of God through the resurrection! The soul must die, just as Jesus completely and fully died, experiencing that full rejection of life, or else the immanence of God over death is moot.”
Glynn definitely had everyone’s attention now. Some were flipping through their Bibles, others had closed them, sitting sternly with their arms crossed defiantly. He ignored them and went on.
“Another concept that has recently gained a lot of popularity and taken over a lot of contemporary literature on the subject, is that death is something we have to work to accept as part of five stages of grief. I’m sure you’ve heard of them: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. The process, based not in scripture but contemporary psychology, comes across as a compassionate understanding of what is presented as a natural course of the life cycle. When we have finally matured enough, when we have fought our way through these destructive stages to ultimate acceptance, only then can we appreciate the finality of death and move on from it.
“The problem with this approach is first that it reduces death to merely a distorted perspective; that death is only bad because we perceive it wrongly through our maladjusted attitudes, because we refuse to accept the natural conclusion of life. This is just the way life is. You live, then you die, accept it and be free. But again, if death is something we can psychologically accept, if it’s not something from which we desire to run away and avoid, if it is only the final stage of human growth, then what does that make of God? If death is a natural extension of life, then do we even need God?
“It is the undeniable condition of death’s darkness that makes the question of God’s existence moot. Only in the complete collapse of the human person is the primal shape of faith revealed. Faith must desperately cling to the God who is in no way affirmed by the darkness ahead but who triumphs over that darkness through the power of his own transcendence. Take away the power of death and we mute the power of God. How dare we even consider such a thing?
“There are also those who look to death as a point of ultimate realization, the pinnacle of human existence where we finally realize what it is to be human in the brief instant before we stop being human. Go ahead, try to make sense of that. Such a philosophy ultimately discards God entirely.
“And the one that gets me the most is the idea that death is like a butterfly breaking forth from a chrysalis, bursting forth from the drudgery of this mortal existence into the beauty and splendor of heaven. It sounds nice, doesn’t it, but the superficial aspects of the metaphor deny the existence of death completely. Death? What’s that? Oh, you mean that old cocoon? That’s nothing.
“Have any of you, probably as children, broken open a chrysalis to see what’s inside? If you have, you likely know that in order for a butterfly to ever break free from the unpenetrable darkness, the caterpillar that created the tomb has to die, its body reduced to nothing more than an icky, sticky, smelly, disgusting block of a mess. Only there, when every last vestige of its previous life is completely stripped away, does God’s creation deliver a butterfly. Full, complete, death of the whole body has to occur before eternal life can become an option.
“As comfortable as it may make us and our congregations, when we preach anything other than the absolute rigid blankness of death we distort and diminish who God is and what he can accomplish. Only in that hopelessness where no possible human remedy could potentially exist, where the most brilliant mind has no chance to explain its way out or provide another alternative, only there does faith finally, desperately, look to the omnipotence of God and find salvation. If God is going to be our rock, then death must first be the ocean in which we drown. Only when we risk complete nothingness, a blankness that erases the whole of our existence, can God’s power reward us with eternal life.
“When I leave here in a few minutes, I return to a man who is not only experiencing the loss of his wife and the mother of his children, I have a deacon who is beginning to see for himself the darkness of death. I will not tell him that God called his wife home. I will not tell him that her death is in any way, shape, or form acceptable. I will not excuse her death as just another passing phase that he has to learn to accept.
“Instead, I will admit with him that his wife’s death is a tragedy for him, his family, and the whole community. I will acknowledge with him the pain of despair that he is feeling; diminishing, or excusing it in no way, but embracing it with him as a partner in grief. Then I will gently assure him, that through all the anguish, through all the darkness, through the utter finality of death, at the ultimate end of everything, there, God is our strength and our refuge. There, God transcends all else and displays the full power and awesomeness of his deity. There, just as God raised Jesus, he raises Joanne Lyles.
“We can preach no mediation. We cannot embrace any attempt to soften the blow by deteriorating death’s power. Death is the ultimate opposite. Death is death, but God is God. How dare we preach anything else?”
Glynn looked at his audience. Expressions of wonder, confusion, and disbelief scattered between nods of agreement, thoughtfulness, and appreciation. Clement smiled and give him a discreet thumbs-up. Glynn stepped back from the lectern, looked at Calvin who nodded his understanding that the sermon was complete, then slipped out the side door. Within minutes he was heading for home where the reality of his sermon was waiting.