Many of the chaplain call outs I or my chaplain team responds to are for older adults who suddenly passed away at home. I would not call those calls routine but they are far less dramatic than calls like the two we had in the last month. Within a few weeks we had two 17-year-olds tragically die—one suicide and one still undiagnosed death at home. Those are tough calls for our chaplains, let alone the first responders. Last week I responded to two separate calls—the death of a 99-year-old and an 86 year old—both men.
As I pulled up to the home of the 86-year-old in the late morning a few days ago, the first thing I noticed was that there were 6 cars in the driveway. The fire crew had left and the last deputy was driving away as I showed up. Right away I figured this man had a large family and they were at the home already. I park down the street and walk to the front door of this large home in an upscale neighborhood. I knock on the door wondering about what I’m walking in to…who are these people? Do they really want a chaplain? How are they handling their grief? Will they be people of faith?
The door opens and a daughter of the deceased who is about my age greets me and immediately ushers me inside. The home is decorated for Christmas and I feel the juxtaposition of how a family deals with death at a time of year we celebrate the joy of life. Immediately other family members come to the spacious foyer and I introduce myself to the 5 children of the patriarch of the family who died an hour earlier. He was still lying in a bedroom just a few feet away. All his children were there including a few young adult grandchildren. Several of his children had spent the night knowing that dad was in his last days and they wanted to provide watch over him.
With a bit of inquiry on my part I discover that this is a classic “used to go to church” family from the Catholic tradition. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a priest, they simply wanted the prayer I offered. My book, Used to Go to Church, was written after visiting hundreds of homes like this over many years where the deceased and/or family members used to go to church BUT have a faith and belief in God. In these moments, loved ones want a guide to help make a connection with God on behalf of the deceased. You and I know many, many such people in our lives. You may be one of those people.
If you have read my book, blog, posts or newsletters you know that over the years I’ve come to wrestle with the deeper questions that get put on some shelf in your brain which you may never get to until the hard stuff hits. I haven’t personally experienced anything like I’ve witnessed over the years yet, but I’ve been up close and personal with the suffering of many. I can’t say for sure but it may be safe to say that this family I encountered were not the kind of Christians who got on board with the whole program. They didn’t attend a progressive, modern church with a rock style worship band and a post-modern pastor speaking the cool language of the locale. No doubt they didn’t know about small groups or that they even existed in the church. It is likely that three sons never heard of a men’s group or the two daughters a women’s bible study. Probably haven’t read anything by Rick Warren, Max Lucado, Beth Moore, Francis Chan, John Eldridge, Timothy Keller, Dallas Willard, Richard Rohr, CS Lewis or AW Tozer. They might have caught a little Joel Olsteen on TV or read The Shack.
Who knows for sure but I doubt they have been on a mission trip to Mexico, Uganda or Vietnam. Maybe they tithed to a church they had an association with but never attended. My father did that when I was growing up. He gave to the Greek Orthodox church out of a sense of duty but we didn’t attend. This family grew up Catholic and had some traditions they remembered but were not hooked in to the mainstream of “evangelical Christianity,” whatever that really means.
They graciously ask me to pray to God on behalf of their father, George. They believe in God and have a faith. Surely, they knew about Jesus but what did they know? They seemed to me to be a very tight knit and loving family. I could just see it in their eyes. I’ve looked directly into the eyes of hundreds of grieving men, women and children. You learn to pick up on certain things. I could sense the love this family had for their father and for each other. I wonder if these family members have neighbors or friends who pray for them to “come to Christ” because they don’t see them going to church or talking the language.
Is it possible that Christ came to us and still comes to us in ways beyond what our religion, traditions or doctrines have taught us? Is it possible that these people I was with had Christ but it is not in the way evangelicals believe is proper for salvation? Am I compelled to categorize them as "lost" or "found" or "saved" or "unsaved"? Had they "accepted Christ" in the ways Christianity has biblically approved? I hope these questions don’t bother you too much or make you feel unsettled. They are fair questions. Does living the Christian life on earth have to be all about salvation and the determined steps one must make in order to secure salvation?
Is life on earth an opportunity to experience a kind of love that can only come from God? Is knowing God or “having Christ in your life” meant to be a static form of a conditional status for the sake of eternal security or is the movement of Christ a supernatural, dynamic function of an experience in the here and now having everything to do with love?
Human beings can benefit all the more by seeking God or the way of Jesus for the sake of love—isn't the end game love? God does move in mysterious ways. Maybe we should just leave it at that when our questions are as perplexing as mine, eh?