- Written by Margaret Bernhart
Good morning, Mom,” I said, opening the blinds to let in some sunlight. “Oh, good morning Honey,” she responded. “What day is it?” “Today is Monday.” “And the season?” “It’s almost the beginning of fall and even today I can feel the shift in the humidity as there is a slight chill in the air.” “Oh, the fall, that’s wonderful,” she said. Just at that moment Sable, my portly black and white Siamese wandered in and lumbered up onto the bed, and landed with a thud. “Oh, Sable has come in to join us,” she exclaimed. “Well, I’m ready to get up. What’s for breakfast?
I could barely believe my ears. For the past few weeks Mom had been bedridden, saying little, and seemed more engrossed in the past than the present. “Is there anything you would like? Shall we do the usual?” “Oh, that would be fine, Honey,” she said.
I walked out of the bedroom and around the corner as I could hear the caregiver coming in the backdoor. She looked a little puzzled as she met my stunned expression. “She is awake and alert, I can’t believe it. She wants breakfast and was asking to know the day of the week and season.” Anita quipped brightly, “Sounds like the Mrs. Bernhart I knew a month ago.” I motioned her into the kitchen and asked her to hold off bringing breakfast, until I got a chance to talk with Mom. I had been hoping for an opportunity to have a conversation. The moment was here and I felt tension grip my chest. All I could think of was how fleeting my mother’s days were here on earth.
I walked back into her bedroom and sat on the edge of the chair next to her bed. “Mom,” I said, “do you remember how we have gone for tests and talked with specialists recently regarding your problem with swallowing food? They are not able to cure this. And your infection, they are unable to stop it, either. It doesn’t look good. I’m afraid…it’s terminal.” Mother gulped and her eyes grew big and piercingly focused. “You don’t have to worry as you will be able to eat. We just have to be careful how we prepare the food. You can have anything that you would like, and I know chocolate-caramel sundaes are one of your favorites.” Mom relaxed a bit and smiled. “I will be right here with you for anything you need and I won’t leave your side. It’s time to start thinking about heaven and about being with Dad.” The next few moments with her felt holy and otherworldly. Her fear of the unknown was palpable, as was her longing for heaven.
That evening as I was about to turn in and turn off her light, Mom said, “Honey, I’m sorry for not telling you sooner that I love you. In the days to come, remember that I love you.” I had waited all my life in my mother’s silence to hear those words. I knew she loved me. She had shown it in a million ways through her sacrifice and patience over the years.
Her words were sweet, softening the harsh realities of Alzheimer’s that was destroying her brain, stealing her personality, and shutting down her body. Her words affirmed what I knew inside and were an amen to a life that rarely risked letting others know what she deeply felt. She slipped from this life into eternity four days later.
The Significance of First and Final Encounters
First and final encounters with people often hold special significance. The same is true with Jesus. How he initiates his earthly ministry and what he chooses to discuss with the disciples just before his arrest summarizes his core message. It gives a compelling glimpse into the heart of God.
In the gospel of John, Jesus’ first act is turning water into wine at a wedding feast. We see a portrait of God who is unimpressed with the ordinary and goes all out to enhance the joyous occasion with surprise and the finest quality of wine the palate can taste. The love displayed in this seemingly inconsequential act also is meant to encourage us as it holds a memory of the future, an even grander and most exquisite party—the marriage feast of the lamb.
Jesus initiates his ministry in Mark’s gospel by delivering a man from an unclean spirit. We can’t help but be confronted with the unsettling reality that this life holds an ongoing battle against evil. Evil hates God’s glory and paradoxically, darkness is used as a backdrop for revealing it. Where sin, suffering and injustice abound, his goodness is magnified in the midst. God longs to lavish every possible blessing upon us; however, we were created with an insatiable hunger that transcends the tangible. Our deepest hunger is for him.
Focusing on Jesus’ mission, the gospel writer Luke has Jesus begin his ministry reading from the book of Isaiah before the influential Jewish leadership: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners (Is. 61:1)” NIV. God uses evil to furrow the heart so that the seeds of the gospel may be planted. God comes to those in need, hollowed by life’s struggles—those impoverished of soul, broken over transgressions, enslaved to evil, and spiritually blind.
A radical new ethic is unveiled in the gospel of Matthew as Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall have mercy shown to them. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, because of me. Rejoice, and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Mt. 5:3-12) NIV.
Jesus addresses future citizens of the kingdom endeavoring to live in what one theologian calls “the already and not yet”—in touch with their spiritual barrenness, broken over their sin, and still discontent and impatient until they get to their new country. Jesus calls the discontented blessed as their labor pains are evidence of heaven’s favor conferred upon them. Yet, those so marked appear more alienated than privileged; they live free of entitlement while desperate for spiritual sustenance. When overlooked, they offer kindness. Instead of keeping score, they check their own motives. While struggling to love sacrificially, they gain deep pockets of forgiveness. By answering a nobler call, they engender persecution. And though they aren’t promised the removal of suffering, or having an easier life or empowerment to master the new moral code, these citizens are given something far better.
Jesus reminds his disciples of this promise in his final discourse:
I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy (John 16:20-22) NIV.
The new kingdom is about joy. It’s about knowing God, who wants to give himself to us more than he wants to make our path smooth. He is unswervingly devoted to our greatest good and that good is our infinite joy. However, this joy is often stolen or never cultivated because of a subtle misconception. It occurs when we focus on our needs–healing of past emotional wounds, marital reconciliation, or help with finding a job, instead of cultivating a relationship with God. And when our demands take center stage and go unanswered, disappointment festers into resentment and we feel ripped off by God. Even the good gifts we have become eclipsed by rancor. A friend of mine once said, “If people really knew that God wasn’t going to do that much to change their circumstances then they wouldn’t want to hear about Jesus.” I think her statement speaks to what many believe. People clamored for Jesus to meet their needs and the same is true now as back then. Some left with a physical healing and never responded with even a thank-you. Others left disappointed when they were challenged to sell all to follow him. Those that stayed, stayed because they found the pearl of great price in their hearts, not because they were richer, lived free of disease, or had less depression. Having God’s good gifts doesn’t solve our problems as many might think. Do we dare look at what happens to people who win the lottery? Blessings don’t change the heart. Holding God hostage to the demand of experiencing heaven now robs us of gratitude and knowing supreme joy. God is consumed with giving us what we most want. Like no one else, he fathoms the depths of our suffering and longs to abundantly bless us. However, it’s not about giving us the good life, unless the good life is about knowing him so that our joy may be full.
My mother’s joy is now complete. With her final words, she risked sharing what was most profoundly in her heart. She was closer to wholeness in that moment than she had ever been on earth. And now she is healed. Her memory is perfect. She laughs as she freely shares her heart. She now sees God’s face and her soul is sated. She is home.
We don’t have to wait to offer our final words. We can borrow from heaven what is supernatural; God’s favor upon us. We can allow our empty ache to be filled with joy and we can speak life-giving words now.
Margaret Ligon Bernhart
December 5, 1919 – September 8, 2006