By Tom Ehrich

A friend in North Carolina is dying.

Not that sudden death-in-your-sleep that people beyond a certain age wish for. But a protracted, anxious dying that leaves him fraught, his family exhausted, and his friends wondering how to help.

One of those friends wrote me: “I sat with him a little while last night, but I didn’t know what to say to help.  All I could do was cry and tell him what a good brother he had been to me.”

Over the years, I have watched many people die, my own parents among them. In a few instances, I have had the great privilege of being in the room when last breath came.

After one dying time, I wrote words that violated all post-modern theology but seemed true to me: “I believe Jesus welcomed him with a smile and open arms.”

In my mind’s eye, I saw that moment of welcoming actually happen. And all that had gone before — the difficult childhood, depression and war, challenging life, wife’s death, friends’ deaths, his own deterioration — all of that rested now in the hands of a gracious God.

Pastors do many things. None is more holy than accompanying ashes or casket into the church and saying those words of hope: “I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God.”

Church folks do many things. At their best, they make the world a better and more humane place. No ministry touches more deeply than sitting with the dying, sheltering the grieving, shouting “Alleluia!” when the words of hope are spoken, and staying true week after week, month after month, as the slow healing of grief takes place.

My friends feel inadequate to the mystery of dying. We all do. All I can say is, Have courage. Let now be the time when a lifetime of prayers and hymn-singing, church meetings and parking-lot conversations, helps you “follow the light,” as a friend put it, and return life to God.

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