Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Story of Betty - A Life of Faith and Gratitude

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
2 Corinthians 4:16 ESV
A great privilege I had as a pastor was the opportunity frequently to visit in the homes of elderly church members and to hear the stories of their lives. It took very little time during a conversation to turn to matters of faith.

One woman in her mid-80's was Betty. She had not driven for many years, if ever, so she walked everywhere she went. Her daughter lived in a neighboring rural community, and as Betty's mobility declined, she had become increasingly bound to her home.

Betty's house was only a few blocks from the church, and during the warmer parts of the year she was able, on some Sundays, to muster the strength to walk to church. Betty kept up with the church by our daily radio spots, the broadcast of our Sunday services, personal phone calls, and pastoral visits. Even though she was not physically present, she was an active member, a faithful tither, and she even participated in craft projects from her home, making decorations and homemade gifts for others. She was a blessing to everyone.

One day I heard from one of her friends that Betty had decided to have a knee replacement surgery. I was a little surprised, given her age, and I suppose I lacked an understanding of what her mobility and independent living had meant to her. She was a woman of immense inner strength, with no fear, and a life of deep faith.

When I visited with her and her daughter in the hospital before the surgery, Betty told me that the reason she was having her knee replaced was so that she could walk to church on Sundays. She was absolutely sincere. Her life had been centered around her faith, and she missed worshiping with her church family more than many of us can understand.

Her surgery was successful, and a few days after it was over, she was sent downstairs to the in-patient rehabilitation floor which was a busy place in this aging community. The first few days went well. She handled pain better than most, it appeared, and she was gaining in her hope for greater independence.

After a few days of this, she seemed tired and a bit concerned about a fever she had developed. It became apparent a few days later that she would have to postpone her rehab until she was well. Her fever had made her weak, and though her therapy was going well, she would have to reserve her physical resources for fighting off pneumonia.

Betty's decline was rapid. She was moved from the rehab unit to a critical care room where she would stay. Over the course of about ten days, as I remember, we visited daily, sometimes twice a day. She always wanted me to read the Bible to her, pray with her, and on at least one occasion she wanted us to sing a hymn together, How Great Thou Art.

During one of our last visits, Betty wanted to talk about heaven, and about her funeral. It was a dramatic shift, and I know her family was uncomfortable with it, making it harder for her to talk openly out of respect for their feelings.

Betty understood that her time was near, that she had reached the summit of her journey, standing there on that mountaintop of enormous faith, breathing in the freshness of God's spirit, enjoying the indescribable beauty of the glory of God.

I had been at death's bed with many others over the years, but I don't recall witnessing anything of this magnitude before. I left her room, literally in awe of the beautiful gift of faith God had nurtured in her over her many years. It was our last conversation before we are to meet again in heaven.

The next evening, I drove over to the hospital to see her. When I got to Betty's room, her family left us alone for a few minutes. Betty had slipped into that state of consciousness that is such a mystery. She was unable to talk, and she did not open her eyes, but when I held her hand there was yet the slightest squeeze in response to mine.

I leaned over to her ear and told her what everyone would have wanted to say to her, those who had known her, that she had lived an exemplary life of faith, and that by her example she had influenced more people than she could have ever known. I recited the 23rd Psalm, and I prayed that she would have the strength in these final hours to receive the blessings and thanksgivings of her family, and that when the hour came that she would receive her final breath with the dignity and joy which her life had exemplified. I asked the Lord to give her the courage to let go and to be confident that her family would be loved and embraced by the community of faith.

I raised my eyes to her face. She was relaxed, her breathing was light and easy, and from her closed eyes, tears had formed. She showed no anxiety nor fear. Indeed, she appeared to be basking in the glory of God.

The next morning, I received a call about her passing. A few days later I conducted the funeral. As she had requested, I sang How Great Thou Art, and Amazing Grace. Then, I told her story to a congregation of church members, many on walkers or in wheelchairs, who had gathered to celebrate Betty's life.

Paul's words remind us of the work God is doing in the lives of those who are faithful, in spite of the declining condition of our physical bodies.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
While we witness the fall of life, and then the bitterness of the winter, it is the glory of God that we witness in the spring that is affirmed again and again every day as we pray, as we worship, and as we express our gratitude to him for the life he has given us and for the life which is to come.

Praise be to God for his grandeur, his glory, and the life which springs forth from within us even in contradiction to the body in which our breath currently resides.

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