December funerals can pretty much suck. You’ve lost someone in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and that can throw a heavy weight into the holidays. It’s hard to share the Christmas cheer when you’re grieving. You can feel guilty about being down, so then you seclude yourself from folks, which is the last thing you should do at that time. Then when Christmas rolls around next year, you get fresh reminders of your loss; it’s next to impossible to forget that death, because it’s tied to a big annual event that millions of people across the world celebrate.
I know what December funerals are like. My mother died December 21, 1998. I had about 20 months prior to that date gotten saved, converting from a non-practicing Lutheran to an evangelical Protestant denomination (Church of the Nazarene). My father was Lutheran; my mother was, I think, Presbyterian. Religion wasn’t that big of a thing in our family, although my dad had always required us to go to church. I had been baptized as an infant, and gone through confirmation. But nothing ever clicked for me.
Dad had died in 1994. My mom had health issues of one kind or another, leading her to be hospitalized in mid-December for venous bypass to help save her legs from the ravages of advanced and out-of-control diabetes. It was only moderately successful, and as she was recovering, she suffered a stroke.
She was dying that Monday.
I had driven from Columbus to Marietta the day before after a rambling phone call from the ICU nurse about how my mom was “decompensating,” and frantic calls to my brother in Oregon. My wife stayed in Columbus with our two small children.
One of the things most evangelical churches teach is that if you present the Gospel to someone, and ask them to make a commitment of their life to Christ, and they refuse, they’re condemning themselves to Hell. The thinking is that they’ve refused salvation. My mom was not overly religious, and at the time, I felt that I needed to “get her saved,” as I understood things. But I didn’t want to have a salvation talk with her, for fear she would refuse the commitment at the end. She had been confused over why I wanted to be baptized again as a born-again Christian, even though I had been baptized as a baby in the Lutheran church. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on matters of religion.
So I had hemmed and hawed about it, and now it was too late. My brother and I, along with the parish nurse and the visitation pastor from the local Lutheran Church were in the ICU room watching my mother die. The pastor was at the foot of the bed. My brother was on the right side, and the nurse was next to him. I was on the left side. I was bawling my eyes out, convinced that my own fear and weakness had kept my mother from hearing the salvation message that I thought I had a duty to tell her.
It was not long after nine PM, and I was holding her hand, and telling her I loved her, and that I was sorry. And at that moment, just before she died, I felt a hand on my shoulder, as though someone had come up beside me on my left side, and put their arm around me. And a quiet or “still, small” voice said to me, “It’s OK. She’s with me now.” Perhaps a minute later, her heart stopped.
Could I have imagined it? Could I have created that experience out of an intense desire to know that I would see her again in heaven? I suppose.
Could it have been Satan, taunting me? I doubt it. I believe in Satan, just as I believe in God, and the resurrection of Christ. You can’t logically believe in God, and not believe in Satan; you can’t have good without not-good, or evil. But it’s not Satan’s style to say something like that. He’d have been screaming “She’s mine now, you fool! You failed!”
I am convinced though that what I experienced that night in a lonely ICU room was a loving, merciful, compassionate God tending to His child in the best way He could. I didn’t want my mom to die. I miss her and my dad terribly. But her body was worn out. Yes, He could have healed her, just as Christ healed so many. But physically touching me was much more miraculous than anything he could have done for her. My God, the Creator of the universe, the Great I Am, presented Himself to someone who was hurting and alone one night. How can I doubt a God like that?
So that is what I choose to remember in December. I could focus on the loss, and how my mother won’t be around to see her grandchildren grow up, and how they won’t have as many loving grandparents in their lives. I could focus on the anguish of watching her lie in a bed, her body refusing to give up. But instead, I choose to focus on the way my God showed His love for me. Isn’t that the better way to deal with Christmas ghosts?