Again and Again and Again- Repent
Again and again and again. 26 times. Over the course of six weeks twenty-six people died. I was serving as a chaplain at a Long-Term Care facility that included Assisted Living, Senior Housing and Hospice beds. This was almost twenty years ago. I was in my early 40’s. It forever changed me. Many of the frontline care givers were in their early twenties. Each day when we arrived at work we would all pass by the front reception desk, At one corner of the glass window there was a designated location for a fresh flower to be placed along with the name of a resident who had died. Day after day after day- new flowers, new names and on some days more than one name at a time. Again and again and again.
It seemed unreal at times while it was taking place. How many days in a row or days in a week could there be another flower and another name? It was again and again and again. As the chaplain I had many conversations with young adults who were trying to navigate a work place where a question upon arriving at work became, “Did anyone else die since I was last here?”. Their friends and family didn’t share the experience of leaving work having intimately cared for someone, or served them dinner, or wheeled them into the tv room to only to return a day or two later to receive news of their death while walking from clocking in for their shift past the reception window. Again and again and again.
We hosted many memorial services at the facility. Some funerals were held at local churches. We provided opportunities for staff to grieve together. There were more appointments with families who were grieving, staff who were discerning if they needed to take off more time or if this type of work was even a good fit. Many of my work hours were spent listening to employees process their grief and ask the big questions of life. For some it was too much to bear- the nature of caring for elders would not be a good career fit. Again and again and again.
Family members of residents often expressed their regret that they hadn’t visited more often. There was anger and surprise voiced, they didn’t think their loved one would die so suddenly. Sometimes, I could hear that this was one of the first times they had experienced death. Faced with death it seemed to turn everything else on its head. There was reflection on their own mortality. Deep grief and loss would show up front and center. Again and again and again.
I can pinpoint that time as a turning point for me personally. Each grief built on the next. The power of grief shared to be lessened and joy shared to be increased happened time and again and again and again. Being married to a pastor I had support at home from someone who also had walked with others in their own grief and was willing to express his.
It was a turn BIG around time for me. At the time, while I was in it, I didn’t know at all the ways that it would serve as a spring board for deep spiritual growth. When only a couple years later that beloved pastor husband of mine was the one whose death I was grieving I would recall those six relentless weeks. We had all navigated through them in a variety of ways. What I was gifted with following such an unprecedented time for myself, was a renewed sense of the gift of life.
Death can be a teacher of the power and value of life. In what may at first seem an odd, upside down sort of way those twenty six deaths were a time in which deep faith conversations became life giving. Rejection of the denial of death was right at my door step and I opened that door to let in the truth of my own mortality. Again and again and again, I learned that there was no math or making sense of who would be next to die or what to expect when I showed up at work.
Again and again and again those deaths didn’t seem to follow a pattern I could predict or come from a formula which I could wrap my mind around. Instead I needed to allow myself to be transformed, changed, released from the illusion that that I could control death, predict death, keep death at bay. Again and again and again I learned that the only way was through not over.
In the years since then, I have often recounted that experience and reflected upon my learnings from that time. It came to mind this week. On Saturday I will both preside at a memorial service for a member of the congregation I serve and attend a funeral for the husband of a friend. The gospel reading for this Sunday speaks of repentance and a fig tree that isn’t bearing fruit. A gardener will ask that fig tree to be given another year.
It’s a gospel of second chances, more time, new opportunities for growth. It’s a gospel that invites repentance. To speak about repentance is to call forth a turnaround. To repent is to no longer go in the direction which is not life-giving and not fruit bearing . Those twenty six deaths were a call to repentance again and again and again.
The call to me to turn from false assurances that things in life will make sense, that there will be a way to wrap my mind around what has broken my heart came loudly. To learn to not try to explain, rationalize or say things like “this is part of God’s plan” presented itself time and again. That repentance call was an invitation- to allow myself to be held and encouraged, nourished and cared for, focused on and connected to the very One who created me, the One who created you, the One who created us.
We were created as the “apple of God’s eye” not that we would live these lives in this world forever but so that we could trust in our Creator who has given us these bold and beautiful lives to live for the sake of loving one another, to bear fruit. Our Creator assures us, death never has the last word. We are called to life now. To repent is to boldly live fruit-bearing lives. We are called to this again and again and again