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Margaret’s Gospel


Saliva bubbles collected in the corners of her mouth. Suddenly, in a meteoric flash, death snatched her away. In an instant, her rotund, 98 year-old body surrounded by a loving family crumbling in tears and grief was all that was left. I, a volunteer chaplain, struggled to find words of comfort and hope. Amazed by family and love, I had my own thoughts of life’s heartless cycle and questions of nagging doubt. On the inside, I am a person performing an act of human compassion for a family crushed by sorrow and a chaplain who is aware there are myriad unanswered questions—God on the lam.

Life is a journey where decision selects meaning, where we battle doubt while troubled the abyss might exist. Yet we persist where the rubber meets our angst; everyone seeks an explanation, believing they might find one that addresses the void in their soul. Many choose to believe in the Beyond because the Promised Land is better than apocalypse, and family love provides the glue that keeps us together while we wait.

Preaching God’s love while grappling with the death and suffering of this family left me thinking, “What does it all mean?”  Mother Teresa’s questioning God’s existence or Brother John’s "dark night of the soul" both visited me in that hospital room. Black and white answers to life are simplistic. I was trained to believe truth is found in the confines of dogma—God inexplicably locked in doctrine. Real Life incredulously retorts “really?”

That hospital room was truth. Death is truth, suffering and loss are truth, and family love is truth. Politics, higher education, ending poverty, eliminating war, and large bank accounts have no influence on that sad separation between family and their dead beloved. In poverty or wealth, that hospital room was a life lesson demonstrating up close what this earthly jaunt is like, all delusions notwithstanding. I whispered, “You will see her again. This is not the last verse; the song continues.” They seemed somewhat consoled, but I questioned in my heart whether it was true. I lived and moved in dichotomy, my spiritual integrity under interrogation.

Her name was Margaret. A name makes a difference. She made an impression on the soft tablet of life’s record by producing a loving family, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, bound to her identity. They did not want to move on without her. I only hope those who love me feel the same. She left a gospel to ponder. I never knew her and wished I had for she imprinted an indelible mark on my self-centered life. I witnessed her absolute end and felt moved by her finality, her closing testimony, as she fled this earth, her whereabouts on my mind.

I wondered why some seldom battle doubts. Believing appears to come easy; they find certainty in a fundamentalist faith where doubts are shunned as traps of Satan. If you question Scripture, your trust in God is suspicious, your faith weak. They persist in believing orthodoxy unexamined. What is that like, a corruption of faith? A faith of certitude in felt-board religion is a tough deception to overcome.

My mind mused what Margaret was really like, what secrets she cherished, what did the family not know about this honored mother, grandma, great-grandma? Perhaps it didn’t matter. Maybe only love matters, and by all accounts, love was a powerful force in her family; her children’s reaction to her lifeless form proved it. Their crying deeply touched me. We hugged while they shared memories that would sustain the family down the road as life waits for no one. I thought how death plays no games with life, teaching its own bizarre truth, and how believing in post-grave prospects is Existence’s last redoubt.

Her eyes closed in death, her gaping mouth crying for more, her listless frame cradled by a hospital bed, life and death strangely horrific as they exchanged her being in that small crowded hospital room, grotesque and mysterious.

The Incarnation provides me some possible answers to the reality of death, dying, and suffering. It declares God is present in suffering as in the person of Mother Teresa, immersing Himself through her in unspeakable misery, attempting to alleviate human wretchedness one person at a time or one disease at a time. Incarnation is His response to our despair, not a final solution—not yet—but a reply nonetheless, a no-picnic promise of God with us in us. His rejoinder to suffering is you and me. That does not answer the "why" or "why so long" questions, but it is all we have. God becoming us is His solution to our travail as pain, death, and sorrow continue their cruel exercise, and faith wrestles. He shoulders with us through us. We are His hope to humanity. I agonized to believe He was in that room with dead Margaret and her grieving family. I was He and He was I, my warts and all, reaching out to a family whose heart was broken. This is what I chose to believe. We are to Him as He is to us in this world, “you in Me and I in you,” (John 14:20).

Assuring me they had funeral plans in place, I said good-bye, feeling moved, overwhelmed, and ruminating. I just encountered mystery at its crossroads, the cellar and ceiling of existence, breath and death, family and loss; most of us flee these moments. Of course, we would rather focus on the party in place of the wake, but eventually the wake will find us. We are pulled with the power of gravity to such considerations, scratching for answers . . . while wisdom gleaned from death’s dirty work should help us live more abundantly in the present. We have nothing else hoping Scripture’s "forever" is true.

From where does Margaret’s goodness originate, simply in the heart of humanity? Or is there something bigger outside of us, an objective something or Someone who has planted virtue in our hearts? Might that be evidence of a good God? And from where does my outrage at death and sorrow emanate? As I witnessed this family’s grief, I thought this is not as it should be, life obviously the favored reality. Death is a gross misshapen delusion masquerading as "actuality." There must be a better way, a truer existence free of pain, sorrow, and destruction, where death finds no place. Where did I derive such thoughts? Could death be an argument for life? Darkness demands light, like yin and yang, and our anger at suffering bespeaks of a better existence, a belief in the way things "should be." Margaret suggested to me that Hope is the key to imaginable paradise; at least it comforts us as we slip into the unknown.

Can life’s cessation inspire us on how to live now more abundantly? Does our finality, our mortality, cause us to make the most of breath in the moment? Kafka said life has meaning because life has an end. Do we focus on the moment because we know we are terminal? Perhaps. If not, we live in empty tombs of false selves and vacuous hopes, buying into the material world while missing significance and purpose in life’s twinkling. Perchance, we can learn something from death that adds much to our earthly trip in the present and prepares us for the launch into the forever, whatever that is. Buoyant visions required.

Margaret was good news. Love and family have profound implications. Her death-moment was gospel I found relevant and telling at a time when my moorings were being cross-examined, wondering why God, life, and religion were demanding a second look so late in my entrance on Life’s stage.

Is it likely family bonds, familial relationships, and the love generated represent the Bible in its deepest sense, the Family of God? Intimate community where two or three are gathered together is the religion of life that speaks to me. It is where my chances of experiencing God improve. Margaret in the throes of warm death and a family besot with cutting grief granted me an in-depth view of life’s essence. Family community helps me imagine heaven’s environment. If we particularly fail to love those closest to us, we learn nothing from Scripture, religious promises, or spiritual yearning. God is where we are, in us. Us, the Incarnation, hope.

I walked to my car and drove home.


Greg Prout is father of three, grandfather of three, and has been happily married for 34 years to Mary Ventresca.

Image Credit: / Vivek Chugh


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