Pastor’s Blog: Why All Lives Matter

My mother would have turned 97 today. Two older sisters lived to 99 and 98 respectively. Her mother died at almost 96. The women lived long in Mama’s family. One sister, my godmother, died much younger after a lifetime of heavy smoking. Their only brother lived long, too.

When Mom died two months shy of her 91st birthday, she had been suffering with dementia for several years. Hindsight is 20/20, and, after the fact, we realized that our mother had been slowly declining in mental acuity for some time. As a retired geriatric nurse, she was very clever at covering memory gaps. Her phone conversations became shorter because she could keep to a script if she didn’t talk for long. Of course, a prolonged phone call would begin to reveal her script and her genius at covering for memory loss. When she had a bad fall, she appeared to be stubborn in not following the physical therapist’s directions. In fact, she couldn’t follow the commands any longer. From there, she lost the ability to walk, and then she began to fall and hit her head. She could no longer remember how to catch herself. Each head trauma accelerated her decline. The move from rehab to assisted living to total nursing care was swift. She spent the rest of her days in a wheelchair.

My last visit, in which we could still converse, took place about nine months before Mama died. She was frail and more childlike, but she knew my wife, our then four-year-old, and me. When I sang German Christmas carols from her youth, she remembered a phrase here and there and could still carry the tune. She said, “You know, Sam used to play the piano and we would sing that together as a family.” When I said, “Yes, I did, Mama,” she looked confused. That Sam was a young boy. Afterwards, my wife made a brilliant observation: “She has boxes of memories, but there are no connections between them.” The next time we saw Mama she was dying. So, we sang to her again late that Tuesday night. And our then five-year-old climbed up beside her in the bed, without any fear, and sang to her Nonny: “Some day my prince will come.” We cried.

In the last years of Mama’s life, she couldn’t dash about fearlessly as she always had. Day by day, she grew more helpless. In time, she was like a small child in a larger body. There were flashes of awareness, sometimes painful, as when Mama said matter-of-factly to me in one regular Sunday afternoon phone call: “I’m losing my mind, Sam. It’s terrifying.” Then, there were all the nights she called the sister who cared for her so lovingly: “Where am I? Why haven’t you come to see me.” My sister would reply: “I was there with you a few hours ago, Mama. I brought you supper and a beer.” Mom would reply: “No, you didn’t. You haven’t been to see me in three weeks!” In fact, my sister had been there two and three times a day every day! But Mama couldn’t remember that at times. And, when I would remind her how good my sister Donna was to her, she would agree with me. But, then, she could rarely remember to say that to the daughter who cared for her with such tender care.

When we were little, Mama fed us, changed us, bathed us, read to us, and taught us how to pray. She played wonderful classical albums for us as we were put down for naps. She delighted in showing us the stars in the night sky and naming the constellations. She fed the birds in winter and would show us which they were in a book of bird photographs. She had a marvelous sense of humor even though she could never remember the punch line to any joke…except the one time when it was an off-color joke and she told it at the worst possible time, much to our father’s chagrin. Mama joyfully served God and her neighbor, and those are all her very best virtues.

So, Mama grew old, frail, helpless, and childlike. She just wanted and needed to be loved. My sister Donna cared for Mama for several years, joyfully serving Mama as she had once done for her own frail, helpless, little children. It was a time of healing of some old hurts for my sister. It was a time not to regret what Mama had once been and no longer was. Rather it was a time to give thanks for the gift of Mama’s life and to give back some of the love she had once given to her children.

You see, Christian love is not emotion, although it can be emotional. Christian love is service. We serve, because Christ first served us by giving His life a ransom for us. God’s Son Jesus was born to pour out His life blood for us, that we might be rescued from our bondage to sin, death, and evil. He did that for everyone, although none of us deserve it. God’s love is a choice to serve us even unto death on a cross. And, when we are baptized into His death and resurrection, He now lives in us. And the rest of our lives are spent in grateful, joyful service to God and neighbor.

Every life is precious, lovable, and valuable. Not because of what we can or cannot do, but because the One who made us and all things gives us His own life for our redemption. When that story becomes your story, it changes you little by little. It changes how you view every life, and you never think of yourself as more valuable than anyone else.

When your story is that life is a cosmic accident, and only the fittest survive, then you become like all the monsters in human history who coldly stand at the train station deciding who lives and who dies on a whim, deciding who matters and who doesn’t according to their utilitarian value to you. In short, those who value and serve only those who can do something for us are in the clutches of evil. If they persist in doing evil, sometimes even pretending that evil is good, then they will slide further and further into the abyss from which there can be no rescue…because they have chosen it.

Those whose story is the Christian story can never make peace with or agree with evil. There is no in-between.

C.S. Lewis said it well. At the end of things, there are those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God, sadly and with great regret says, “OK. Your will be done.”

Mama was on the side of the angels where every life matters, and, at the end, her frail, fragile life still mattered greatly. And, now, she is alive forever with God in that place prepared for her from before the foundation of the world.

Every life matters…yes…even the unborn!

St Matthew's Pastor Sam Zumwalt

szumwalt

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Zumwalt has worked in churches for 42 years and in May 2018 celebrated the 37th anniversary of his ordination to the holy ministry. He is a member of the Society of the Holy Trinity (www.societyholytrinity.org). In 2004, Pr. Zumwalt moved with his family to Wilmington from Texas, where he served for 23 years as pastor of small, midsize, and large congregations.