Standing By Vacated Tents

Hindsight, as the saying goes, is 20/20. I believe it. As I look back over my life, one of the things I can see is the way God has used events and circumstances in my life to prepare me for ministry.  For example, as a pastor, I am often called to hospitals to visit someone who is ill and minister to their families. One thing about me, that isn’t common to most people, I am very comfortable navigating my way around hospitals. Why? Well, I grew up in and around hospitals.

My parents are both registered nurses and worked in hospitals throughout my childhood and beyond. It was not uncommon to have conversations about the inner workings of the hospital over dinner. When my asthma would flare up, it usually meant a visit to see Dad at work where I would be ushered directly into the emergency room without a wait. After high school, my first real job was in the hospital where my dad was an administrator. My job was to deliver medications from the pharmacy to the nurses on the hospital floors as needed. I walked around a hospital for hours and hours. After doing that job for a couple of years I moved to a different department in the hospital. That new position in materials management often put me in a position to take or pick up supplies to or from other hospitals in the area. Now, when I must go to a hospital for ministry, particularly one in the area, I have a pretty good idea where I’m going. If not, I know who and what to ask to find out what I need to know.

When I was in high school, I took a Physiology class that I found both interesting and challenging. The teacher was also an adjunct professor at the local community college, teaching anatomy and physiology for aspiring nurses. She got permission to bring a group of her high school students to the college to see the college’s facilities and laboratories. My friends in the class and I were “all in” because part of the tour was an examination of the human cadavers the college used in their anatomy labs. The highlight of our high school class was the dissection of a cat. The idea of seeing a human cadaver was both exhilarating and terrifying. When the moment came, one of my buddies and I lifted a body bag off the rack and placed it on an examination table. As the bag was unzipped and we laid our eyes on this elderly woman who donated her body to science, I was startled at the contrast of her bright red fingernails against her pasty flesh. I left there that night having learned two things: Death was scary and, I did not want to donate my body to science.

Fast forward a year, to my days as a pharmacy runner in the hospital. I worked every weekend. Some weekend nights the hospital would be short an orderly due to illness, vacation, or some other circumstance. If there was a need for an extra set of orderly-like hands, mine would do in a pinch. One Saturday night, I was asked to help the orderly transport a recently deceased patient to the hospital’s morgue. Of course, this is how I found out the hospital had a morgue. I don’t know what I thought happened to people who died in the hospital before this. My only frame of reference for morgues was the terrifying perception passed on to me by television and movies.

That night’s trip to the morgue was uneventful, although I did learn the meaning behind the saying “dead weight.” The next day, I was telling my dad about my discovery of the hospital’s morgue and how it creeped me out. I don’t know if he realized this as a teachable moment in my life that would change my perspective for the rest of my days, but he casually said something I have never forgotten to this day. He said, “You don’t have to be afraid of dead people. Dead people never hurt anyone. It’s the ones that are still alive you have to worry about.” I thought about it and realized that my fears about the morgue and dead bodies were fueled more by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead than by anything I had experienced in real life.

When I started in ministry back in 2004, one of the things I didn’t learn in the “orientation” was the number of dead bodies one will encounter as a pastor. The Lord knew. He knew I would walk into a Kaiser hospital room, early in my ministry, to encounter a family whose loved one had just taken his last breath. He knew I would spend hours sitting bedside with children and grandchildren as they waited for the coroner to come to pick up their recently deceased grandmother. He knew those and countless other encounters with recently vacated bodies were in my ministry’s future. So, early on, he gave me something else to pair with my father’s words of wisdom.

2 Corinthians 5:1-5 says, 1For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”

A tent. That’s how the Apostle Paul describes this temporary dwelling of flesh our souls inhabit for our time on Earth. I’m not a camper. Not even close. One of the least desirable things in life, for me, is to go off into the wilderness and sleep in a tent. But I do understand the analogy Paul is making. These bodies of flesh we inhabit, use, and abuse during our trips around the sun was only ever meant to be temporary dwellings. A tent is meant to provide shelter for a time, but it doesn’t compare to the strength and permanence of a house. We understand the difference between canvas and brick. Tents will eventually wear out just like our mortal bodies. Their time will run out, and we, who know the Lord Jesus Christ, will move from the temporary to the permanent “building from God,” a “heavenly dwelling.” Our physical bodies are not who we are but where we live. They give us a vessel to navigate the world, a tool to do the work we are purposed to do, and a way to experience the joy and pain of this fallen world. However, the body is a casualty of the fallen state of the world and thus, temporary.

Like a family that has spent a week camping eventually can’t wait to get back to the comforts of home, we too “groan, being burdened” in these fleshly tents “longing to put on our heavenly dwelling.” Our souls know there is something more waiting for us. This understanding of our being and the mortal flesh we inhabit has helped me tremendously in dealing with the deaths I have encountered in ministry. We most often fear the things we do not understand.

I write all of this to say that I have learned a large part of shepherding God’s flock is learning to be comfortable with things that make most people uncomfortable. When it’s too difficult for someone to gaze upon the body of their loved one as it lay motionless in a casket, God has put me there to provide strength, comfort, understanding, and hope for them. Do I do this well? I hope so, but I can’t say with any certainty. I just know that I’m no longer shaking in my boots around vacated tents, but instead, I envision that person in their new “building from God, a house made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” I do keep my head on a swivel around the living though. I’m especially on alert for the “walking dead,” but that’s a subject for another post.


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