This comes to us from Father Kenneth Tanner

When I first came to the parish I serve, there were about twenty persons over the age of seventy.

We have since buried a few, some have retired to Florida or warmer states, but until recently about half were still active participants in our worship and community.

The church has steep staircases, no ramps, and no elevators. In the past few months the remaining members over 85 and a few younger ones, 9 persons altogether, have reached the point where they either can no longer leave their homes or, if they can, they cannot make the climb to the sanctuary.

I’ve visited all of them over the fortnight to take Eucharist, anoint them, and talk (about whatever they want to talk about).

They are dying. And I have a choice: I can visit them while maintaining “professional” or “vocational” distance or I can draw close to their actual experience, and in a way unique to Christ followers in a very real sense to die with them.

I have been their pastor for thirteen years but I don’t really know how to do life with anyone at a “professional distance” because I do not see Christ’s manner of life among the suffering and oppressed and diseased and dying as happening at an arm’s length.

No, part of the effectiveness of Jesus is the way he draws near to those whom that culture condemned as cursed or forgotten by God because of their poverty or disease or sin or misfortunes.

Jesus got so close to people that he was (before the cross) already bearing with them their shame and alienation and pain.

He owns it all as his own.

During all these recent visits, including ones to much younger people who are suffering—in jails, in hospitals, in homes—I was reminded of my profound failure to draw near to my mother in her final months.

Alcoholism and a bad heart and years of smoking, probably all brought on by the tremendous grief and loss she had experienced—as a young Vietnam widow, at the loss of her daughter and two of her grandchildren in an accident, and all the little injuries of being a pastor’s child, and then pastor’s wife—had left her a shrunken shell.

Now you must understand that my mother was a miracle, one of the most energetic and creative and wise and self-giving persons I have ever known.

And when she ended up living in our house near the end, so broken down in body and spirit, my idea was to get her dry and healthy and back to the woman I’d always known. And I was not willing to draw near to her until she was that amazing person again for me.

What a profound error, as a son and as a priest and as a human. And when she left after a few months because my rules were too restrictive I knew I’d never see her alive again. And I didn’t. She was gone in six weeks.

When, two years later, my dad came to live near us, broken in all the same ways by life and by the church and by his own choices, a good bit of external pressure came at me to make sure he saw all of the right professionals, and that he ate well, and that he was active. And I tried all of that and finally said to hell with it.

It was not my job to “fix” my dad. It was my vocation to love him as a son and as a priest and as a human. I realized that the best thing I could do was draw near to his actual situation and just be with him right where he was, no expectations, no demands.

And we had a wonderful two years and he experienced a lot of healing. The decision to get close to his pain and suffering and grief and his frustration with the failure of his ministry was such an important one, for him and for me.

We were always simpatico in life and thought, constantly changing, never satisfied with the status quo in the world or the church. We accomplished a lot together and touched a lot of lives. At his best self, I think he would have evolved considerably over the past decade but his body and mind were worn out.

My choice to be with him was a choice to in a sense die with him. And a part of me did die in that process and in his death.

I am grateful for that learning, and so sorry for my failure with my mother, but what I am realizing right now with my homebound flock is that the decision I made with my dad is not automatic for life.

It is difficult to decide to draw near to suffering and alienation and death and to die with those who are dying.

Life has a cross in it. And there’s no way to be a priest or pastor or a Christian that does not involve being immersed in the same trial of dying that those you care for, even those around you, are enduring.

I am grateful that in the weeks and months and few years that remain with these whom I’ve have served for thirteen years I will have the honor of dying with them.

May the Spirit always renew in me the decision to be authentic, to be “inside” the realities that these and so many others are facing. So help me God.