He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed. Is. 53:5
September, 2001. A hospital up the street from my church in Green Bay called to say they had a patient who had asked for an LCMS pastor to bring him Communion before he died. He was far from home, had made poor health choices, had ruined most of his relationships, and had only recently tried to reconnect with the church of his youth. But that church did not currently have a pastor, and at any rate was several hours away. He had come to Green Bay for treatment and had not received good news. Faced with the strong chance that he would be dying soon and never see anyone he knew again, nor ever be able to correct any of his mistakes in life, he asked the chaplain to call the nearest LCMS church on his behalf. So we talked, and I gave him communion.
He died soon thereafter. Because it was such a crazy time, I’m not sure if died on 9/11 or the day after. I found out after the fact. Some distant relative had come to take the body back to his hometown. I’m not sure who did the funeral, or who would have shown up to it anyway.
I always think of this man when I think of those who died on 9/11. There are many ways to be alone. To be cut off by bitterness and regret from family and friends is isolating indeed. To be in physical isolation is difficult enough, but knowing one has the love and support of people can only take the edge off being physically alone by so much. The victims of 9/11 died tragic deaths, to be sure, but their lives and stories were mourned by the whole nation along with their loved ones. Those who mourn a loved one resent the world for going on like nothing happened. There is an old tradition, based on a valid instinct of grief, which people stop all the clocks or drape something over them for a while in a house where someone has died. Time has no right to go on without this person, we seem to want to say because we feel it in our hearts.
Those who die in national tragedies—soldiers in battle, civilians and first responders on 9/11, poor residents of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, or today in isolation as part of the pandemic, still die, and still must meet their Maker. But their names will always be associated with a recognizable event. Their community and country will always know and honor them merely by remembering the tragedy of the event. For mourners, the world cooperates a little bit, and everyone stops to acknowledge the loss. Cold comfort, but not no comfort at all. We take whatever connections we can get in death. Death, however it happens, is the supremely isolating event. You can hold people’s hands right up to the threshold, but then you have to let go. They take that last step alone.
People in hospitals today face a monumental challenge of isolation. Funerals are a challenge. Remembering and acknowledging lives lived is a challenge. It is frustrating. I have no idea what the man in my opening story would have done had he died during a pandemic. Certainly nobody would have visited him, heard his last confession, spoken the Gospel to him and given him communion. But we know death never has the final word. God has His ways, and they seem foolish to us. We know that especially today, because today we commemorate the death that gives life. By the foolishness of the cross, we know Christians don’t take that last step alone.
The man in the hospital in Green Bay who died on 9/11 was a prodigal son who came to himself too late to make it back from the far country of his foolish wandering. No doubt his life could have been better lived. But perhaps you will meet him someday without even knowing it, in the resurrection, a brother in Christ, covered in Christ’s righteousness and aglow with the glory of God’s grace. And maybe you and I will have learned something from his story. Maybe he can teach us the truth of the closing verse of the Good Friday hymn O Sacred Head, Now Wounded. Whether we die in pain or comfort, slowly or suddenly, surrounded by loved ones or in isolation, after a life well lived or foolishly squandered, today we prepare ourselves by singing to Jesus--
Be Thou my consolation,
My shield when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion
When my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee,
Upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfold Thee.
Who dieth thus dies well.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana