Home on the Lord’s Day

AUDIO VERSION

 

If I’d been able, I would have been at Priscilla’s bedside in the hospice throughout each day as her “patient advocate.”  I couldn’t do this, however, because I needed strict bed rest for the foreseeable future.  But our niece Ashley was scheduled to return in a few days and she agreed to take this on as her new role.  In the meantime, volunteers from our church took shifts being the advocate.

I spoke with Priscilla over the phone in the mornings after she was out of bed, and in the evenings just before she went to sleep.  She told me happily that there was a bird feeder right outside her window and that a cardinal and a slate-colored junco, two of her favorites, had been there to greet her when she arrived.

On Friday, New Year’s Day 2016, a young woman from our church was saying her evening prayers.  When she started praying for Priscilla, as she did each night, she suddenly had “a beautiful glimpse of her dancing in heaven with the vigor and enthusiasm of a child.”  In this vision, she told me later, Priscilla was “right inside a pair of heavenly golden gates, with a blur of indescribable colors all around her. I could see that she was overflowing with joy.”  This was only Priscilla’s first full day in the hospice, but this young woman wondered whether the vision meant that she would soon be going home to heaven.

The next evening, after I’d spoken with Priscilla over the phone to say goodnight, we started signing off in our usual way.  We’d gotten into the habit of saying the biblical blessing from the book of Numbers to one another each night.  She started:  “The Lord bless you and keep you . . .”  But then she ran out of breath.  So I finished:  “The Lord make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace, and joy, now and forevermore.”  (Those last words were ones of our own that we’d taken to adding at the end.)

That same Saturday night, another young woman from our church, one of the ones who’d been taking shifts as Priscilla’s patient advocate, had a vision in which the red quilt and red pillow cases on her hospice bed turned white, and a number of figures in white robes surrounded the bed and lifted her up from it.  She broke into tears and asked herself, “I wonder whether God will bring Priscilla home tonight or tomorrow morning.”

Very early on Sunday morning, around 2:00, Priscilla experienced “air panic” for the first time in the whole course of her illness.  She was right where she needed to be.  The hospice gave her liquid morphine, the symptoms subsided, and she fell back to sleep.

Priscilla had often expressed the hope that she would be able to go home on “the Lord’s Day” (that is, on a Sunday).  When our niece was with us, we would read together through Amy Carmichael’s biography for our morning devotions.  When we got to the place that told how Amy’s father had died “just as the church bells were ringing for the Sunday morning service,” Priscilla commented, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be called up to worship in heaven just as worship was beginning on earth?”  And that’s exactly what happened for her.  A few minutes before our church’s worship service began at 10 a.m., her bedside advocate noticed that she’d stopped breathing.

We had framed prints of Thomas Cole’s series The Voyage of Life on our dining room wall.  During her illness, Priscilla would often look at the last painting, in which angels come for a man who is at the end of his “voyage,” and say, “I want the angels to come for me when I die.”  Based on our friend’s vision of the white-robed figures, maybe that happened for her, too.

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Old Age, 1842

Mercifully I’d gotten twelve hours of sleep that night, and so when I was called with the news of Priscilla’s passing, I felt strong enough to go to the hospice and say goodbye before her body was taken away.

While she was in the hospice, our bird feeder was deserted.  I remember looking out at it repeatedly and asking, “Where are the birds?”  But when I came home from the hospice that morning, I discovered the feeder swarming with birds—more different species than I’d ever seen at once, including some I’d never seen feed together before.  They were having a party to celebrate her homecoming.

It made me think of a letter that Samuel Rutherford wrote to a friend who’d lost a loved one, a letter that Priscilla and I had read together several times.  It says, in part:  “She is now above the winter. . . . Christ is to her . . . as a new paradise to a traveler, broken and worn out of breath with the sad occurrences of a long and weary way. Now she lives for eternity in a very considerable land. . . . Oh, what spring-time is there! What a singing life is there! There is not a silent bird in all that large field; but all sing and breathe out heaven, joy, glory, dominion to the high Prince of that new-found land.”
[Samuel Rutherford, Letter to Lady Ardross, 1646]

I sent out a note to our Dear Praying Friends to tell them about Priscilla’s passing and some of these circumstances that had accompanied it.  I ended with this quotation from Scripture:  “I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!’”

At the end of the day, when I lay down to try to sleep for the night, instead of grief or sorrow, all I could feel was joy.  I realized I was feeling Priscilla’s joy to be in her Savior’s presence.  I could practically see those green eyes sparking.

Memorial Tributes

AUDIO VERSION

 

Priscilla’s memorial service was scheduled for three weeks after her death, to give me the chance to rest up as much as possible before receiving so many visitors.  I started working right away, as energy permitted, on a PowerPoint tribute to her life, to be shown at the service.

One of the CDs we’d bought on a whim a few years earlier on our way to a medical appointment, Vanessa Mae’s Classical Album, included Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E for Solo Violin. The second movement turned out to be just the right evocation of beauty and grace for the first section of my PowerPoint, which depicted Priscilla’s many talents as a watercolorist, culinary artist, floral designer, interior decorator, and seamstress.  Another selection from the same CD, the second movement of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, proved to be the perfect fit for my last section, in which I depicted Priscilla as a “daughter of God,” emphasizing how she had devoted herself to the service of others. The movement had a couple of dramatic transitions that lined up exactly with significant transitions in Priscilla’s life once I put everything together.  All I had to do was add a few extra seconds to the final slide, so it would last through the long, high note at the end.

The final slide in my PowerPoint tribute, depicting Priscilla in Rutherford's "newfound land of springtime."
The final slide in my PowerPoint tribute, depicting Priscilla in Rutherford’s “newfound land of springtime.”

Priscilla’s memorial service was held on Saturday, January 23, 2016. At her request, two of her “Williams kids” first sang Keith Green’s version of the 23rd Psalm.  I showed the PowerPoint tribute I’d created and then gave a spoken eulogy as well.

In it, I shared how, when Priscilla learned that the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. had once envisioned having a “completely committed, deeply spiritual, glamorous party girl” as a staff member, she responded, “That’s what I want to be!”  I explained how her personality was perfectly suited for this role.  She was of the type that (according to PersonalityPage.com) “would love nothing more than for life to be a continual party, at which she plays the role of the fun-loving hostess.” “But what happens,” I asked, “when the fun is over? How does someone like this respond when she discovers she has a disease that will eventually paralyze her completely and finally kill her?” “Her response to this,” I explained, “was the finest hour in her life.”

Friends and family were then invited to share their own spontaneous tributes.  Several people who’d met Priscilla as international students told how she’d helped them in practical ways.  One woman related how she had rounded up and delivered all the furniture needed for a 2-bedroom apartment in a single day!

After these tributes, two members of our worship team led us all in singing Everlasting God, a song that had often encouraged and inspired Priscilla during her illness, and then our pastor spoke.  Priscilla had requested white roses for her memorial flowers, and our niece Ashley had made a beautiful arrangement of them.  In his message, our pastor used the white rose to illustrate that “the best is yet to come”—as Christians, we have the bright hope of resurrection.

The people of our church hosted a reception after the service.  They knew that Priscilla had had a ministry of hospitality and wanted to entertain her family and friends in a manner that paid tribute to this ministry. They certainly succeeded.  The reception was beautifully presented and it provided an opportunity for people from many different seasons in our lives to reconnect with one another over good food in a gracious setting.

Priscilla’s “Williams kids” put on another reception for her that evening at the Turner-Dodge House, a restored Victorian mansion in Lansing. This reception was also hosted immaculately in the Priscilla style, and it included more memorial tributes.

A woman from the group that had met weekly with Priscilla shared these reflections about her:  “In her heart she wasn’t focused on her illness. Her gaze was beyond that, focused on the end for which she was created—to love, honor, and serve God, and join him in heaven. Even when she could barely speak above a whisper, she wanted to know our needs and pray for us. Even to the end she showed us the beauty of her suffering—she was a perfect example of what the Bible says: Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. God has shown me that her suffering was not for nothing. Like the suffering of Jesus, her suffering built the Kingdom through the grace pouring out of her as she ministered, till the end, to me and all those who had the privilege of coming into contact with her. She has given us a beautiful gift that will keep revealing its hidden wisdom—how to love and embrace all that God has for us; how to accept even unimaginable suffering as a gift; how to stay faithful through affliction.”

The neighbor who’d helped us in so many practical ways was asked to share about Priscilla’s work with Graduate InterVarsity.  She began with a quotation from Scripture that she felt described Priscilla’s spirit:  Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.  She continued, “What I saw of Priscilla’s ministry to graduate students reveals her eagerness to share the truth—the grace of God found in Jesus—but even more, the eagerness to do this through a life invested wholeheartedly and without reservation in others. I have wonderful memories of welcome cookouts, and of many other fun occasions. But these were really just the entrée into relationships, and the next step was sacrificial service: staying all night at the hospital as a doulah, refinishing furniture, transporting and orienting new students. Priscilla’s desire was to invest her whole life in others: not just for the sake of service, but for the purpose of speaking truth in to students’ lives.  Finally, Priscilla’s death revealed what it looks like to live, and die, at peace with God. She had this peace with God because she loved and trusted Him and had a friendship with Him through Jesus.”

Finally, one of the “Williams kids” offered a tribute on behalf of all of our hosts that evening.  She quoted from a reference she’d written for Priscilla before her illness ever appeared, which now felt prophetic: “The thing about Priscilla I’d most like to emulate is her sincere love of God and acceptance of whatever He brings into her life. She is truly a person who says, ‘God is good’ whether she likes her circumstances or not. Priscilla is the person who has taught me best that it isn’t enough to ‘look on the bright side’ or ‘make lemonade.’  Instead, it’s necessary to have the deep conviction that God is in control of the circumstances of my life and I should rejoice in whatever He chooses to challenge me with. Priscilla does this better than anyone I know.”

The morning after the memorial service, Ashley and her mother kindly served brunch in my home to my whole family.  The other CD that we’d bought on a whim, jazz arrangements of Bach by the Jacques Loussier trio, turned out to be the perfect background music for this event.  Meanwhile, at our church, as Priscilla had often done herself with memorial arrangements as a pastor’s wife, white roses were given out to all the women and girls present.  The rest were brought to people who weren’t well enough to attend.

“Some real lives do anticipate the happiness of heaven.”

AUDIO VERSION

 

“Some real lives do—for some certain days or years—actually anticipate the happiness of Heaven; and, I believe, if such perfect happiness is once felt by good people . . . its sweet effect is never wholly lost. Whatever trials follow, whatever pains of sickness or shades of death, the glory precedent still shines through, cheering the keen anguish, and tinging the deep cloud.”
— Charlotte Brontë, Villette

Throughout this story I’ve described God’s “endless mercies” to Priscilla and me over the course of her illness. I’ve told mostly about what might be considered external things, such as the provision of funds and materials—just what we needed, just when we needed it—over and over again. From time to time, however, I’ve lifted back the veil a bit to show you more internal things, how God showed mercy to our hearts by giving us grace and strength and courage and joy to carry on. As I bring this story to a close, I’d like to emphasize how that second aspect of mercy was just as crucial as the first.  I think the best way to do that is to quote at length from the update we sent out on March 2, 2015.


Dear Praying Friends,

“People aren’t prepared for the level of disability they’re going to experience with ALS,” our nurse practitioner told us recently, after Priscilla explained that all she could do physically now was move the joystick on her electric wheelchair, operate her computer mouse, and hold a tablespoon at meals (which Chris had to help her lift to her mouth).  Priscilla shared the grief and frustration that came with these limitations, and that’s what prompted the comment.  It was a word of solidarity, acknowledging our reality and validating the emotions that came with it. But it was also a word of instruction, cautioning us to prepare ourselves for as-yet-unimagined greater disabilities in the future.

This conversation crystallized for us a realization that had been forming for some time. The challenges for us the rest of the way will no longer be essentially technical or mechanical (deciding how to renovate the bathroom, finding the right access ramp, learning how to use a Hoyer lift, etc.), but emotional, psychological, and spiritual.  And so we earnestly ask for your prayers that we will meet these challenges.  We want to continue to face each day with courage and joy.  We want to continue to trust confidently in God, not being offended by what is happening, but enduring faithfully to the end.  We want to continue to believe that God’s purposes are being advanced through all of this, even if we never see or understand exactly how in this life.  With your prayers we will be able to do all of these things.  Thank you!

As we’ve talked all of this over, in fact, we’ve realized that if we focus on abilities rather than disabilities, we can see that we have much to be thankful for.  ALS manifests a little bit differently in every patient, and we are very grateful that in Priscilla’s case, even though the progression of symptoms is far advanced, she is still able to see, hear, speak, and swallow, which is unfortunately not the case for many patients well before this stage.  This means that she can still stay in touch with friends and family around the world by reading their emails and dictating responses, or speaking over the phone, or visiting in person.  The two of us still sit at the same table for meals, eating the same food, and still sleep in the same bed at night.  We are deeply grateful that Priscilla has been able to remain at home this whole time, surrounded by beautiful and meaningful objects and reminders everywhere of the happy and rewarding life we have lived. Indeed, when we consider all of this, we conclude that two people can continue to enjoy a very happy life together, even if one of them is in the late stages of a severely disabling disease. . . .

Let me close with a quotation from Amy Carmichael’s book Rose From Brier, which we read and re-read nightly for inspiration and encouragement: “Another of the better gifts is the power which is all divine, not in the least of us, to acquiesce with true inward peace in that which our Lord allows to be, so that it is not an effort to be happy, we are happy.”  We earnestly covet this divine gift, and your prayers that we may receive it for each day, as we already do on so many days.

Thank you, and please picture us as we were a few moments ago today, sitting at the breakfast table, looking out at the many different kinds of birds on the feeder just outside, with sunlight sparkling on the snow under a brilliant blue sky, sharing what we call “coffee and tea with God” (morning prayers at the end of the meal, hot drinks still in hand), and not making an effort to be happy, but truly being happy.

With love and appreciation,

Chris and Priscilla


Many people wondered why Priscilla lived so much longer than anyone expected. One friend told her that he believed her “joyful and positive attitude” had been sustaining her. Another friend spoke similarly of her “joyful, positive spirit.” I’m sure this had a lot to do with it, and that this was a gift from God. Priscilla was not about to stop living before she was dead. “You can’t just stay in bed all day,” she would say, even when her symptoms were so far advanced that no one would have expected her to do anything else. She would get up, get dressed, and make a day of it, continuing to fight on, literally to her last breath.

But Priscilla herself gave a further reason for why she lived so long. Once when someone asked her about this directly, she replied simply, “That’s the power of love.” I know she meant God’s love for her, as well as the love God had given us for each other.

Thomas à Kempis wrote in The Imitation of Christ:  “Love feels no burden, thinks nothing of trouble, attempts what is above its strength, pleads no excuse of impossibility; for it believes it may do anything and that all things are possible for it. Where one who does not love would grow weary and give up, love is able to undertake all things, and bring them to completion.”

Ben's Rehearsal
Anticipating the happiness of heaven.

Epilogue

AUDIO VERSION

 

In an earlier post, I described how Priscilla and I went to Kentucky in September 2012 so that I could perform the wedding of a couple we knew from Graduate InterVarsity at Michigan State. (They were the ones who sent a picture of us dancing at their reception that arrived on the day when Priscilla had been dreaming about dancing with the Trinity.) For their wedding, this couple chose to have the congregation sing a song together right after the traditional opening sentences. The song was “Ten Thousand Reasons” by Matt Redman. This was the first time Priscilla and I had heard it.

All around the top of the church sanctuary were beautiful stained glass windows. They depicted Old Testament figures such as Noah, Moses, David, and Daniel, and then scenes from the life of Christ—his birth, baptism, ministry, teaching, sufferings and death, resurrection, and ascension.

Trinity Hill UMC Ascension
The ascension window at the church where our friends were married.

The day had been overcast, but as we all started singing, the sun broke through the clouds. It was positioned right behind the stained glass window that depicted the ascension of Christ, and it bathed that scene in golden light.  The light fell on the faces of the bride and groom as we continued to sing together.

Light at wedding 2

As I looked out at Priscilla, her face seemed to be alight, too, even though the congregation was still in shadow. She was a long way from getting a diagnosis—in fact, she’d just been told that she didn’t have ALS—but somehow she knew she had a fatal disease. And so she was finding joy and encouragement in these words from the song:

And on that day when my strength is failing,
The end draws near and my time has come,
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending,
Ten thousand years and then forevermore.

I had the same sense that Priscilla did about what lay ahead, and so the song, and the light, spoke to me, too. They assured me that she herself would be raised from the dead and taken up to heaven, just as Jesus had been. It was very special that this was happening in the midst of the wedding of two good friends, because this declared how we were all invited to what the Bible calls the “wedding feast of the Lamb,” eternal joy in the presence of God.

I can still see that light in my mind’s eye.