This entire year has NOT been about death, but it has punctuated my year, as it might have yours.

Art couldn’t be at his lovely wife Claire’s funeral because he was 3 hours north in prison for historical sexual abuse charges. I have to trust our justice systems, but stink. I’ve known Art and Claire for nearly 20 years. A lovely elderly couple coming in to church holding hands, a second marriage for them both. 

They had come up for prayer one Sunday after the service. Both their eyes were red. I assumed a horrible diagnosis for one of them. Turns out it was, but just not what I expected. We prayed for months. Art went to court, and then to prison. Claire went home alone. Then, months later, her heart started playing up. The surgeons took her in to OR after a heart attack at the doctor’s office, but they couldn’t save her life.  Art got to spend an hour with her at the funeral home, but couldn’t attend the public funeral. I’m not saying he’s innocent. I’m just saying the whole story is tragic. The church continues to write to and pray for Art. He mourns her now. He’ll start mourning again when he gets out and he has no one waiting for him.

Darlene wrote the most amazing journal article for the Laidlaw College Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice. She wrote about her struggle with cancer, and couched it in trinitarian theology that was biblically informed and grounded in her experience. It was amazing! I read it just as it was published, right after hearing that the cancer had returned and spread and there wasn’t anything medically they could do. “It’s not very good news, I’m afraid”

I didn’t see Darlene after that. She was due at our house that Saturday for a team retreat but she chose to spend the rest of her time with her family, an ever tightening circle of love.  She was a child of ministry parents, a missionary kid from Fiji, a beautiful vocalist, witty, trained as a counselor and helping to teach the next generation of counselors. 

Darlene’s  funeral was in the same chapel that served Sir Edmund Hillary. A classic wooden beautiful place of simplicity and beauty… much like Darlene.  Her old band played songs they’d sung in pubs and venues around NZ and beyond. No church music. Many candles. Beautiful testimonies and … they read out Darlene’s article. Her own words were her funeral sermon. Credit due to an intelligent woman.

Her husband has not grieved well, but then, he doesn’t know how to do this. Their only daughter is amazing, but must be adrift a bit. They were very  very close. Darlene’s parents worship with us at Shore. They’ll never be the same without their bright spot.

Darlene and her daughter

Ben loved the Lord! He was a big South African man, a product of his birthplace, yet malleable in the Lord’s hands. He struggled with cancer and heart issues for months. We postponed his granddaughter’s baptism a couple of times as “Opa needs to be there!” I totally agreed and was later thrilled to hear him pray a blessing on Meghan after I baptised her.

But now I sat with Magda, his wife, by his bed, her holding his nearly colorless hand. 

“How did you meet?”

“Well! Let me tell you!.... it was a railway picnic and I was sitting on a long low branch when he walked up…..  Years later, here we are, in New Zealand, two loving children and 5 terrific grandkids nearby.” Ben awoke, smiled and thanked me for coming and for praying.

Again I visited, one evening. I heard the family discussing Magda going home for a rest as “the next few days were going to be hard.” Ben’s birthday was the next day and they had his fav music organised and balloons... Magda looked at me as the kids were telling her she should go. 

I agreed, “But if you’re going to go, go soon so you can come back when needed.” 

I walked her out to the parking garage. “You know he’s always liked you, Jill.”

“Well, it’s mutual then. He’s a good man. He loves the Lord and his family dearly loves him.”

I had told Rob, the son in law, that I didn’t think Ben would make it to his birthday. “I’m not medical staff, but I’d say he has hours, not days. Make sure Tania & Andre say whatever they’ve a mind to say, and call Magda back when you see any change.” Sure enough, he made it past midnight, but not to dawn.

Ben & Meghan at her baptism.

“I’m already committed and there’s been a death on campus. Can you go?”

Not much to go on, but I went… arriving to be encircled by 5 worried coaches keen to know how to support their team of young adult baseball players because one of their guys had died of a medical event in the night, found only after he didn’t turn up to morning training. 

“What do we do next? What’s normally done?”

“Uh, I need to get to know who is involved. There’s no one size-fits-all in these situations.  Tell me more.” They did.

“Ok then. The guys need something in their hands, preferably a cup of something hot, but water bottles will do.” And they need as much information as you’ve got. Information empowers people who feel powerless and adrift. Then I need to hear from them.”

That’s how we started. The coach addressed them and then I asked the players to tell me about Ryan. After a slow start, a few chimed in. Then we asked what they needed to do next; the gym, a movie, what to get through the day? Baseball could wait.

Lunch arrived and I chatted with the guys a bit, finding out where they’d come from and how they knew Ryan. They were here to help launch a new NZ team in the Australian Baseball League. Venezuela, USA, Japan, Dominican Republic; most were in development teams in the American MLB system, Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers, etc.! 

I’ve never prayed with a stunned and grieving baseball team before, but that’s what this particular Monday called for. Then I went back and asked the Japanese players how they had felt about it all and what would have been done in their communities. They respectfully replied that they appreciated me asking and said it was good to experience a process so different.

After the police released Ryan’s body to the coroner, and the guys had gathered along the walkway from dorm to hearse, they dispersed in small groups, stunned and trying to make sense of mortality at 23 years old.

The university administration appreciated that I’d come. I accompanied the Māori cultural advisor the next day as we prayed blessing and cleansing over the spaces and people involved. 

The above link to a NZ Herald newspaper article refers to Massey University’s support, so we did pastoral care well this day. I also received tickets to their first game and enjoyed watching the guys do what they do well.

Much of my ministry has to do with life. It is when things don’t go as planned though, that people are often paying more attention, and that’s when I get to speak the good news of Jesus.

You may remember me saying previously that I am inadequate to be everything that is needed in each of these circumstances and situations. Some may think all the action is over here and that distant prayers are just icing on the cake, an after-thought that doesn’t really change things. I’d be nothing without Jesus and my ministry would be nothing without the prayers of His people, you. 

If you are feeling the loss of someone this Christmas, let me say that Jesus has good news for you too. His gospel is good news everyday, in every situation if only we’ll develop gospel fluency and seek His perspective on it all. That’s my prayer for you as we count another year.

Ngā mihi nui.   Sincerely thankful.


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