There’s nothing like a death in the family to give one pause, to make one stop and ponder what life is all about.  The sudden death last week of my daughter’s husband, Pete, in a tragic hang-glider accident has brought up a rush of “death memories.”

My first up-close brush with death came when daughter Wendy ran to me saying, “Grandpa’s lying on the floor.”  Grandpa had suffered a second heart attack and they took him away in an ambulance.  His funeral was a few days later.

Next came my own father.  Dad certainly believed in God.  He loved his recording of “How Great Thou Art” and  would weep as he listened to it.  But Christianity was not for him.  He didn’t understand why anyone would want an ugly thing like a crucifix on the wall.  As my sister and I sat with him at his bedside in the hospital he repeated the Lord’s prayer with us and slipped away.

Mom was a “born Catholic” and a faithful Catholic all her life.  I have no recollection of her ever doing anything that might be termed a sin.  She told me one day as I visited her at the nursing home that she had told God that His will was all right with her.  Her last moments were in a coma in ICU after emergency surgery.  I closed her eyes as I left her bedside.

When my daughter, Peggy, was shot and killed by an intruder in her home there was nothing to do but weep and hold a service and go to court and pray to hang in.  That is a whole other story.

Then my husband’s death, alone, in an apartment in a another city.  He had left me years previously.  When we married, he had been planning to be a priest, but he had stopped going to church.  We had seven children together.

Now, Pete’s death.  I went with Mary to the pre-wake viewing and watched as she knelt beside her husband in his coffin.  As long as I live, I expect tears will well up when I remember Mary stroking his head, saying, “His hair still feels the same.”  Nothing else was the same.  The body was in the coffin but the essence of Pete had left.   What hurts a mother more than to see her child suffer?

They crowd in and  pile up, these death memories.  My Protestant friends ask “Was he (or she) saved when he died?  Had he accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior?”   I can only feel confident about Mom.  Of the others, I can only say I’m sure they had heard of Jesus, but they were not churchgoers, and if Jesus was a central figure in their lives, it wasn’t obvious.

My purpose in writing this is to do as is written in 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect – “

Why do I hope that we will see our departed loved ones again in the promised land  when they were either non-Christians or fallen away Christians or in “irregular” living  arrangements?

Of course, many people choosing to live apparently “un-Christian” lifestyles, will say that “God understands.”  Fortunately, that is true.  God does understand.    They usually have some nebulous concept of a God who is good and kind.  Their God is known for his mercy and understanding, not for his rules and his justice.  In fact, they’re not really sure He has any rules at all.  And that may be their saving grace.

It is one of the comforting tenets of Catholicity that in order to sin, one must deliberately choose do something one believes to be wrong.   They’ve had an abortion?  They lived “in sin”?   They divorced and remarried?  God understands the circumstances.  They seem like “good” people.   They may be doing their best.   And truly, God always accepts our best.

This I believe: That God is just, he doesn’t punish for well-meaning mistakes.  That God is merciful – that he wants no one to be lost.  That God is forgiving – it is never too late to turn to God and say “I’m sorry – my bad.”

It is my hope that our loved ones, who have “the law written on their hearts” by God,  have been turned in God’s direction.  It is my hope that they were not only seen by most folks as “good people” but also by God as good people.  It is my hope that if they have not formally accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, neither have they formally rejected Him.   For that is what it takes to be eternally lost.

I pray that our loved ones, like the “good thief” on the cross, will end up  with the Lord in Paradise.  Francis Thompson, in his famous poem, Hound of Heaven writes eloquently of the relentless pursuit of God after the straying soul.  Did God not create man out of love?  Did Jesus not die on the cross for love of mankind?  Thompson’s description of God’s pursuit of the elusive soul is echoed in Saint Faustina’s diary when God again and again calls to a soul and offers a  grace which “emerges from the merciful heart of Jesus and gives the soul a special light by means of which the soul begins to understand God’s effort, but conversion depends on its own will.  The soul knows that this, for her, is final grace and should it show even a flicker of good will the mercy of God will accomplish the rest.”    ( Notebook V, 1486, pages 82-83).

God’s grace is always sufficient.   Even at the point of death a soul can choose.   That is  why we pray: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death.”.

There is no cause to fret.  In the final analysis, God, who knows the heart and the mind, is the one who gets to do the judging. It is not for us to decide who is saved and who is not.  How little we know, after all, of the inner workings, strivings, and struggles of any human being.  God’s grace is always sufficient for salvation, his mercy is inexhaustible, his justice is perfect, his love is infinite, and His judgment is always right.

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Afterthought:  I add this postscript because I worry that I might have made such a good case for God’s mercy and forgiveness that someone might decide to do whatever they pleased all their life in the hope of squeaking by with last minute repentance.  I need to say that  once you believe that God  has taken the trouble to give us rules to live by, (see my post WHY DIDN’T JESUS WRITE ANYTHING?)  once you know God’s law and decide to  break it anyway, that is a deliberate turning away.  God’s justice is as great as his mercy.   You wouldn’t want an unfair God, would you?

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Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?  And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  –- Matthew 23:36-39

Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is  sin.  — James 4:17

Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me to be with me where I am, may see the glory you have given me, before the foundation of the world.   — John 17:24

Death is but the extinguishing of the candle because the dawn has come.