A story of love and a story of heartbreak. One sentence to describe my understanding of Al and Gloria in my life as their pastor. One comes to worship and joins in the life of this congregation, the other stays on the fringes, cloistered in the home.
These events, I do not understand as I wish, but whether I do or not, matters little. To their home, I go to visit. Beautiful bridal pictures astonish my eyes, as I gaze on a beautiful Gloria in her wedding dress. Ah, I think, I can understand how Al became bedazzled with his wife-to-be.
A princess is what he calls her, with his eyes welling up with water. In front of me is an emotional man who bares his soul, where someone does not need to stare into the inner workings of his heart.
Time moves on, weaving its way. The visits with Gloria become less often, by her choosing. The contact with her outside world shrinks to her home, except with her hairdresser on Thursdays. Frustrated, Al wants this shrinking world to grow back, but he, too, is powerless to turn the flow of direction. With tears again adding a sad gloss to his eyes, he tells me as much.
Such love still fills him for his wife. Though now old, the beauty of his wedding day is still before him. For his is an enduring love, which refuses to die. The tears flow more often—though now with a deep sadness entwined within them.
Though Gloria secludes herself in her home, she loves for me to tell her who is doing what in the church—the few times I visit. Such news is to her delight. In the house, Al scurries to and fro, answering her every appeal, responding to her every request.
Inside my mind, a mosaic begins to form. Lived out in real time, a man before me becomes the face of Christ to his bride. Perhaps, Al never thought himself to be living out Scripture, “presenting Gloria to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, but holy and blameless.”
The deeds of Al’s everyday life reveal as much. With wetness again forming in his eyes, this man relays to me the doubt about his remaining strength to care for his glorious bride, Gloria.
Again, time moves on, but now their world collapses. My wife and I are six hours away, visiting friends, taking a few days off. A call comes over my mobile phone, “Al’s son is dead.” The selfish side of me thought, “I’m on vacation. Can’t a pastor take a few days off?”
The compassionate side of me wept for Al and Gloria. The next I realize I am driving back. Through the years, Al’s emotions flowed out with an ever-more, increasing frequency and vigor, often filled with much sadness. So, I am unsure if they can recover from the death of their son.
“Why did God let my son die?” Such became the content of my visits. Oh, faith still filled them, but their insides also cried out with other words—“God betrayed me.” Those storms never left them, becoming like Job, from our Old-Testament reading.
Though their guts bellowed at God for betraying them, they still believed in Him. For Gloria, Al, and all others in the same maelstrom of emotion, the Apostle Paul’s words ring out for us this day. “For if we were reconciled to God through his Son’s death when we were enemies…” Yes, Al and Gloria, Christ died for you despite your inner turmoil telling you God is your enemy, who failed you when you needed Him most.
So, what does this mean? The Son of the Father walked the way of death to give us life. The “enemies” of the Almighty include folks like Al and Gloria, who still trusted in Him when their feelings told them to do otherwise. Oh, the fickleness of our emotions, for they may or may not reflect reality.
Think about their lives. Take a moment to ponder the life of Al doting over Gloria. Some may consider how he cared for her to be irrational, dysfunctional. How can he continue to serve her in such a way, all the while she keeps demanding him to do this or something other? What you may find is a picture of our life with our Lord.
Inside us, our anger stirs when God doesn’t do what we want Him to do. All the while we still make our demands of Him. Like Al, whose eyes only gazed on Gloria as a spotless bride, so does Christ with us.
How does this work? The Holy Spirit comes to us, working in the word and the water, breathing into us our life and breath, where none earlier existed. So says Jesus. “Unless someone is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. The flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
So, how did you become someone born? Did your mother not give you birth? Yes! For being born is not something you choose but something done to you. So says Jesus. Through water and Spirit, baptism, you are born anew, from above.
The wonder of all wonders! The Holy Spirit gave Al and Gloria this heavenly birth—which they never left. Thank heaven they still trusted in our Savior’s promises and not their emotions. The chaotic rise and fall, surging inside, pummeled them to abandon God. Not so, for they walked by faith, not by sight, not only by their experiences.
For faith believes to be true what you may not be able to verify. Now, if you only trust what you can prove, you are walking by sight, not by faith.
So, Gloria and Al received the new birth from above. Like someone who is married, does such a person describe his current state as “I WAS married.” Oh no, “I AM married.” So with baptism—you ARE baptized. To be a present-tense reality means you are trusting in something now, not only in the past. Such is faith, which holds on to the One who gives this new life from above. The two are inseparable.
How can this be? In the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, our Lord links belief in Him to someone’s heavenly birth. For these are not either-or realities, but both-and. “Unless someone is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Such is true because our Savior says so. So also is this, “Whoever believes in Him [God’s Son] will not perish but receive eternal life.” These words are also the truth, for our Savior speaks them, as well.
The water of baptism and faith in the heart never became strangers to Al and Gloria. Though they both experienced some of Job’s life, bent by many hard turns, the doting husband continued to serve his wife as Christ serves His Church.
A story of love and a story of heartbreak. Such is the love of Christ for His Holy Bride, the Church. Such is the love of Al for Gloria, one giving in love, the other receiving.
The fallen creation is pushy, making the Hynek household move into the nursing home. The visits now become more frequent. For telling “no” to a pastor popping his head in the door is not so easy. Not when you must do so to his face.
From one, “Why am I here?” From the other, “I don’t want to be here.” “Here is where you should be,” I answer. The neurons fire away in their brains and they recognize I speak the truth.
“Yes, I can’t care for Gloria anymore at our home.” An approving head nod confirms Gloria’s agreement. “Why did God let Mark die?” Though the question is déjà vu, those stirrings within them are raw, real, and present.
“The only reason I need to go on living is to care for Gloria,” Al tells me. “No, Al, as long as you breathe, your purpose in life is not over. Now, if your gut tells you otherwise, this does not change the truth.” The intellect, though waning and now less clear, agrees. The cry from the heart, however, is a deafening “no,” beating down all challenges to be silent.
Last Friday, a stroke hit Gloria, and she never recovers. On Saturday, she dies, and the merciful Almighty brings her soul to its heavenly home. The news stuns me, for Al grew weaker by the day, but I did not expect this for Gloria.
In the evening, I go to visit Al. The weariness of age and effort etches his face, for he is tired of the fight. “Why go on living?” The pain within him weeps and wails. So strong are these undercurrents, any other word cannot rise above the undertow. “Let me go home to be with Gloria.”
A prayer is leaving my lips. This brave warrior fought the long fight, strove in the struggle, and is exhausted at the finish line. O Lord, grant to him the crown of eternal life. May his heart no longer be weary. Bring this brave saint of Yours home. Give to him the inheritance You promised before the foundations of the world.
The tears are now streaming from my eyes. This “Bohonk,” his description of himself, is now making me the emotional man. The bordering bed next to him is empty, where I often visited with Gloria. Lord, keep her in your care, as You promise. Bless this saint as she continues to await her salvation’s fulfillment, on the Day of our Lord. Oh, she will be more glorious and beautiful, in both body and soul, than on her wedding day.
In silence, I drive home. Not knowing what to expect, I confess these words—Gloria is now in eternity, Al will soon be. What surprised us all is how soon. A story of love and a story of heartbreak. The story of Al and Gloria, but also Christ and His bride, the Church. Amen.