I remember very well the day I first met Anita. It was shortly after I arrived to begin serving as pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Cat Spring, and if I remember correctly, it was my first hospital call. I had received word that Earl had been taken in for emergency heart surgery at Memorial City Hospital. I rushed down there and found the waiting room with hardly a soul there. I asked around and found that Anita and those with her had gone to get something to eat. I sat down and waited. After a little while, Anita came walking in with her entourage. She saw me, and with a look of great surprise and thankfulness, broke into a giant smile. She was very happy to see her pastor there to sit with her as Earl went through this surprising surgery. I sat there with her until the doctor came out and told us Earl was fine. I said a prayer with everyone and left.
A few days later, I was back at the hospital to see Earl and check on his status. He was still in ICU, but he wasn’t alone. Anita was in the room with him. Earl was determined to get out of bed that day and at least stand on his own two feet. As he stood, Anita held onto him; steadied him; and made sure he didn’t fall. She then helped him take a couple of small steps putting one foot in front of the other. Those two were a sight to see at that moment as they looked at each other in the midst of Earl’s illness. You could tell the love and compassion they had for one another. I knew they weren’t married at the time, but it wasn’t long until they decided to tie the knot.
I was privileged to conduct that ceremony. Earl and Anita were decidedly low thrills when it came to their wedding. There wasn’t a big to-do. There was no huge decorating of the church. There wasn’t a giant wedding party. There were only a few folks who witnessed the wedding that day. Heck, there wasn’t even a rehearsal. That’s an important detail in light of the following little story.
Right before the ceremony, I was talking with Earl and Anita and walking them through the ceremony and what would take place. Suddenly, Anita, in a somewhat concerned voice asked, "Pastor, how do I walk up the aisle?"
I put my arm around her, smiled and said, "Generally, you put one foot in front of the other."
That brought the house down! Everyone cracked up as we headed down to the sanctuary to conduct the ceremony. Anita walked down the aisle just as I had instructed her. She put one foot in front of the other, and she was beaming. She knew what was going to happen at the end of the aisle. She knew she would be marrying a man who dearly loved her, and she him. They were like two teenagers at that moment. I think if you would have tried to put any obstacle in Anita’s path that day, she would have busted through it. There was happiness. There was joy. There was hope waiting at the end of the aisle that morning in the church, and she walked toward it, one foot in front of the other.
And that hope did not disappoint. I’ve done a lot of weddings. I’ve done a few weddings for folks who have a bit of wear and tear on their tires, but let me say, there has rarely been a wedding that I have done where two people were as giddy as Earl and Anita. You would have sworn the two of them were teenagers the way they were acting in front of everyone who was there. The joy that the two of them had was amazing. They were genuinely happy to be together, and they had some wonderful times together.
Those times ranged from traveling across the U.S. even going snow mobile riding on one such venture to simply sitting at the back of their house watching cattle, deer, and the world go by. And, of course, Earl and Anita danced. They loved dancing. Anita even learned as much as possible how to square dance because they enjoyed this sport so much. Sometimes, they’d go to three dances on a weekend, and they’d almost float across the floor putting one foot in front of the other.
There were some very, very happy years together. But these years were not without some trial and tribulation. Anita wrestled with some major health problems. She had a defective heart valve which gave her fits. She had a pacemaker which helped with the issue, but there were many times when her medications needed to be adjusted to help her feel better. More than a few times when she was walking out of church, I’d ask her, "Are you feeling any better?" Sometimes, she’d happily say yes, but there were more than a few times when she’d just shake her head. But she’d keep going, one foot in front of the other. There were still many happy times to be had with Earl. There was still hope that things would get better.
But July a year ago, things didn’t get better. In fact, they got really, really bad for Anita. Part of an infection on that defective heart valve broke off and lodged in her brain. She suffered a major stroke that literally damaged ½ of her brain. The only thing that kept her alive was her pacemaker. She was rushed to the medical center downtown where even more trials and tribulations awaited her. First a battle broke out amongst doctors: one who wanted to let her brain recover from the trauma and one who wanted to fix her heart valve immediately. During this time Anita started to recover, but she was unable to talk and communicate. She could perhaps utter a word, maybe two, but she could not form sentences, and you could tell she was frustrated.
After a couple of weeks, the doctors finally performed surgery to clean the infection off her heart valve, but sadly, because of insurance, they had to move her–too quickly in my estimation–to a rehab hospital. That was not a good experience. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the day Anita, for one reason or another, tried to get out of bed and fell. It wasn’t pleasant what happened to her. More trials and tribulations.
St. Paul addresses us about such trials and tribulations in the book of Romans when he tells us "that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." Suffering eventually leads to hope, and if you watched Anita fight through this process, you would believe that she must have had some sort of hope she was hanging onto. There had to be something driving her. She never gave up. She kept struggling, fighting to get better–putting one foot in front of the other.
It was quite a roller coaster ride in the end. Eventually, Anita was able to go home to be with Earl, but only for a time. She became weak again and hospitalized again. Congestive heart failure caught up with her, and she had to be admitted into the nursing home again. Unfortunately, she never regained her strength. She was not able to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Too much illness. Too much strain. Too much fatigue caught up to her, and her body gave out this past Monday. Anita experienced the one thing we will all experience at one point or another: death.
And it would be a sad sort of affairs if that were the end of the journey. After putting one foot in front of the other for so long, it would be the most depressing reality of all if it were simply over. But just as Anita put one foot in front of the other walking down this church aisle toward the joy and hope of being married to Earl, our journeys lead to a similar place. Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. What is the hope?
Just this: Jesus offers the ultimate promise to His followers in the gospel of John chapter 14. "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going." Yes, Jesus we know the place you are going: you are going to heaven. To be with your Father, and you promised to take us to be with you.
This is where Anita’s journey took her, and now she is experiencing a tremendous hope. A hope without end. A hope that does not disappoint. And, now as we grieve, we must be reminded that we do not grieve in vain, but we grieve in hope. For one day we will be reunited with Anita and all who have gone before as we too are welcomed into that home Jesus has prepared for us. And so we face this world, it’s trials and tribulations; it’s suffering and pain just as Anita did. We know we are in a journey toward God, and we press on one foot in front of the other. Amen.