Margaret’s Gospel

Saliva bubbles collected in the corners of her mouth. Suddenly, in a meteoric flash, death snatched her away. In an instant her rotund 98 year-old body surrounded by a loving family crumbling in tears and grief was all that was left. I, a volunteer chaplain, struggled to find words of comfort and hope. Amazed by family and love, and my own thoughts of life’s heartless cycle, and questions of nagging doubt. On the inside I am a person performing an act of human compassion for a family crushed by sorrow, and a chaplain who is aware there are myriad unanswered questions – God on the lam.

Life is a journey where decision selects meaning, where we battle doubt while troubled the abyss might exist. Yet we persist where the rubber meets our angst; everyone seeking an explanation, believing they might find one that addresses the void in their soul. Many choose to believe in the Beyond because the Promised Land is better than apocalypse, and family love the glue that keeps us together while we wait.

Preaching God’s love while grappling with the death and suffering of this family left me thinking, “what does it all mean?” Mother Teresa’s questioning God’s existence or Brother John’s ‘the dark night of the soul’ both visited me in that hospital room. Black and white answers to life are simplistic. I was trained to believe truth is found in the confines of dogma; God inexplicably locked in doctrine. Real Life incredulously retorts “really?”

That hospital room was truth. Death is truth, suffering and loss are truth, and family love is truth. Politics, higher education, ending poverty, eliminating war, and large bank accounts have no influence on that sad separation between family and their dead beloved. In poverty or wealth, that hospital room was a life lesson demonstrating up close what this earthly jaunt is like, all delusions notwithstanding. I whispered, “you will see her again. This is not the last verse; the song continues.” They seemed somewhat consoled but I questioned in my heart whether it was true. I lived and moved in dichotomy, my spiritual integrity under interrogation.

Her name was Margaret. A name makes a difference. She made an impression on the soft tablet of life’s record by producing a loving family, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, bound to her identity. They did not want to move on without her. I only hope those who love me feel the same. She left a gospel to ponder. I never knew her and wished I had for she imprinted an indelible mark on my self-centered life. I witnessed her absolute end and felt moved by her finality, her closing testimony, as she fled this earth, her whereabouts on my mind.

I wondered why some seldom battle doubts. Believing appears to come easy; they find certainty in a fundamentalist faith where doubts are shunned as traps of Satan. If you question Scripture your trust in God is suspicious, your faith weak. They persist in believing orthodoxy unexamined. What is that like, a corruption of faith? A faith of certitude in felt-board religion is a tough deception to overcome.

My mind mused what Margaret was really like, what secrets she cherished, what did the family not know about this honored mother, grandma, great grandma? Perhaps it didn’t matter. Maybe only love matters, and by all accounts, love was a powerful force in her family, her children’s reaction to her lifeless form proved it. Their crying deeply touched me. We hugged, while they shared memories that would sustain the family down the road as life waits for no one. I thought how death plays no games with life teaching its own bizarre truth and how believing in post-grave prospects is Existence’s last redoubt.

Her eyes closed in death, her gaping mouth crying for more, her listless frame cradled by a hospital bed, life and death strangely horrific as they exchanged her being in that small crowded hospital room, grotesque and mysterious.

The Incarnation provides me some possible answers to the reality of death, dying, and suffering. It declares God is present in suffering as in the person of Mother Teresa, immersing Himself through her in unspeakable misery, attempting to alleviate human wretchedness one person at a time, or one disease at a time. Incarnation is His response to our despair, not a final solution – not yet – but a reply nonetheless, a no picnic promise of God with us in us. His rejoinder to suffering is you and I. That does not answer the ‘why’ or ‘why so long’ questions, but it is all we have. God becoming us is His solution to our travail as pain, death, and sorrow continue their cruel exercise, and faith wrestles. He shoulders with us through us. We are His hope to humanity. I agonized to believe He was in that room with dead Margaret and her grieving family. I was He and He was I, my warts and all, reaching out to a family whose heart was broken. This is what I chose to believe. We are to Him as He is to us in this world, “ in Me and I in you,” (John 14:20).

Assuring me they had funeral plans in place, I said good-bye feeling moved, overwhelmed, and ruminating. I just encountered mystery at its crossroads, the cellar and ceiling of existence, breath and death, family and loss; most of us flee these moments. Of course we’d rather focus on the party in place of the wake, but eventually the wake will find us. We are pulled with the power of gravity to such considerations, scratching for answers…while wisdom gleaned from death’s dirty work should help us live more abundantly in the present. We have nothing else hoping Scripture’s ‘forever’ is true.

From where does Margaret’s goodness originate, simply in the heart of humanity? Or is there something bigger outside of us, an objective something or Someone who has planted virtue in our hearts? Might that be evidence of a good God? And from where does my outrage at death and sorrow emanate? As I witnessed this family’s grief, I thought this is not as it should be, life obviously the favored reality. Death is a gross misshapen delusion masquerading as ‘actuality.’ There must be a better way, a truer existence free of pain, sorrow, and destruction, where death finds no place. Where did I derive such thoughts? Could death be an argument for life? Darkness demands light, like yin and yang, and our anger at suffering bespeaks of a better existence, a belief in the way things ‘should be.’ Margaret suggested to me that Hope is the key to imaginable paradise; at least it comforts us as we slip into the unknown.

Can life’s cessation inspire us on how to live now more abundantly? Does our finality, our mortality, cause us to make the most of breath in the moment? Kafka said life has meaning because life has an end. Do we focus on the moment because we know we’re terminal? Perhaps. If not, we live in empty tombs of false selves and vacuous hopes, buying into the material world while missing significance and purpose in life’s twinkling. Perchance we can learn something from death that adds much to our earthly trip in the present and preps us for the launch into the forever, whatever that is. Buoyant visions required.

Margaret was good news. Love and family have profound implications. Her death-moment was gospel I found relevant and telling at a time when my moorings were being cross-examined, wondering why God, life and religion were demanding a second look so late in my entrance on Life’s stage.

Is it likely family bonds, familial relationships and the love generated represent the Bible in its deepest sense, the Family of God? Intimate community where two or three are gathered together is the religion of life that speaks to me. It is where my chances of experiencing God improve. Margaret in the throes of warm death and a family besot with cutting grief granted me an in-depth view of life’s essence. Family community helps me imagine heaven’s environment. If we particularly fail to love those closest to us we learn nothing from Scripture, religious promises, or spiritual yearning. God is where we are, in us. Us, the Incarnation, hope.

I walked to my car and drove home.

Greg Prout is father of three, grandfather of three, and has been happily married for 34 years to Mary Ventresca.

Image Credit: / Vivek Chugh

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And if in hospital, why not cradle roll as well as Divine service … and especially as creed–a fundamental belief to end the all-too-recent need for a plurality of all-too-defined of beliefs?

Indeed, as it actually was for the first 118 years of the denomination, plus the 18 years of Seventh-day Adventism that predates the denomination itself, and even into the lifetime of members today born prior to 1980.

What if revival and reformation were to lead us back to the bible as our creed? Let’s once again feel free to welcome as members those who in simple faith accept that “Life is not the last verse; the song continues. We will see each other again and live together in love forever.” So how about we welcome all who welcome us as part of their song? This is, it seems, truly at the heart of the song of Moses and the Lamb.


Greg, you still have the wonderful gift of speech – of phrasings which convey more than mere words usually do. You’re in your right place – rendering succor to the grieving.
I knew you, 25 years ago or so, when we were all at Temple City Church, you, your wife, and my (new) husband and I. Now I’ve lost him. And even our dearly beloved Pastor Brown has also passed away. I have dear memories of that period in my life. Actually, I have wonderful dreams of what life will be in heaven when we will all be together again in a beautiful reunion.
Being a member of our Adventist faith is something like membership in a huge fraternity. Any large gatherings will always seem to produce friends from long ago, or at least friends-of-friends we used to know, somewhere, in school, church, or work. When we see people we haven’t seen in 20 years or so, and struggle a moment to be able to place the familiar face, it’s just like being in a family gathering for a holiday celebration. I’m 84 now, and I look forward to our meetings with anticipation. I don’t fear death; we know that (seemingly) an instant later, we’ll all open our eyes and see Jesus’ face! Your dear patient in the hospital didn’t suffer; her children wept for her but she had been an inspiration to them all their lives. When my loving husband died of cancer, his doctor had given him sedation so he didn’t suffer. I don’t fear passing from this life. I just look forward to the “other side” when I’ll wake up and see my husband, and Jesus!

Thanks, Greg, for your beautiful tribute. You’re in a good place. You’re doing so much good for so many people.

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Death is the Great Equalizer of us all. One shirt I saw at the Homeless shelter recently said, It is a FACT. 25 out of 25 persons will die.
Death is NOT the opposite of Life. Jesus said, it was only a sleep. A respite. Except all body function have ceased and we return to our Elemental Elements over time. This is true for anyone of any age. Whether unborn yet, or Centenarian.
Whether one is an Adventist, another type of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc. All are children of God. Even those who just believe in a Higher Power. In the END does it matter the belief system if one loves God?
If one is doing the works of God. Loving others, loving justice, showing mercy. Loving one’s neighbor as one self. These show the WORK of the Holy Spirit in the life of the person.
What about those who are still “controlled by demons” who succumb to the “demonic urges”? Like two brothers recently in Texas who overdosed on Heroine?
There are many persons we have to just consign to the “bosom of Abraham”.
We have to remember that the Great Creator – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – says He will take into consideration the many facets of each of Their children’s lives. That They will judge fairly.

I havent seen in Scripture where God says “Everything has to be perfect”. In the Creation Story God says, “Good”. When God created Humans, the most God would say was, “Very Good”. But seemed to refrain from the word “Perfect”.
At the close of S.S. class Sabbath several were saying that WE are keeping Christ from coming. I am sure that back of that comment was Ellen’s statement " Not until the Character of Christ is PERFECTLY reproduced in His people can He come."
This is a lot of guilt to lay upon Humans. Does the Church have THIS Doctrine all wrong?
WHAT EXACTLY IS the Character of Christ that we are to have?
HOW can we Define PERFECTION to non-SDA humans so they will know FOR SURE THEY are NOT the ones keeping Christ from returning?

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“Life is a journey where decision selects meaning, where we battle doubt while troubled the abyss might exist. Yet we persist where the rubber meets our angst; everyone seeking an explanation…”

Have been thinking of the Beatles and the passage of time while reading your essay, Greg. It’s been 50 yrs since the release the Sargent Pepper album. To be able to share intimate moments with families is such a privilege. This world needs lots of “Mother Marys.” Aren’t you glad that we can balance out the angst with the lighter moments and that not all decisions on “life’s journey” are as serious as a heart attack ( Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire cat) ?

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
let it be

And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom
let it be

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom
let it be

And when the broken hearted people
Living in the word agree
There will be an answer
let it be

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
"—so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

just returned from liverpool. mary was, as you probably know, paul’s mom. she died suddenly of an embolism when he was 14. years later, in a dream, she came to him and whispered ‘let it be.’ hence, at a later date, the song. i agree with you, ‘this world needs a lot of mary’s.’ this is my 50th high school reunion year, 50 years after ‘the summer of love.’ our world doesn’t seem to have learned much wisdom after a half century, not lately anyway. one would think after 50 years wisdom would be more prevalent. now, more than ever, we need love in our churches, communities, and our society. a loving family where we can ‘let it be’ and find love without qualification, without pretense, is a foretaste of any Hereafter, and a reminder how all human institutions can behave. a fantasy? perhaps. but a prayer too.
always good to hear from you.