On the first night of vacation, my wife and I arrived at dinnertime in Ocean Springs, Miss., to visit dear friends for two days on our way to New Orleans.
Guy was on oxygen but cognizant and excited about our arrival. He was ready to discuss theological questions with me as he always did. His wife, Betty, caring for him with the devotion worthy of the woman of valor described in Proverbs 31, stood steadfast, affirming that that day's discomfort was the exception given how well he had been doing recently.
So my wife and I went to dinner, hoping that upon our return his breathing treatment would restore his vitality. But our good friend, Guy, uttered his last breath a few minutes after we returned.
His 89 years suddenly ended, I watched as his grieving wife and the hospice nurse comforted each other. His oldest daughter entered the room, and the mourning intensified. Betty's sister and her husband arrived and then a few more devoted hospice nurses who had cared for them at various times entered the house.
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I sat and watched from a distance. I could sense they needed spiritual support. This beautiful couple belonged to the Methodist church. The others were from various Christian denominations. I felt like an outsider and I really wasn't sure whether it was appropriate for me to be rabbi for them.
I got up and gently asked everyone to gather around his bed and, with their permission, I began reading from Psalms, whose power brought immediate calmness over us.
I could feel the presence of the Eternal descend upon us. We were just people, not Jews and Christians, but just bereaved souls searching in a darkness of spiritual despair. All the while, Guy lay beneath the covers resting peacefully in his bed, his eyes shut and his skin still warm. His countenance remained regal. He did not want pain. He got his wish.
This is not the way the first day of a vacation is supposed to begin, but in the rabbinate or in any field of the clergy one never knows the moment when that life cycle event calls upon us to serve. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
Guy died with total dignity, as if God had suddenly kissed him on the lips and laid him to rest in a way not so different from when God kissed Moses for the last time and lay him to rest in the wilderness of Mount Nebo.
It was a lesson for us all. I was grateful to be able to help. I reconnected with the intrinsic power of the Psalms as we all recited the venerable 23rd psalm. Even when I shared some of the Jewish readings from the memorial service on Yom Kippur, I could see these prayers comforted them.
That night we joined our souls in one bond of faith seekers. Our differences didn't matter. All that mattered was our need to invoke the presence of God to comfort the newly bereaved family. What a redemptive moment. In a time when religion is often the target of justifiable criticism as the cause of human strife in our world, this experience demonstrated what is possible when people of faith reach out to each other.
The following week I participated in Guy's memorial service by reading some of the same psalms and readings from Jewish liturgy.
We need to look out for more opportunities to use our holy Scriptures to unite us and remind us of the wisdom that death can teach us about life and about how people of diverse religious beliefs can come together, albeit briefly, for a greater peace of mind that serves God and the community in our hour of need.
The following prayer captures the potential of how we grow together: "All things pass away, but you Lord are eternal. Teach us, O God, to see that when we link ourselves to you, and strive to do your will, our lives acquire eternal meaning and value. And sustain in us the hope, for we dare not ask for more, that the human spirit, created in your image, is, like you, eternal."
I believe Guy would have approved.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.