Pilgrimages: My Journey Through Loss

by Jan Shrader


Grief hits different people different ways. One of the worst things about grief for me besides the intensity of missing my loved one is dealing with all the business end of death. For example, when someone dies like my brother did last fall, I had to call Social Security, to alert them that he had died because they were sending him a monthly check. I didn’t want them to deposit money into his bank account that they would later need to take back out. If I didn’t report my brother’s death to Social Security they could come after me and prosecute me for fraud. So, this was one example of something I needed to do after he died. I find the paperwork of death exhausting. I have many gifts, but I am not very good at administrative stuff. And, my brother didn’t make it easy. He didn’t write a will or appoint anyone as his power of attorney. He never had any children, was recently divorced, and he died in Mexico, so his death certificate is in Spanish. Settling his estate has been frustrating, but at times it has also risen to comic proportions.

My brother Dwight owned 2 acres of land south of Deming, New Mexico and north of the Mexican border. He had dreamed of building an off the grid home there, but never did. My son suggested that before we try putting this land in my name, we should see a copy of the deed. So, he wrote a nice letter to the Luna County clerk’s office for me and told me to write a check for $1.50 and include a self-addressed stamped envelope in with the letter, so we can see a copy of the deed. How hard can this be? I didn’t even have to write the letter. So, at ten o’clock in the morning I mail the letter and at two o’clock in the afternoon I run into my office for something and I see the letter explaining what I needed them to do still sitting on my desk. Frantically I mail the letter alone and embarrassed I call the Luna County clerk’s office to tell them they would be receiving two pieces of mail from me.

A copy of the deed finally arrives and thankfully there was not an issue with it. My next step is to mail three pages of documents to my living brother Rudy, so I can begin filing probate in New Mexico on my brother’s estate. A week goes by and the documents return to my mailbox because I mailed them with insufficient postage. Seriously, I am laughing by now. This debacle is proof I don’t have the gift of administration. On Monday morning I go to one of those mail centers to make sure I have the proper postage, I include a self-addressed stamped envelope, so everything can easily be mailed back to me. And, then two days later before Rudy can receive the paperwork, he ends up going to the hospital. And of, course this ignites all my fears that I am going to lose another person I love.

As I try to explain my ineptitude saga in the form of a prayer request, my friend Trudy quickly realizes I am taking myself way too seriously. So, she said, “Well, when this is all said and done, I am going to start calling you The Baroness, since you are going to be a landowner,” which makes us both giggle.

After I leave my lunch date with Trudy, her humor reminds me that in the Sound of Music, the Baroness was named Baroness Von Shrader. My last name is Shrader. Alone in the car I am giggling all over again, and if anyone had been there, I couldn’t have explained what was so funny. When I finally have the opportunity to share Trudy’s joke with my Bible study, they all think it is hilarious. While we are still laughing, I make a really silly suggestion to my ladies. “Well, now that we have free land, we could start that Baptist convent I have always wanted to join.”

A couple of days later with a straight face my friend Yvette says to me, “Jan I have been meaning to ask you, if we are starting a Baptist convent can we now call you Mother Superior? And, I say, “Yes or the Baroness.” She and I erupt in more giggles. From all this lighthearted teasing I am reminded of how precious my family and my friends are to me and how blessed I am to share life with them. They truly do divide my pain and multiply my joy.

I find it helpful when I am struggling to remember that I am just a pilgrim in this world, to visit with my friends and family. They remind me of God’s goodness and their encouragement gives me the emotional and spiritual resiliency that I need.

When we see ourselves as pilgrims traveling to that heavenly city, we will experience life in community. In the Old Testament three times a year the men of Israel were required to make special trips to Jerusalem for three important feasts: the feast of the Tabernacles which was in the fall, and in the spring the feast of Passover and then five weeks later in the spring the feast of Pentecost. Women could join the men on these journeys, but because of family obligations there were not required to by Jewish law. For protection the men from a village would often choose to travel together because there were bandits on the road, and because it was easier to share the cooking and packing responsibilities. These joint endeavors became known as pilgrimages and those who journeyed together were more successful than those who traveled alone. They even wrote songs that they would sing as they ascended the hill to Jerusalem. Psalm 120 to Psalm 134 are the 15 songs they would sing as they climbed the Judean hills that surround Jerusalem. Going on a spiritual pilgrimage was a communal effort.

In the book of Hebrews, the writer borrows the Old Testament imagery of pilgrims traveling to explain how we should view our time on earth. Look at Hebrews 11:8-12.

8) By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and set out for a place that he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out, even though he did not know where he was going. 9) By faith he stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents as did Isaac and Jacob, coheirs of the same promise. 10) For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

11) By faith even Sarah herself, when she was unable to have children, received power to conceive offspring, even though she was past the age, since she considered that the one who had promised was faithful. 12) Therefore, from one man—in fact, from one as good as dead—came, offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and as innumerable as the grains of sand along the seashore. CSB

When we see ourselves as pilgrims traveling to that heavenly city, we will exercise our faith.  When Abraham heard God’s invitation, he had a choice to make of whether he would believe God or whether he would stay where he was. When we exercise our faith, like Abraham we will leave our comfort zone. We leave our past behind and adventure on with God. We will travel to a new place, and eventually at the end of our life we will come to a city where God is not only the architect, but also the builder.

In Hebrews 11:10 we learn that the architect of heaven is God. I love visiting unique architecture. I love looking at old and antique buildings. I like to imagine the people who used to live there, but I have never seen architecture that will compare to the architecture of heaven.

In Hebrews 11 we learn when our lives on earth end, we are moving to a heavenly city. A city where God uses things that are extremely precious on earth, but in heaven they are ordinary building material. For example, the streets in heaven are paved with gold, this is how common gold is in heaven. This is hard for us to imagine because we have seen asphalt streets, and even cobblestone streets, but we have never seen gold used as a paving material. The Bible also talks about the different gem stones we know to be precious on earth but in heaven they are foundation stones. For example I think sapphires are so pretty, it is one of my favorite stones. But, I can’t envision a city where sapphires are so common and large they are used as foundation stones. And, each gate of the 12 entrances into heaven are made of one gigantic pearl. Nothing on earth has prepared us for the beauty that we will experience in that heavenly city. (Rev. 21:10-21)

Dreaming about heaven will help us to put our present sufferings in perspective. When we realize God is working for all eternity our current trials will make more sense and give us a new outlook. Slowly, we will find we can work with God and not against his purposes.

When we see ourselves as pilgrims traveling to that heavenly city, we will recognize our time in this world as only temporary. The actual time we have to make a difference for Jesus on earth is really very short. Now let’s continue looking at Hebrews 11:13-16.

13) These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised. But they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. 14) Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15) If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16) But they now desire a better place—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. CSB

Like Abraham many of us will only see our prayers answered from the balcony of heaven. That is what the writer is talking about. Can you imagine how much Abraham enjoyed watching his descendants take possession of the promise land? Some scholars believe the Israelites who moved in to conquered Canaan had grown to over two million people by the time Abraham got to see them march in. He wasn’t there in person, but he got to see it from heaven. When we pray God gets to answer our prayers any way he wants. The important thing to remember is that even if we have to witness our prayers being answered from afar God is on the move and using our prayers for his glory.

When we see ourselves as pilgrims traveling to that heavenly city, we will experience life in community, we will exercise our faith, and we will recognize our time in this world as only temporary. I bought this echinopsis cactus as an anniversary gift for myself on my first anniversary after my husband died. If Gary was alive he would have thought it was a great gift for me because he knew of my love for desert gardening. It was about the size of a quarter when it arrived in the mail, covered in bubble wrap. I made this purchase online while I was stuck doing one of those business chores that come with death. I was waiting on hold for someone from Social Security to answer my call for five and half hours because of Covid. I was trying to let them know my husband was gone. On one of the worst days in my life God was about to do something precious. I hadn’t anticipated my wait time on the phone would be that long. I got bored listening to their music, so I started looking at cactus online. I had never ordered a cactus on the internet, but it was my anniversary, so why not.

This plant is living proof that God brings beauty from ashes. The color is named Antimatter. Isn’t that a perfect name? Three summers later this cactus has grown to be a showstopper. I love it and its prolific flowers are a constant reminder that God sees me and knows my true desires and needs.

Even if, God doesn’t give us what we want, we need to remember he is still loving us. He is still working all things for our good. When my time on earth is done, I know I will be surprised at how little time I was actually separated from my loved ones. Life truly is short, but eternity is long. God is not finished in me and he is not finished with me. When we choose Jesus’ ways no matter what our circumstances are, we will find our pilgrimage to heaven will be worth it.

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