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When my mother was dying, I sat by her bedside one afternoon at the nursing home. The pastor from her church showed up for a visit, a young man with perfectly white teeth and a radiant tan from a recent Florida vacation. He saw that my mother was deeply unconscious, and I got the slight impression that he was relieved. He sat down for two minutes in the chair near the door. “Well, I won’t stay then!” he chirped. Bewildered, I found myself in charge of managing small talk with him about how things were going at his church. When he left, I was furious. It never occurred to him to see me, exhausted and falling to pieces, alone in that room with my mother as she labored on the threshold of death.  

Lord, forgive that young pastor. He had no idea what he was doing.

Three weeks before, my mother had fallen and was clearly in pain. We called the ambulance. In the emergency department a couple hours later, someone—a doctor, I think—sat me down and gently explained that my mother’s x-rays showed she was full of cancer. He assured me the decision was clear: hospice. I remember nothing about this person but the kindness.

God, grant strength to doctors and nurses who every day escort people to the threshold and tell them, with compassion, “This is where you must dwell now, for a while.”

The day we finally admitted my father to the nursing home, the middle-aged women who work there formed a little welcome committee. Dad barely understood what was happening, and yet he did: as we pushed his wheelchair through the door, his whole body slumped. But the ladies met us just inside: “We’re so glad you’re here!” they cooed to my father. I burst into tears.

God, bless the nursing home staff, hospice nurses, social workers, all those who are not afraid of the threshold, who abide there with others for days, weeks, months—as long as it takes—and provide what is needed, body and soul.

My friend’s son has struggled for years with severe depression. They’ve tried everything, all the meds, expensive experimental treatments. Nothing seems to help. This week, again, he desperately longed to push across the threshold, to be done with it all. Terrified, his parents and friends grasp at him, plead with him to step back. Today we learned he’s safe for now.

Oh Jesus, merciful shepherd, grip this precious child and pull him back into life. Do not let another one fall through! See the broken shards of so many hearts, shattered forever on that terrible threshold where loved ones step through, in pain and reaching for silence.

I’ve been to many good funerals, the kind where the Comforter comes in the word preached, the memories shared, the hymns sung through tight throats. No matter the circumstances of the loss—a long life well-lived, an exhausting marathon of illness finally over, a shocking and sudden loss—I’ve heard pastors hold grief tenderly and still sound the trumpet of hope. I’ve seen church people turn up to play the music, serve the food, and follow up later with cards and meals and visits. I’ve even done those things myself—it’s a privilege.

Spirit of God, thank you for those who receive, with strength and gentleness, the weary ones just stepping back from the threshold after handing someone across. Thank you for those who know how to say, “Here. Rest with us for a time. We will look after you. You are among friends.”

The Psalmist writes “How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. … When you take away their breath, they die and return to dust.” All breathing things enter this life for a time and then slip out of it. Today, a veterinarian will arrive at our home to help our sweet Maizey-dog across the threshold. The vet will ease her into sleep and together we will lift her gently over. She lived a long life; she was a good dog.

Thank you, Creator God, for those who care for your other creatures, too, with tenderness and skill, honoring their little spirits.

It is late winter now and very cold. Not all creatures will make it until the warmth and abundance of spring return. Some deer will lie down, curl up, and die of starvation. Some chickadees will not find enough calories to keep their half-ounce bodies warm enough on frigid nights. Some wild things will cross over quietly, with no one watching but the Spirit of God who hovers over all creation.

There is no threshold where you are not present, O God. All of us, your creatures, live not far from this terrifying and holy place. Grant us courage to endure the holiness of the threshold, grant us vision to perceive your glory shining through it.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Fred Mueller says:

    Reading this before dawn with record setting, finger numbing cold here in Maine you made me remember that two sparrows are sold for a penny (Matthew 10) and yet unknown and unseen, it does not happen “unseen by the Spirit of God who hovers over all creation.” “His eye is on the sparrow” goes the old song. He is caring this morning for every shivering bird. Thank you.

  • Sue Poll says:

    Thank you for this gorgeous and profoundly moving piece of writing. It has deeply stirred me as I remember days of escorting loved ones to the threshold. And God’s peace to you as you find yourself there once again with your beloved pet. May He gently receive that faithful spirit.

  • Nancy Ryan says:

    ‘Thank you for those not afraid of the threshold’. Through the years those folks have taught me so much. Thank you for these words on a day that I’ll make visits to three congregants and their families who are ‘on the threshold’
    May you and yours be comforted as Maizy crosses the threshold. Your words invoke deep thought and much inspiration. Thanks.

    • Ed Starkenburg says:

      Amen! Thanks for your encouragement for many who do the work of encouraging. The beauty in your prayers pull us together in ministry.

  • Jill Fenske says:

    All I could think of while reading this piece was Fred Rodgers saying “Look for the helpers.” He is right, they are usually there if we just look.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thank you very much.

  • Julia Smith says:

    Courage and rest to you and Ron today, Debra. You have loved Maizey well and she surely loves and thanks you. I pray you will be with her again in time, bounding on the beaches of a renewed earth.
    Thank you for this beautiful, moving reflection.

  • Heidi De Jonge says:

    Oh, Debra… may Maizey rest in peace as and after she crosses the threshold. I hold your hearts – all your hearts – in God’s heart today. Thank you for this post. Every piece of it, a blessing to me this morning.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    I’ve read this twice to learn better how to hold grief tenderly while holding out hope. Your words should be put to music and added to our hymnals.

    May Mazie rest in peace.

  • Jane Porter says:

    This was so extraordinaly beautiful. Thank you so much.

  • What a beautiful testament of what it looks like to show up inside the pain rather than avoiding it. Thank you.

  • Stan E Seagren says:

    Alleluia! Amen!

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Breathtakingly beautiful and truthful. Thank you.

  • Sarina Moore says:

    Ah, Deb. This is so achingly beautiful and painful. Thank you for sharing.

    May I have the strength to linger on the threshold: may I hold grief tenderly; may nothing of me be remembered, except kindness.

  • Mary says:

    As a nurse, both in the hospital and in hospice, and more recently when my husband passed away, I’ve been witness to that threshold many times. Blessed are those, when there, who realize they’re on holy ground.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Thank you for your kind words, everyone. Maizey went out of this life with the utmost of gentleness and peace. I am grateful.

    • Henry Baron says:

      Thank you, Deb! Your gift of finding the right words to express the deepest of feelings is a blessing shared, and we are grateful.

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    Thank you for guidance as I await to embrace my friends who just said goodbye to their 14 year old golden retriever.

  • Jim Loomis says:

    Thank you for this beautiful, heartfelt piece of writing. As a son, and as a hospital and hospice social worker, I understand the caring that trained and compassionate staff and clergy provide. I am reminded of my mother-in-law’s sudden death one evening. The hospital chaplain was superb in his care for the family (mom was unconscious). As my mother-in-law was Catholic, the local priest was asked to come to the hospital. His interaction with the family was cursory at best. He saw mom alone for a few minutes (presumably to offer the annointing of the sick), came out of the room and said to us, “The church has done all it can,” and left. He certainly left – left me with a feeling of profound disappointment. Thank God for the clergy, friends, and medical staff who care and demonstrate it day in and day out.

  • Lisa Lamb says:

    Thanks for this beautiful reflection on meaningful care, Debra. It filled me with gratitude for the co-pastors at my daughter and son-in-law’s church, who ministered to me as well as her on their visits to my mom two months ago. Grace and peace to you as you say goodbye to Maizey.

  • Emily says:

    Dr. Rienstra,
    Thank you for these beautiful words of gratitude and prayer, of life and death. They meet me in a special way today.

  • Donna Stelpstra says:

    Thank you for these beautiful words. We have been or are being a part of all the stories you shared here with different family members (grand dogs, too.) This reading was a beautiful way to start the day.

  • Ken Baker says:

    It is to stand on holy ground. Thank You.

  • Susan says:

    Thank you for this beautiful piece. I am moved to tears as i think of loved ones who recently crossed and the many who crossed over the years – included beloved pets.

  • June says:

    Your prayers. Vulnerable and beautiful. And heard.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Re Crossing Over: Years ago my brother and I were at our dad’s side several days before his passing; the church elders had gathered around to pray in my folks’ Spring Lake ranch-house living room which now was his last space, filled with hospital bed yet surrounded by decades’ worth of framed family photos–Mom’s trophy room, we called it.
    After the elders left, my brother on one side of his bed, I on the other, listened to Dad saying to us, excitement in his now-blind eyes and wavery voice: “Boys—get in the boat! Let’s cross—the water is just fine!” The morphine was talking, but we absolutely believe he was seeing more than just a lifetime of memories fishing on Lake Michigan and on the state’s many rivers and inland lakes. “Dad—you go ahead and cross; we aren’t ready just yet but we’ll be along directly . . . “

  • Janet says:

    Beautiful. Thank you for these words. Our family is at this moment sitting with our 101 year old Aunt at the threshold. She is ready and waiting to cross over.

  • Richard says:

    Lovely and powerful, thank you for sharing your gift ❤

  • Susan Damon says:

    Thank you for these words of encouragement as our family waits at the threshold with our beloved auntie.

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