Dad died three days before Christmas.
The dying came slowly and hard as the completion of a season of surgery and tests, treatments and procedures, referrals and home health, hospitalizations and palliative care, and finally, hospice care. The dying was haunted by ugly things like the word ‘metastasized’, by debilitating pain and the loss of speech, by a growing deafness, a tracheotomy, and anxiety and panic.
The suffering was profound enough that when it finally came to an end in death we were glad it was at an end. Yet it left me and others dangerously close to calling death good. In case you are confused on this score, I assure you that death is not good. There is nothing so violent as the stillness of death, nor the touch of a loved one approaching room temperature.
There is nothing so violent as the stillness of death.
But even if we had flirted with calling death good, the coming days proved that it is not. Christmas Eve was hard. Christmas day was hard. Planning for the funeral was hard. Visitation was hard. And of course, the funeral offered more of the same.
In all of that I am incredibly proud and thankful for my mom, sisters, and our families. We worked well together. We all ministered to dad, taking turns in the lead, and taking turns fading off to some quiet corner while another took our place. We lived out this unspoken plan even as grief and death did its work on dad and us.
I’m not even sure where exactly these words are taking me. Where do I go from here?
Do I recall a story of Dad? Do I talk about the future without him? Do I write about the surreal nature of going through his email and unsubscribing him from source after source, site after site, that no longer means anything for him? Do I run to a Biblical text? Do I tell of my emotional search for a particular pocket knife of his – a knife present in his front right pocket my whole lifetime through – and how I absolutely sobbed when I found it just hours before his death? These are all possibilities, but not a one seems quite the way at this moment.
Instead, my mind goes backward to a moment with one of my own sons five years ago. I believe he was four of five years old at the time. It was a fall day, and after running an errand, he and I were walking hand-in-hand across a field of green grass. As we did so, I was hit by a wave of nostalgia and emotion. In my mind I could see just a few years forward to a time when he would no longer much want to hold my hand. And I could see a a few years further still to when he would he would no longer be under our roof.
So I said to him, “Thank you, son, for coming with me today. This is special for me, because you know, it isn’t always going to be like this.”
And he immediately replied: “I know, dad, cuz you’re gonna die.”
I tell you that I had trouble getting off the field that day because of how hard I was laughing, and in laughter I’ve repeatedly told many others through these past years about that little conversation. It’s often true that ‘kid say the darndest things.’ It is also true that in their own way, they are often great theologians – cutting through false nostalgia and really getting to the heart of a matter.
In fact, it was only a few months after my boy told me that he knew I was going to die that he also cut to the chase one more time in a profound way – this time with the Gospel.
A young husband and father at church had died in a tragic auto accident. The grief of his death rocked his family, the community, our church, and me personally. In fact, the grief was profound enough that this same son of ours, who reminded me of my impending death, saw my grief and decided to address it.
“God isn’t done with him, dad!”
My own child then went on to point me to the resurrection – a pint-sized preacher giving me a pint-sized version of the Apostle Paul’s comforting sermon about Christ Jesus, baptism, death and resurrection from Romans 6:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (v. 3-5).
I’ve learned in the past, and I am learning again now, that on my own I will distort reality and preach the Good News of Jesus poorly to myself.
I drift into believing the teenage years and the subsequent departure from home to work or to school are the worst things ahead for us and our children. But then the words of my child and the death of my father jolt me awake, first in laughter, then in tears, to know there is a departure far worse.
Yet in that abyss which is grief at the death of someone you love, Good News comes. It comes on account of Christ Jesus, given by God the Father to my father, my family, all of you, and all the world. It is Good News of light to the darkness, forgiveness to the unforgivable, comfort to the guilty and the grieving, and life for the dead.
Jesus is the heart of the Gospel, and the Gospel is Good News. But it is always Good News that comes to us best on the lips of another, for we all make poor preachers of the Gospel to ourselves. It comes on the lips of children and parents and pastors and coworkers and neighbors and friends and family. I have such preachers in my life and it is making all the difference in this season of grief. It has made all the difference my whole life through.
Jesus is the heart of the Gospel, and the Gospel is Good News. But it is always Good News that comes to us best on the lips of another.