On my desk in front of me is a snapshot of my son, Luke. It was taken two years ago. His hair cut short for Plebe Summer at the United States Naval Academy (USNA). His white T-shirt, emblazoned with the academy seal, drenched in sweat. His young, muscled arms upraised. And his face…oh, that face. It is the face that roars Victory. Brow furrowed, mouth open, in a full-throated shout of triumph.
You can hear this picture.
Someone snapped the photo after he and his team had won a hard-fought competition, on a hot day, during a long summer, in the year 2020. Of the thousand images I have of Luke, this one has risen to the top. There’s just something about it. It encapsulates his fighting spirit, his 100%-ness, and the thrill of sharing that esprit de corps, of being part of a team that pushed and struggled and fought to the very end, coming out victorious.
Seven days ago, we laid Luke’s body to rest in a grave at the USNA. As I stared at the wooden coffin that cradled the mortal remains of our son, it was this picture that hovered at the forefront of my mind.
Why? Because I know, one day, that same roar of triumph, those same upraised arms of victory, that same spirit of unity and life shared by those around him will glow from the face and body of Luke as he stands beside his empty, expired grave.
Every Last Vestige of Denial
Thirty-three days passed between the death of Luke, during a hiking accident in Chile, and his funeral and burial at the USNA. Those days felt like an eternity, and they felt like a fleeting moment. We floated on a shoreless sea of emotion, beaten by waves of tears, pounded by winds of anger, and sometimes we just collapsed, numb all over, in the doldrums of sheer despair.
It was hell.
Then the day came. Then the hour came. Then the moment, the dreadful moment, finally arrived. The door swung open at the funeral home and there lay my son, dressed immaculately in his white Navy uniform, hands folded, hair perfectly combed. I couldn’t move. I had to force my feet forward, inch by inch, like I was wading upstream through fast-moving water.
Every last vestige of denial fell clattering silently to the floor as I touched his body. Then I knew. I knew it was all terribly and inescapably true. My child, my son, my beloved boy, was dead.
Luke’s Last Gift to Give
The military knows how to honor their own who have departed this vale of tears. The chapel at the USNA was awash in the white uniforms of Luke’s fellow midshipmen. One of Luke’s closest friends, Midshipman Ollen Brown, spoke of our son’s fierce courage, relentless drive, and his selfless service to others. We joined our voices to fill the air with praises to the God of life. Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller boldly proclaimed the Good News of salvation and forgiveness in Jesus Christ, Luke’s God and Lord.
A chaplain told me afterward that it struck him that Luke had had one last gift to give to the Navy: that the Gospel was preached to all those at his funeral.
What a gift to give.
The road from the chapel to the cemetery was lined on both sides by midshipmen, shoulder to shoulder, backs erect, arms upraised in salute, tears streaming from many of their faces. A marching band led the hearse and we, his family and friends, walked behind it, with solemn resignation, to Luke’s final resting place.
There were the Marines who bore his coffin.
There was the 21-gun salute.
There was the chilling sound of Taps.
And there, in a coffin emblazoned with the saving cross of Jesus, was Luke’s body. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Life to death in a span of only twenty-one years, eight months, twenty-six days.
Not Goodbye But We’ll See You Soon
The morning after his funeral, my wife and I retraced our steps from the day before. We walked through the beautiful campus. By the chapel. To the cemetery. The coffin was now beneath the ground. Earth now swaddled Luke’s remains. And squares of green grass lay where tears had fallen not twenty-four hours before.
There I knelt. I stared up at the sky for a few moments. And despite the emptiness that filled my heart, I managed a few words. I looked into my wife’s face and said, “We will see him again. We will see Luke again.”
For we shall. As certain as spring follows winter, as certain as grass sprouts from the soil, as certain as the Savior Jesus stepped triumphantly alive again from his grave, even so certain is the resurrection of the body and life of the world to come.
We did not say “Goodbye” to our son on the day of his burial.
We said, “Luke, we’ll see you soon.”
Waiting for the Harvest
Our Christian cemeteries are sacred fields in which we sow the bodies of our loved ones. The church is a farmer. We do not sow wheat or barley or corn; we plant bodies in the earth. And, like all farmers, we wait for the harvest. When it will come, we do not know. But come it shall—this year, next year, a thousand years hence. Who knows? The Lord of the harvest knows.
On that day, like champagne corks, gravestones will pop from the earth. The soil will split, coffins burst open. Luke’s grave will have reached its expiration date, as will all our graves, wherever they may be.
The trumpet will sound. Jesus will descend. And with upraised arms of victory, full-throated shouts of Hallelujah, and bodies radiant with the immortal life of the resurrected Jesus, we shall stand, an innumerable company of the redeemed.
Until that glorious day, we wait in faith, hope, and love. And as we do, limping down this dark and forlorn pathway of grief, we cling to the truth uttered by the mouth of the Lord in whom we believe, and with whom Luke now rests in peace: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
Indeed, Jesus, yes, you are.
Come quickly, O Lord, we are waiting.
Photo Credit: Will McKay (USNA 2023). Used with Permission.