Grief, especially the loss of a parent, can be an odd and disconcerting experience. It is like stepping into a funhouse hall of mirrors, or struggling to gain footing on the slippery, pitching deck of a ship.
Grief startles thoughts out of dusty corners to spin like dust motes in a dim sunbeam. It bends the heart first one way and then another, emotions strung on a taffy puller. It alternates between tasting like sweetness and choking like ashes.
Second-parent grief weights the heart with a sort of orphan’s burden – part loneliness, part confusion, part searching. There’s a dawning awareness that there is no longer anyone above you on the family tree. It fundamentally changes the journey.
It is not a journey to be taken alone.
My father went Home to be with Jesus last week. In the hours after I posted the news, calls, text messages, Facebook posts and Twitter direct messages flooded my phone. The immediacy of social media came alive with fresh power.
Scrolling through those messages was like putting my life story in a blender. Family, friends from childhood, people from every church we have served in four states across the past three decades, colleagues in ministry. The scope of people who made the effort to respond to the news was staggering and touching.
Then came the visits at the funeral home. Some were people who had been my parent’s friends for a half-century or more, people from our home church who held me when I came to the church for the first time as a new born. Others were friends and teachers from high school, members of our church youth group, co-workers with mom or dad. A bus-load of folks from our Highland faith-family made the three-hour trip to western Kentucky. Memories and “Leo stories” were shared, laughter rang, tears fell, conversations lingered.
Here’s what I discovered in those hours. There is a beautiful mercy (or maybe a merciful beauty) to the companionship of long friendships. And overlapping that is the Spirit-fueled kindness of the church, the faith-family of Jesus’ people.
I was embraced in a web of Jesus’ compassion.
What happens there?
-sorrow is shared.
-mercy is enfleshed.
-love is expressed.
-friendships are renewed.
-comfort is given.
-help is offered.
-perspective is gained.
-memories are recounted.
-legacy comes alive.
-balance is restored
-prayers are offered.
-weariness is overcome.
-burdens are lifted.
-healing is applied.
-hope is kindled.
-grief is relieved.
It is a wonderful place to be.
Of course, all those things are gifts from Jesus. But they come through people, an incarnation moment. It is the body of Christ who will “weep with those who weep.” (Rom 12:15)
And I am profoundly grateful for the sweet friends, and the brothers and sisters in Jesus’ forever family into whose embrace I have fallen in these days.
What about you? When have you been caught by the web of compassion with Jesus’ faith family in a dark or painful moment?
My dad had a major heart attack last Monday morning. It severely damaged his heart muscle, so that it is now pumping at only ten percent effectiveness. That put dad into congestive heart failure, struggling to breathe against the suffocating fluid in his lungs.
There are no surgical options, so the prognosis is not good. This could be classified as a terminal condition.
Communicating with dad about the various aspects of his condition is made more difficult by the dementia he has been battling for the past several years. There are moments that remind me of when we used to tune in a television signal with a rabbit ears antenna. A snatch of clarity followed by a stretches of fuzziness. Repeat.
Dad’s been sleeping a lot, and even when he’s not, his eyes are closed. Every so often, he would start talking. At first, I thought he was talking in his sleep, or mumbling in imagined conversations. But then, I realized he was praying.
The prayer was one he had obviously prayed many times before. Dad is of that generation that was brought up with and comfortable praying in King James English. His prayers are peppered with “Thee”, “Thou” and “Thy”.
Most of the time, Dad was praying for our family, by name. Now, we have a very small family, so it doesn’t take long. He named me and my brother, our wives, my son (his only grandchild), his brother-in-law and wife and their three sons, his other two nephews.
“Bless them and keep us all near to Thy heart.”
It’s a remarkable and precious thing to overhear your dad praying for you.
Dad expressed gratitude for blessings. He asked forgiveness for “where I have sinned and fallen short in so many ways.”
He prayed blessing for some folks with whom there had once been a ruptured relationship. He lifted up his friends at the assisted living facility where he has lived for the past three years. Dad prayed for the doctors and nurses caring for him.
One afternoon about three days in, the gravity of his heart attack and of his health prospects came clear to Dad’s mind. Within minutes, he prayed,
“Lord, I know you can still do miracles. You are able, so I’m asking Thee for a miracle. Please fix my heart.”
As the week went on, it became apparent that Dad wasn’t improving. His heart rate has remained sketchy. His breath is labored. The end of his journey is surely within sight.
And Dad is still teaching me lessons. He’s reminding me that “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks”. That what I pray at the end of my life will most likely reflect what I have prayed over the course of my life. That the faith that accompanies the end of my journey will be the overflow of the faith I have stored in my soul at every step along the way.
What faith values are on my Dad’s lips?
-Relationships with the people you love are what lasts—and what matters.
-Divine blessing never fades, and so gratitude to God never ceases.
-Somebody you know needs you to carry them before God’s throne.
-Mercy for sin is still necessary—and available.
-Forgiveness cleanses the soul—and lightens the heart
-There will always be something big to believe God for.
Come to think of it, that’s a great plan for values to mark our lives as well as to be on our lips. Live it now and it will shape you all the way Home.
Writing has been a part of my life and ministry for as long as I can remember, so I have really missed it. I have missed the joy of creativity: responding to the tiny inner voice that whispers, “write about this”, thinking through to the one tiny bud that has the potential to blossom, spinning words into sentences and paragraphs, polishing the sense and flow, and finally sharing it with others.
For me, writing takes time, along with inner space and quiet. And this summer found me in a season in which the cupboard was bare of all three. There were external reasons—summer ministry busyness at the church, continuing care for my dad and other daily demands on limited time.
But even more, there was just a jangling noisiness in my soul that led to a draining weariness. To put it another way, my heart was in a drought, cracked soil under a merciless sun. It was tipping me towards cynicism rather than faith, anger rather than edification, fatalism rather than hope, isolation rather than communication. For the first time, the blog felt like a snarling, accusing taskmaster to avoid, rather than a friend with whom you share a favorite song.
And so, it was better to simply walk away and be quiet for awhile.
Time, space and quiet (and mostly lots of rest and the Word of God) have done their restoring work. The springs of creativity have begun to thaw and flow a bit. My soul is in a sweeter place; the gospel is clearing the space. I want to share and engage again.
This is the Lord’s good work of mercy:
“When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them; I the God if Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights and fountains in the midst of the valleys. I will make the wilderness a pool of water and the dry land springs of water….that they may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.” (Is. 41:17-20)
So, I’m back with these observations about “life at the intersection of grace and now”. My goal is 2-3 posts a week – Monday, Wednesday and sometime over the weekend.
I hope you’ll join me in the conversation. Come ponder the gospel and life with me. I’m adding a question at the end of most posts that will hopefully spur your thoughts, so jump on in. Your perspective is an important part of the journey we share together.
Have you ever experienced a dry time in your soul where you needed to withdraw for a season? What helped the springs begin to flow in you again?
Five years ago this past August, my mom went to be with Jesus. About 3 years later, it became apparent that my dad could no longer take care of the house on his own. He could no longer drive, and needed more watchful care than my brother and I could provide (we both live away from our hometown), so we moved him into a lovely assisted living apartment.
The family home on Windsor Avenue that we shared for 45 years sat empty, mostly dark and silent.
Well, not entirely empty. It still held the vast majority of mom and dad’s earthly possessions. And not entirely silent, for the walls breathe with echoes of numberless conversations, laughter, tears, dog barks, James Taylor records and piano hymns.
Now, it’s well known that houses need people in them to live. Left to themselves, houses tend to slowly fold in on themselves, like a day lily when the sun’s rays fade into dusk. So, it was determined that to preserve the value, we would move towards auctioning the contents and selling the house.
That decision set us on the fascinating journey of working through every item in the house. Well, of course, you say, you want to identify the valuable items, set aside the things that have sentimental or family importance, give away clothes and shoes to charity, and throw away some ordinary stuff that collects when you stay in one house for almost five decades. That’s what anybody would do.
But there’s something you need to understand. My parents were collectors. Their hobby was antiquing. They would get on a roll with a particular item and collect dozens of versions of it. There were collections of whisk brooms, pottery crocks, tiny books, tea pots, model cars, teddy bears, hat boxes, old tools, important editions of the old Look magazine, and more.
In addition to the collections, my parents rarely threw anything away. Children of the Depression, both dealt with challenging family situations in childhood, so there was a lot of saving stuff because “you never know when you might need that.” It was a sort of security blanket, I suppose.
Beyond that, mom and dad seemingly saved at least one of everything else, too. Obviously, there were a lot of papers – bank statements, warranties, church bulletins, and etc. But the most fascinating aspect was seeing what they saved from the time my brother and I grew up in that home.
We were stunned to discover that the old home on Windsor Avenue was virtually a museum of our lives. Tucked into nearly every drawer, in the utility room and the outbuilding, in boxes under beds, and in shadowed corners of the attic we discovered carefully preserved artifacts of our lives.
+ that every letter, card or note we had ever sent them had been kept. Letters from college (before there was e-mail); cards for Christmas, Mother’s and Father’s Day, anniversaries; even tiny Valentines “to mommy and daddy” with my childish, backward “D” crayon signature. All saved.
+ pictures from our weddings, along with embossed invitations, imprinted paper napkins and worship orders, and the newspaper notices.
+ more pictures and announcements about the birth of their grandson.
+ college interest information, acceptance letters, receipts for the deposit for dorm keys, papers we prepared and blue books from college exams.
+ records (45’s), albums and 8-tracks that charted our musical world in middle and high school: Chicago, Bread, Grand Funk Railroad, Carpenters, Boston (yeah, we were always real rockers)
+ the posters that were on our walls – skydivers with an American flag, a signed Chuck Mangione concert poster, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and more.
+ programs from all the band and chorus concerts or contests we were in, plus band pictures in the red British guard uniforms with those goofy tall, black Shako hats.
+ high school research papers we did (including the 3×5 research note cards), essays and poems we wrote, projects we completed (like an arrowhead display or Ft. Boonesborough constructed from popsicle sticks) –even both our 4th grade leaf collections—still preserved in plastic and somewhat green.
+ every report card, progress (or not) notice and teacher’s note from all 12 years of school—for both of us.
+ a box with all the papers I brought home in first grade, showing those first attempts at forming letters with a fat pencil.
+ souvenirs from vacations or that dad brought back from business trips— a cup from Opryland, a replica of the Space Needle in Seattle, shells from the beach, ticket stubs from Mt. Vernon and the White House tour.
+ car models we made, Cub Scout Pinewood Derby cars we carved from a block of wood, and really bad attempts at pottery.
+ books, books and more books. Hardback Hardy Boys, easy reader editions from Scholastic books fairs, Golden Books, Dr. Seuss classics like “Green Eggs & Ham” , picture books and cloth books (including “My First Book”) that showed tell-tale signs of slobber and teeth marks.
+ church memories like Vacation Bible School certificates, Royal Ambassador pins, Sunday School pages we had cut and pasted, colored or scribbled with snippets of Bible verses.
+ my baptism certificate and a letter from my childhood pastor on the occasion of my conversion .
+ games like Toss Across or a mini bumper-pool table, and toys we played with like our Hot Wheels cars and track, GI Joes, my fireman’s helmet with siren, etc. (pretty much every Christmas morning from age 5 through elementary school could have been reenacted in our attic)
+ our blocks, Lincoln Logs, erector sets and boxes of Legos.
+ the red wagon we pulled, Playskool toys of every shape and description.
+ the potty seat we both used, our high chair and crib.
Late one night a couple of months ago, I reached the last closet. On the floor in the corner of the closet was a box. The final item in the bottom of the box was a photo album. These carefully mounted photos I had never seen. They were photos of my mom and dad, young and vibrant a half-century ago…bringing me home from the hospital.
It was the perfect end to the journey.
Did you notice that that the further we explored the younger we got? It was, in many ways, like excavating my own life. Carefully removing layer after layer, walking back through the years — discovering, remembering, wondering. Every item triggered a memory, a reliving of a moment in time. Sometimes there was laughter, sometimes tears, always astonishment that these things had survived the years.
At first, it felt weird and eccentric. I mean, really, who saves all this stuff?
Then, it began to feel like a long-distance embrace from my parents. Their saving of these things was, in some way, an expression of their deep love and pride in my brother and me. Neither was good with words spoken face-to-face. Yet, this told us what they treasured, and in some small way, it was…us.
But now, I ponder how the boy in those black-and-white pictures, who played with those toys on “Christmas Story” mornings; who read those books and listened to those songs; who had those experiences of ignorance & learning, success & failure, pleasure & disappointment, connection & loneliness, faith & doubt; who walked the journey in the world that those things chronicle, turned out to be me. Every single piece is in the “me” who has arrived on this day.
It’s tempting to psychologize these diggings in my past. And I suppose there is a certain wisdom in considering how these layers of life experience built me. However, I quickly realize that’s just too big and complicated for me to figure out.
So, I rest in this: the little baby me in my dad’s arms in that last picture had been set alive by the Creator who “formed my inward parts…[and] knitted me together in my mother’s womb” so that “I am fearfully and wonderfully made. My frame was not hidden from You when I was being made in secret….Your eyes saw my unformed substance; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Ps.139:13-16)
Excavating my life takes me far beyond “the house that built me”. It takes me to heaven itself, to God, the King of everything. Even more amazing, this same God “loved me with an everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3), pursued me in mercy so that I might trust Christ and have “redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished on us” (Eph. 1:7-8), and adopted me as His very own child, so that my Creator becomes my heavenly Father. He alone redeems the mess of my past, assures that He will “fulfill His purpose for me” (Ps. 138:8), accompanies my days with His “goodness and mercy” and promises that I will “live in the house of the Lord forever.” (Ps.23:6)
Digging deep means I keep looking up.
I look up with gratitude to God for my parents and their love — for a safe, supportive, and relatively happy childhood. I look up with astonishment at how my heavenly Father’s joy has come to me in the most simple things across the years. I look up with glad wonder that my whole story is grounded in God’s steadfast love, and that every line is entwined with His amazing grace.
In other words, excavating your own life can reveal the treasure of what has been there all along.
You don’t have to be afraid of what’s under surface.
No matter what you uncover, the Mercy is always, always more.
I still have wide-lined, fat pencil versions of 2nd-grade haiku. I got Big Chief writing tablets for one Christmas gift and a thesaurus (which I still use) for another one. Journalimg has been part of my devotional life for about 30 years. When I began pastoral ministry, writing brief essays and articles for newsletters became a key means of fulfilling my call to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” and to make disciples of Jesus.
For me, writing has always been a labor of love. I love choosing just the right words and phrases, painting pictures so the reader can come with me to feel, touch, taste, see, hear a moment or engage a truth. Most of the time, I try to find the small sliver of grace and gospel tucked into an everyday moment.
And it is, in many ways, a labor. Prayer, thought and yes, pondering, give birth to creative expressions. And on the other side, there is joy in what results, for me, and hopefully for somebody who reads along.
So, if it is such a joy and a love, why have I been so inconsistent with posts here in recent months? Well, to put it mildly, life has gotten in the way. In recent months, my wife fell and broke her back and was essentially bed-ridden for almost three months. My dad continues to wrestle with some stage of dementia, and since he lives a few hours away, I’m on the road a lot to take care of his needs. We’re also nearing the end of an 18-month process of preparing my parents’ homeplace and contents for auction. And like any pastor, like Paul I can say “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the [church]. ” (2 Cor. 11:28)
I’m not complaining, just describing. God has been good, sustaining and utterly sufficient. But many times, when I want to write, I find my soul is just weary or drained. Creativity, for me at least, requires at least a measure of soul space, and there has been a lot of clutter there.
So, I’m sorry for the inconsistency of new posts here. I’d ask you who pray to to pray for me– mostly for love to serve well to those I love, for soul-space and a refreshing of my creative heart.
I still love to write, and I hope to do more of it soon.