When Grief and Easter Collide

easter pic 3

I shared the news of my father’s death with you three weeks ago.

My 95-year-old Dad’s health began to change rather quickly right after Christmas. We did our best to navigate through the ups-and-downs, and we put our heads together and we figured-out what to do every time life threw us another curve.  But three weeks ago, right in the middle of Lent, everything took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse and my father died. I shared my tribute with you on the next day: “When Your Dad Dies”

The days that followed my Dad’s death were both busy and numbing. We needed to call the funeral home and give them some time to prepare my Dad’s body for the visitation. My sisters and I hosted a short visitation three days after our father died; and then, we had a short service, and a private burial on a cold and bitter afternoon. My Dad’s body was lowered into the ground right after I performed a short committal at the cemetery; and, right after that, my family and I faced what I’d call a “pregnant moment.” There’s that “pregnant moment” of silence when you’re standing at the edge of a grave and you realize that there’s nothing else that you can do. And, as much as you’d like to stay there a little longer, you know in your heart that it’s time to walk away. And then, you hop into your car and just drive….

One of the things that I’ve learned through all of this is that when people that we love fall into a raging river there’s not a whole lot that we can do. And so,  I returned to work and  continued to prepare for Easter. I wrote a short sermon about love for Maundy Thursday. I prepared a short series of meditations focused upon the “Stations of the Cross” for Good Friday and used those meditations to share some things I have learned about care-giving, compassion, forgiveness, and facing the moment of a loved-one’s death as I’ve shared my Dad’s final journey with him. But, I was still left in that “pregnant moment” where we all find ourselves right after we bury someone that we’ve loved and need to walk away. And then, right in the middle of Holy Week, it hit me….

This year’s Easter message, “When Grief and Easter Collide”, moves to the very core of hope in the Sacred Story that we share. Shortly after Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the very people who had shouted “Hosanna!” decided that He needed to die. In just a few short days, a man who appeared to be doing quite well was arrested and was put on trial. A man, who appeared to be doing quite well just a few days earlier, was swept into a raging river that led to a savage beating, crucifixion, and bloody death. And then, just a short time after Jesus died, His body was removed from the Cross and it was prepared for burial. The opening of the cold, dark Tomb was sealed as Jesus’ family and closest friends stood there in silence. And then they (just like myself and other members of my Dad’s remaining family) needed to walk away.

But, the Sacred Story tells us that the “pregnant moment” that occurs after someone is sealed in a grave isn’t the end. The women returned to the Tomb and discovered that the stone has been rolled away. A man dressed in dazzling white told them that Jesus – who once was dead – had been raised to new life. And in that moment, the Sacred Story takes us to that critical moment in life when faith and harsh realities collide. The Sacred Story is one that speaks a word of hope and peace “When Grief and Easter Collide.”

My journey from the sadness of Good Friday to the joyous celebration of Easter this year has, once again, reminded me that God takes care of us no matter what we face in life or in death. The Sacred Story has taught me that, sometimes, we need to slow down because God’s power can be experienced in new ways during pregnant moments filled with pain and loneliness. The Sacred Story that tells us about a glorious Day when God will wipe every tear from our eyes drew me to a place – to the Church – where people supported me and surrounded me and sang songs of great hope and faith that I’m not ready to sing yet. The Sacred Story drew me to a place – to the gathering of God’s faithful people – where I was reminded that I’m going to see my Dad again – in a place where we’re not going to have to worry about life throwing us curves, and in a place where we’ll finally find the peace and rest that we crave.

Easter is a special moment in time when life and eternity collide. Easter is a glorious day when we remember that when the raging waters of life sweep people that we love away from us, it’s not the end of the story!

Christ is risen! An empty Tomb bears witness to the fact that our tombs – and the tombs of the people that we love and have loved – will be empty someday, too. “When Grief and Easter Collide”, death and decay are swallowed-up in the victory of Christ!

The Great Liturgy of my brothers and sisters in the Orthodox tradition announces:

“Tonight, Hell groans: ‘My power has vanished. I received One who died as mortals die, but I could not hold Him. With Him and through Him, I lost those over which I ruled. I had held control over the dead since the world began; and lo, He raises them all up with Him to shine in glory.”

Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

 

When Your Dad Dies

Dad Picture

My dad died at the ripe old age of 95 this week.

My dad taught me how to throw a football and he was the first man that I called a hero. He was a veteran of World War II and he always referred to that war as “the one we won.” My dad was a man who loved his family and he was a man who devoted years of his life to helping children who were crippled or badly burned through his tireless devotion to the Shriner’s hospitals. He was a Christian who stood beside me on Sunday mornings to guide me through the worship service—never imagining that he was raising a future pastor. My dad taught me some of the great truths of life and he was a man of his word who often told me, “If I tell you that the sun isn’t going to rise tomorrow morning, you better take a flashlight to bed with you.”

But, my dad was far from perfect.

He taught me that parents do the best that they can when they’re raising their kids; and, sometimes, they make mistakes because kids don’t come with a set of directions. He taught me that, sometimes, parents need to work when their kids want them to be doing something else and that parents sometimes live to regret that. My dad taught me that people are like porcupines; and that they, sometimes, stick each other when they get too close to each other. But through it all, my dad also taught me that relationships are the most important part of life and that we need to be true to our word even when circumstances change, and when it would be easy to justify breaking a promise.

My dad also taught me some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about life in his last few years.

He taught me to live my life well because even 95 years pass quickly. He taught me that years pass in a flash and that I need to spend time with the people that I love because none of us knows whether tomorrow is even on the calendar. He taught me, many times, that the richest moments in life are lived during the interruptions that we experience at inconvenient times. A war story can be shared in a doctor’s office. A childhood memory can be shared during a trip to the hospital. A word of thanks and appreciation can melt your heart when you’re ready to spit bullets because your daily routine was interrupted again. My dad taught me that you’re never too old to enjoy cake—to share a beer with your son—or to eat half of a pizza.

It’s hard to journey with your dad when you know that the end is near.

I was always humbled by the fact that my dad trusted me to handle his finances and to make medical decisions for him when he no longer understood what was happening to him. My dad and I walked together through thick and thin; and, when life threw us a curve, we did the best that we could to handle it. My dad was blessed by some of the greatest doctors and nurses that I’ve ever met—people who never grew weary as I continued to ask them long lists of questions that I had about the words they used and the procedures they recommended—and those doctors and nurses taught me how important it is to trust in the gifts and expertise that other people have . My dad was truly blessed by the staff and nurses at the assisted living home where he spent the last years of his life—primarily because he didn’t know enough about cooking to boil an egg. And perhaps most of all, my dad demonstrated the importance of friendships as he enjoyed the relationship that he shared with the fine, young couple who lived beside him while he was still living at home and as he developed a close friendship with a dear man that he met in his early 90’s.

The end is never easy, but it always comes.

My dad reminded me once again, in the last few hours of his life, that the moment of death is one of the most holy moments in life. I still remember holding my mom’s hand and saying, “We love you”—knowing that those were the very last words that she would hear as she slipped into eternity. God draws near to us at the moment of death. I picture the moment of death as a sacred and God-filled space where we hold one hand of the person that we love, and God holds the other. It’s an incredibly intimate moment with God. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the sacred moment of death is the time when we’re the closest to God. It’s all about trust and hope. It’s all about knowing that God is in control of everything. And then, in a holy moment, we open our hands and we release the one that we love. And Christ whispers into our ear, “I am the resurrection and the life and those who believe in me will live even though they die.” And then, there’s silence. It is finished and the person that we have loved and cherished is left in the hands of God. My dad is in the hands of God and I can know that, even as I write these words, all is well.

And now, another journey begins.

Healing takes a long time. I deleted my dad’s telephone number from the contact list in my cellphone tonight because I know that if I call that number nobody will answer. I received a few cards from some people who want me to know that they care about me. I needed to work in the office today because I need to have a sermon prepared for the weekend. The silence is deafening. I sense that a chapter of my life has ended and that things will never again be what they once were. But I know that God is with me because my dad told me the story of Jesus and helped me to grow up to be a man of faith. I know that God is going to surround me with people at the church that I serve as a pastor–people who will sings songs on Easter that I’m not ready to sing yet. God has blessed me with a wonderful wife—a woman who is truly “bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” All is well.

My dad taught me how to throw a football and he was the first man that I called a hero. He was a veteran of World War II and he always referred to that war as “the one we won.” But my dad was also a man of faith who taught me that, no matter what we face in life or in death, God is going to be with us and God will raise us up. And that’s how I know that my dad’s OK tonight and that I’m going to be OK, too.