Thinking Death, Suicide, Life

marcusaurelius1-2x

Imaging myself climbing into the casket and being buried with it was the last thing I had ever conceived. But there it was, the casket, my lifeless father, and suddenly an intimate closeness with death. After all, my father had just experienced death, how hard could it be? How bad could it be? Is it easier to die than to live? What did it feel like? What was his final thought? Did it hurt? Where was he now? Have you ever felt so much pain that you can’t scream loud enough, wail long enough, or shed enough tears to give purpose and sense to the rage of sudden loss? I never knew sudden loss before but I now know I hate it. I hate what it is, what it does, and its unshakable results!

The canopy of the sky caved in and the earth swallowed me whole. Surely anything must be better than feeling as if the entire world had just imploded; the once sturdy structure of certainty interrupted by the true fragility of human existence. Sitting in a room while people come and gaze at the corpse of your father, paying respects but confirming hell, makes one question their existence. Nothing has made me want to throw my strength to the wind quite like death and death has literally stolen most of my strength.

All my striving, all my love, all my work, all my energy, will one day find itself in the same situation: lifeless, cold, alone, and buried.

God that’s a depressing thought but its also the human condition.

Three days earlier I could not even pick out the casket, and today, I can imagine getting in it myself and having loved ones stand 4 feet above me on the earth that covers me. When I go to the cemetery to visit my father I no longer simply pay respects, but I also speak to the ground near him, the ground that will one day hold my lifeless body, and I wonder what sort of earth this is that will only be moved when I move my last, staring at the space in which I will lie much longer than I have lived.

Speaking of death, I had always wondered how a person could commit suicide, how depressed, lost, lonely or mentally jaded one must be to perform the ultimate act. I have often thought to myself that I could never kill myself no matter how bad life got, yet life is full of seasons and seasons bring forth change in people that what was once unimaginable becomes imagined.

Many suicides are done in the dark days of melancholy or in moments of utter despair. As a society we have accepted that depression leads to suicide and many secular thinkers even argue for the virtue of self-annihilation (I am not begrudging anyone who has been tempted with suicide for a myriad of reasons, from bullying, to sexuality, to mental disease). I begrudge no suicidal for doing the deed, but I can’t help but believe some people, for whatever reason, have become comfortable with death and have thought through what killing themselves would mean.

History is full of melancholic or depressive suicides, but it is also full of suicides that happen by fully cognizant folks. Comfort with death doesn’t happen in a moment, but it happens. There are moments of lucidity wherein someone decided this act, this final act, was friendlier to their being than being a person could be any longer. Surely not every single suicide that happens is the act of malady, madness or despair (though surely one that decides to finally kill themselves is steeped in despair). There must be someone out there for which suicide was a logical alternative to living. It may not make sense to many, but it made sense to that person, at that moment.

When my father died I think I slowly saw behind the curtain of suicide, what makes it possible.

Suicide becomes imaginable when staying is more difficult than dying, when the idea of death becomes more comforting than the idea of living, and death has the allure of a comfort life refuses us. What had once been a distant association was now close and personal, inviting and strangely warm. If one can imagine their own dying, their own nullification and non-existence, then one is 1 step closer to the reality. All that is left is the act. People who Stay alive do so because they can imagine no other, but those that peer into the darkness of life can sometimes find in death a friend that will never leave; it will hold them forever. If we can imagine it we are that much closer to doing it.

Not that my father’s death tempted me with suicide, BUT it did make suicide imaginable and imagination is the first step to actualization. I had never imagined it as a possibility, not even remotely, but there is nothing that makes death seem friendlier than having someone you love so deeply enter its corridor and not return. There is nothing that makes death seem closer than one’s invitation into its foyer, peering around its house without entering any of the rooms…all of which are only a few feet (or heartbeats) away.

I had never imagined dying or what it must be like to die. I never had to. I had never met death in any significant way. I had lost grandparents, cousins, people I loved, but I had never had death impolitely intrude into my life, not asking permission, just shoving its way in the door and turning me into an instantaneous nihilist. Sometimes imagination happens without our approval…

And this, THIS, is the problem with death: it is itself. It ends. It forces a new reality onto us.

This has been the biggest challenge in grief: finding meaning after coming face to face with that which crushes all meaning, and eventually crushes all of us and our attempts at meaning. Death is so stark, so deep, so dark. It is so intrusive when it isn’t welcome that it has the power to place meaning in its hand and crumble it like a Ritz cracker: what constituted the whole becomes bits and pieces of something now unrecognizable.

It is just pure shock: that one moment you can love someone so deeply and the next moment they can be gone without a goodbye, not only leaving you behind, but everything they loved and enjoyed remains, remnants of their life. I stared at me, at the stuff he left behind, at my dead father.

It reminded me of what Jesus says in Luke 12, “You fool! This very night your soul will be required of you and now who will own what you have prepared?”

Nothing matters if all that matters quits mattering. In an instant, your loves and your hobbies become pointless distractions of our ultimate end: death. Work becomes something to do till you die. Eating becomes something you do to stay alive, the opposite of death, but its meaning is found in its juxtaposition.

Death becomes animative and omnipresent, a day not going by without considering your own demise. How tiring to constantly be aware that you will die, to think this thought tens of times through the day, and to hate that this thought is not only a thought but a future reality.

To live, then, is to contemplate death. To face it, be aware of it, live with it. One is not truly living if their life is one not comprehending death. To live absent the comprehension of death is to be caught up in frivolities and to be angered by the waitress that brings you a Coke, when you wanted Sprite! What foolish things upset us and portend to be our ultimate concern.

Much of life melts away at the face of death and certainly most of what people bitch about pale in comparison to the unimagined tragedy of the death of their spouse, their parent, their child, themselves. These are things that cannot be imagined; they can only happen. I pity the fool whose last act on earth was getting pissed off at a cashier, acting a fool and throwing their cheeseburger over the counter, only to storm out of the restaurant and be killed in a car accident.

Who wants to be that guy? How foolish!

Surely this has happened to someone and their final act on earth was bitching about the first world problems of no mayo, add mustard.

Thinking death makes you rethink everything else because everything else is now done in the context of when you will die…and honestly, that kinda sucks.

Imagine being aware, constantly, that every breath your take, every heartbeat you experience, brings you closer to your last. Imagine how omnipresent those feelings are and imagine the life you would live if you really believed this was the case.

Before I lived through death I too had participated in stupid conversations and complaints about life. Facebook rants, complaints about others, complaints about the weather, complaints of homework, complaints of work, complaints ad infinitum. Now, when I hear someone complain or bitch about something, I often think “seriously, does this person not know life is fleeting? We are complaining, essentially, about being alive…” I can no longer take much human dialogue seriously because too many humans do not consider the fact that they are alive seriously.

Sure, lets complain how hot it is, in the summer, in July.

Would you prefer the alternative of being dead and not feeling the heat?

Sure, lets complain about our spouse or our kids or our job.

Would you prefer the alternative of being dead and having none of these worries? Can you not be thankful that you are alive and able to experience life?!? As Camus says, there is no replacement for 20 years of life!

Sure, lets complain about Donald Trump or Socialists.

Would you rather be dead and have no concern of either? Do you want your final act in life to be a Facebook post, politically ranting, only to find your car wrapped around a tree? Was it worth the rage?

Can we not be thankful we are alive and find meaning in living rather than locating meaning in what we are against or dislike??

A question that often animates my actions now is “if this were the last act of my life would I act in this way?” or “if this were the last post I made on social media would I post this?” or “If these are the last words I spoke, last time I saw this person, would I say/be this way”

It is living toward death because whether we like it or not we are.

Death is a nearby attendant, one that shuffles its feet behind us as we stroll about through life oblivious to its caring arms waiting to catch us when we fall out of life. Yet the irony is that unless we can hear the shuffling of its feet and feel the breeze of its cloak brush up against our beings, we are doomed to be stuck in the eternal now and living like it is an eternal present… a condition that is much worse than death or suicide because it is a condition that could not ponder either because it is not even aware of its own life.

This is the magic of death: it can make everything you think matters cease to matter instantaneously. I cannot describe it. I cannot help you see it. This can only be experienced…but it is real.

There is at least one thing the resurrection stories of Jesus teach us: one cannot find life if one has not found their death.

Alterations of Death

The image of a blanket, woven with various patches, filled with stitching, and mended with quilting, is not one uncommon when we describe our human experience. Often have writers invoked the image of a patchwork quilt to describe the many pieces that constitute our lives.

Many of us have quilts made by mothers, or grandmothers, to which our mind immediately races when this image is invoked. We may even go to our closet, pull out those quilts, and gently pass our hands across the patches, the stitches, and the signature where our loved one’s hands had once been. Even as they made this quilt, and this quilt is a thing itself, it is not hard to imagine that that quilt can be an analogy for our lives: we are all nothing more, or less, than pieces of a whole that has been placed together by the relationships in our lives.

We are a whole quilt, but we are not whole without the many parts that make us who we are.

Any quilt, however, no matter how well made or how many times stitched, will eventually become worn if it is used. Quilts can remain pristine if we keep them in a closet and never use them, but the quilts that are used will eventually need to be repaired; they will need to be altered.

But what happens when our quilt is altered without being worn out, when something happens that rips the quilt into 2 pieces or pulls the stitching out and destroys two patches? What happens when the quilt cannot be turned back into what it once was and it has now become something that cannot be repaired? It just can’t. It has become something else.

This is what death does. Death alters the quilt and it alters it to such a degree that this quilt cannot be fixed. It turns the story of your life into another story even as it is the extension of the same story.

Some will come by and say that “the quilt gets easier to use” and that “missing piece will one day be a spot for a new piece” but all of that is crap. The quilt doesn’t get easier to use with time and it never becomes what it once was. Even if you try to repair it it can never get back to its originary state. It can be functional but even in that function it’s destruction is clear.

But why? Why can’t we repair the quilt and move on?

Because using the quilt forces one to continue looking at what it isn’t. If the quilt is in fact your life then being alive is a reminder of the part of the story that has taken an unexpected, and unnatural, turn for something that is not part of this quilt you’ve been unintentionally weaving.

Death alters our quilt; it alters us. The only way it doesn’t is if a.) that part of your quilt didn’t mean much and hence finding a new piece to fit into the torn spot isn’t too difficult or b.) we sedate ourselves from our own materiality with the allure of not death (I”ll fly away O Glory). Response “A” means that that part of your story was not consequential and response “B” means that perhaps we have not rested with death long enough to realize what it is: Death…the cessation of that which makes us alive.

It is hard to describe how death alters a person or changes our quilts beyond repair. All deaths are not equal.

I am not special. Many people have had death visit them through their family. In my immediate family, I have lost a cousin at 19, all of my grandparents have died within the last decade (I lost my first grandmother exactly 10 years ago this week), and I have experienced the untimely and sudden loss of my 65-year-old father. Going through the death of my cousin, and grandparents, did not prepare me for losing my dad; not even close.

All deaths are not equal but that does not mean we do not love all those that die. We can love them and say goodbye to them. We can see their contributions to our quilt and come to a resolution that this part of the quilt is finished but it is not destroyed. Our quilts can stay intact. But sometimes death visits in such a way that your life literally changes after it happens. Sometimes the quilt is mangled beyond repair.

We have all been to funerals, paid our respects, left, and then went about our daily lives as if we had never attended the funeral. We have all been to funerals of grandparents we mourned, yet we understood that 89 years of age is an honest age and it is part of the human condition to live, and die, in time. We hate it but accepting it is not an impossibility. We go to the church for the funeral, have dinner, good conversation, and then go to our homes…business as usual.

This doesn’t mean we are bad people; it just means that there is a season for everything and when things happen in season it is easier to accept.

When it snows in January we are fine; it’s the snowstorm in July that shakes us up.

THEN, there is that death that after it happens your life literally changes. It is not the same afterward. You cannot go back to business as usual. It alters you, sometimes physically. It destroys the quilt and there is nothing that can fix that loss. That patch is not made anywhere else and even “moving on” or “recovering” or “getting better with time” does not make the quilt what it was. It’s just irreparable.

People who have never had a loss in what I call “out of time” have no idea what I’m talking about. I have experienced “in time” and “out of time” loss and the latter is torture in its immediacy. There is something especially tragic about premature, sudden, untimely death. In this kind of death, you have the benefit of not seeing your loved one suffer, but you carry the eternal burden of no final words, no more moments, no more embraces of love. As quickly as you blink that person is gone…without warning. Depending on how interconnected your life was will determine on how this moment presents itself to you.

The quilt changes; its not the same and taking advice from people who have never had their quilt destroyed beyond repair…or living in a culture that just replaces quilts…leaves no room for the real-life PTSD that can follow death.

Death, the kind of death you feel in your bones, alters you. The quilt is never the same and it is hard to describe if you’ve never lived through the kind of death that is only beginning once you put your loved one in the ground.

I said at my father’s funeral that his death would change history. Probably not world history, but my history, my family’s history. Like Back to the Future an alternative 2017 was created when my dad died, and we have been on that alternative timeline ever since. Unlike Back to the Future, I am unable to go back to that time in history and make it right.

When I consider the alternative history, it is shocking how much has changed even though so much has stayed the same. My quilt is jacked up but places I take it are still familiar.

What alterations have happened?

For starters, and sadly, it has now been long enough for my little girl to begin forgetting her grandad. My daughter is 2 and when my dad passed those 2 were just beginning to develop a relationship. Her personality was coming out and my dad always loved the babies. He loved how the babies would be captivated with him and reciprocate his childish demeanor. First it was my 3 boys, then my sister’s girls, and my little girl was next to be the apple of his eye. But now…he is a faded memory. For a few months after she would mention that “grandad was sleeping” because that is how I described him at the funeral home.

But now? She’ll see him in a picture and ask who he is. He died just 2 weeks after her 2nd birthday. Their relationship has been altered.

My boys were 11 and 9 when my dad died. They did a lot with him when they were younger. My dad loved his boys; they were, after all, the first grandkids and twins to boot. As they got older my dad would wrestle with them, take them four-wheeling, and toss them around in the pool. He would bring them home pizza, share his A&W Root Beer with them, and teach them Karate. Two of my oldest boys have autism so they did not always reciprocate affection to my dad as he would have liked but that’s not because they didn’t love him; it’s because they have autism and relate to people around them differently than the norm. My dad struggled to understand that as my boys got older.

Now? They have no grandparent to do that with and cannot learn to develop the kind of relationship with an active grandfather that would have been so pivotal for them.

In business, changes have been drastic. After getting a crash course in self-discovery of all the things my dad never showed me, I became chief executive officer. Don’t let the title fool you; it really means I just get to do more work. My sister and I split up the office work, but I believe I may have taken any stress on myself that my dad used to carry. My work weeks went from a standard 45 hours to 60. My focus went from strictly operations to wearing all the hats one needs when running a small business. I now find myself in the sort of job that will not get done even if I work 16 hours a day 7 days a week. When you own your own business there is always something to do and you bring work home with you every day. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t have to think about when he was here. Now…I get to be concerned with all of it.

As the CEO and CFO of our company, my dad was the gatekeeper. All of the family, and even employees, could come to him in confidence with any item. Now that privacy was over. What was once hidden became transparent as I know needed to have that knowledge.

Familially, my mother, who had been married to a man that owned his own business, suddenly had to rethink her relationship to myself, my sister, the business and what it means to be a widow at only 58. She is still struggling with that transition and experts say widows can take up to 5 years to adjust to the loss of a spouse. My dad was kind of the intermediary between all of us in the family and since his death we have had to renegotiate how we relate to one another, and in many instances, discovering we do not know one another as well as we thought.

Academically I have had to put on the brakes. I had just begun my 2nd year of a Doctor Of Ministry program and was doing some intriguing research when my dad passed. Suddenly, I had 0 motivation to write and no inspiration to do so. I found myself questioning the very academic enterprise itself. If life could be snuffed out without warning, then what am I doing wasting my life writing papers no one will read and reading books that I can discuss with maybe 5 people? When I am dead I doubt anyone will recall the articles I’ve written or the books I helped edit. Most likely some poor student will come across them incidentally but for the rest of the world my meager academic contributions will be swallowed by the oblivion of academic prose.

Death caused me to question the value of everything. Those that know me know academics was a big part of my life. I love to learn, write, do research, teach. I was not a smart kid in High School but in the liberal arts I had found my passion. Suddenly my dad’s death made me question my motivations and how I spent my time. What once had supreme value became almost meaningless. I had to take an “incomplete” in the class I was taking at the time of my dad’s death and it took my 9 months to write the last two papers I needed to finish the course. It seemed like a monumental task that beforehand would have been chump change for me.

Recently I received emails about registration for classes and I had to be honest with my advisor that I am still not in a place where I can meet my own expectations. I believe I can do good work and I want to finish. My thesis project is novel and would be a fine contribution, but now I have business responsibilities that take precedent over my passion for learning and working in the faith. If my dad had not died, I would be starting year 3 of my Doctor of Ministry and probably have a few chapters of my thesis written. I would be 1 year from graduation. Instead, I have completed 1 year with nothing but academic ambiguity lying in front of me.

Personally, one of my main hobbies was powerlifting. The night before my dad passed I was in the gym prepping for a power meet in the late spring. I was weighing 180lbs at 5’7 and deadlifting 450lbs, doing sets of 315 for 10-15. My lifts were strong. I would spend about 4/5 days in the gym, getting workouts in when I could depending on work. My goal for my meet was a 400lb squat, 500lb deadlift and 330 on bench. Even if I had to hit the gym from 11pm-after midnight I would get it in.

Since my dad has passed, I am lighter than I have been in a decade. I stopped eating nearly half as much and found minimal time for the gym with my added responsibilities and lack of mental focus for heavy weights. I weigh 150lbs and have lost most of my strength gains. I have went from benching 315 lbs to having a max of 230. Now I can’t pick up 400 lbs and I used to be able to just bend down and pull that for 5 reps like it was nothing. Spending hours in the gym is no longer appealing to me. The killer mental focus I used to have for weight training is gone and I am unsure if it will ever come back.

Basically, none of my clothes fit. I went from needing XL T Shirts to now being able to wear Medium shirts I haven’t worn since 2010.

Lastly, his death altered my view of things. Things I used to enjoy buying, like vintage baseball cards, have lost appeal. The problem is that when he died all his stuff stayed here. Stuff that he loved, like his car and some of his coin collection, just sits to be eaten by moth and rust. We all know we can’t take it with us but when someone leaves suddenly, and the things they loved are left behind just taking up room, we realize that so much of what we “enjoy,” or pursue, is worthless in the end.

In addition, things usually only mean something if you can share them with others. It’s no fun to buy a car, a new ring, or even an Al Kaline rookie card if you have no one to show and share it with. Our relationships make things matter but in the end the thing is nothing more than a token that deepens the relationship.

There used to a bumper sticker that read “he who dies with the most toys still dies.” Its cliché and when I read it back in the day it seemed obvious…but when I really learned that lesson it changed how I think of things and how I spend my money. Stuff is just stuff; it is meaningless. So why do I work, if not for things? If not to have more money to buy more stuff?

Now I work for my family and for those that work in my company. I don’t work to have things; I work to make my company the best it can be to provide for my family and be the best it can be for my employees. A job well done means more to me than any money I can make from the job because that is how I will be remembered when I die.

No one will care what I had in my house, but they will remember how I treated others and handled my business. My family will remember how I put them first.

Death that you feel alters you. You don’t have to seek it out. You won’t have to wonder if this death is an altering death. You will live it and it will change you. It won’t leave you alone; you won’t get over it; you’ll basically learn to live with it even though you’ll suck at living with it most days.

The trouble with deep death is that it alters the quilt we’ve been working on and not time, a trip to Hobby Lobby, or looking forward to the final eschaton will make that better. The quilt is just jacked up and that’s kind of not fair because the ones that die don’t have to deal with death like us.

This is where death gets tricky. Only the living experience death. The moment of death is felt by the dying but only those left behind get to live through death. Those that die are relieved of that burden. The only way to live past death and avoid it is to die ourselves. Ain’t that some crap?

Death is full of irony, dialectic if you will, in that death is the only release from death; it’s the only way to save the quilt. For us unlucky ones that get the quilt destroyed without proper wear and tear we are just stuck with the reality that death alters us, the quilt will never be or feel the same, and the journey toward remaking that quilt is one that will most likely end only in the death of ourselves.

 

The Ground Before Me

Here I stand, at the foot of my Grave
Staring at the Ground before Me
Sun drenched grass, Heaven stretched skies
Staring on the Ground before Me

All roads lead here, no matter how far
Staring at the Ground before Me
My eyes grow dim, my heart grows faint
Staring at the Ground before Me

Haunted by this hill, a vault for my mind
Staring at the Ground Before Me
My feet may leave, but my heart remains
Staring at the Ground Before Me

Peering over my world, a world unrecognizable
Staring at the Ground Before Me
All I love and All I have wanted
Staring on the Ground before Me

The Pages of life all lead to this place
Staring at the Ground before me
Before me it was and after me it is
Staring on the Ground before me

What is calling, purpose, infinity of soul?
Staring at the Ground before me
All humans alone as we peer down this hole
Staring at the Ground before Me

Unwelcome friend is Death
Staring at the Ground before me
I hate you for bringing me here
Staring at the Ground before me

What torment, what humility, what nagging nihilistic embrace!
Staring at the Ground Before Me
I want more, more is less
Standing on the Ground Before Me

My hands pressed down, against this earth
Staring at the Ground Before Me
From this I come, to this I’ll go
Staring at the Ground before Me

Quaking Mind, Tremoring Resolve
Staring at the Ground Before Me
Beckoning to me, Siren of the Soil
Staring at the Ground Before Me

Here I stand, at the foot of my grave
Staring at the Ground before Me
O How I wish I had never, found this place
This Ground that is ever Before Me

 

 

 

Leaning Into Death: An Alternative Reading of Acts 2.42-47

buddha death

Preaching from Acts 2 this Eastertide, it dawned on me this familiar passage was saying something much simpler, yet more profound, than providing fodder for theological arguments between Pentecostals and, well, every other Christian.

The early portion of this chapter (tongues of fire, upper room, etc.), gets most of the attention in the chapter, and rightly so.  It’s bizarre, unusual, and produces a proclamation that had never happened before.

In Chapter 1, Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples go to Jerusalem (to the Upper Room) to wait, for something unaware.  Chapter 2 continues the action answering the proverbial, “so what now?  If Jesus isn’t here, what happens and where are we going?”  The tongues of fire episode is the first part of the answer.

But the tongues of fire is the easiest part of the answer.

I mean, who doesn’t like a religious experience?  Plenty of people thrive on experience, feelings, euphoric highs that charge our life.  We have all been witness to the power of religious experience, perhaps even experiencing something religious ourselves.  The two fastest growing segments of Christianity in the world are the two that offer an experience, a doing, with God: Pentecostalism and Catholicism.

Ok, so you’re not religious and don’t like that analogy?  Do you like sex, the experience of sex?  Or is it better to think and talk about sex as opposed to having sex?

Do you enjoy the experience of cheering for your favorite sports team, cheering for your child, experiencing joy?  If you’d rather go to Disney World than talk about it, you prefer experience because participating in something powerful makes you feel.

Thus, we understand how powerful, and preferable, great experiences are.  You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that we humans LOVE to experience FEELINGS.

It is little wonder Acts 2 and an experience of the Holy Spirit gains the traction it does.  Its powerful, it’s refreshing, it’s renewing.

Yet, the early portion of Acts 2 is not the end game.  The end game begins when the experience of the first part of this chapter takes a form of life, a form of life in Acts 2.42-47 that is a daunting reminder/request.

Acts 2.42-47 is a troublesome text that offers a vignette of life in the early church while simultaneously making the rest of us nervous at the consequences.  It reads:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

There’s just something about the implication that we should fellowship, commit ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, pray, break bread and praise God that seems like too much work.  And lest we get too comfortable, let’s not forget this idea of “holding all things in common and selling our possessions” in order to provide for those who have need that makes us spiritually wriggle and physically convulse.

While this list seems odd to us, it is not uncommon for Luke to give us these summary statements about life in the early church, brief portraitures of how they organized their communal living.  He does so in several places throughout Acts, such as chapters 4, 6 and 9.

In so doing, Luke is not only telling us how the early church lived, but he is gently nudging us to go and do likewise.

The trouble with these summaries, however, is that they are often lifted out of the chapters in which they occur.  These summaries, like Paul’s lists of “dos and don’ts” that keep people out of heaven, are summarily read and rehearsed with little regard to the stories preceding and following them.

While debates about religious experience and the political ideology of Acts 2 are intriguing, I have a different question: Why does this summary occur here, in this part of the Acts 2?  What larger narrative is at work behind this summary?  And why does the Lectionary ask us to read this text at this point in the Easter Season?

The problem with reading Acts chapter 2 is that it is read as two separate texts.  We have a 2.0 and a 2.1 version: a Pentecostal experience and a purview into life in the early church.  We preach an experience OR we preach a political obligation.  Rarely do we seek the coherence of this chapter.

Simply put, Acts 2.42-47 is impossible apart from Pentecost.  This is a way of life that cannot be lived apart from the Spirit.  The episodes of this chapter are episodes but they must remain a singular chapter, parts of a larger whole.  But let’s not stop there.

Acts 2.42-47 cannot happen apart from the Resurrection in Luke!  The Resurrection of Jesus in Luke, the Ascension of Jesus in Acts 1, and the Giving of the Spirit in Acts 2 are three stages of a singular event in which Jesus is glorified and given back to creation.

If Christ be not raised, then living in the kind of community discussed in Acts 2 is laughable.  If Christ be not ascended, then there is no giving of his presence to the Church.  If there is no giving of the Spirit, there are no tongues of fire, no empowered proclamation, and no Church.

Therefore Acts 2 is part of our Easter readings.  At first blush, one would surmise we should read Acts 2 during the season of Pentecost, but if we understand this larger movement we see that Acts 2 is not describing a Pentecostal community; it is describing an Easter community empowered through Pentecost.

It is because Jesus is raised, and the end of time marked by the outpouring of the Spirit, that those who believe on Jesus are compelled to live a life in which they sell their things, hold all things in common, break bread together, worship, and commit themselves to the apostles teaching.

Easter has empowered this early group of believers to not hold so tightly to life and empowered them to grasp more tightly to one another.

In a world without Easter, we cling to our life.  In a world with Easter, we grasp our death, and through death find life.

The early church knew how to grasp their death.  They understood it to such a degree that they lived their life toward death, leaning into it.  They leaned into to such a degree that they held loosely to all that was theirs and committed themselves to one another, anticipating that the end that had started in the Resurrection of Jesus, and been confirmed in the giving of the Holy Spirit, would overtake them all soon.

The early church took Joel 2.28 seriously,

“After this I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions.”

Here is the kicker: only people who are convinced that in Jesus’ Resurrection the end has begun can live according to Acts 2.42-47.  Only people who have received tongues of fire to proclaim the ridiculous message that Jesus is raised and that we can share in his resurrection can live as Acts suggests.

Moving one step further, people who believe this, and have experienced the outpouring of the Spirit, can do no other than live as Acts 2 suggests because they understand they are living toward death, living toward the end that is God.  People who know the end is near have no time to be consumed with grasping to a life they will lose so they lose the life they have.  The Apostle Paul insinuated something similar when he proclaims, “I am crucified with Christ.”

In the debate between paradox or dialectic, in this instance, we side with paradox.

One may believe this end will come in the clouds with Christ, or believe it comes at the time of our own death, either way, we must lean in toward the end.  This is what the early church does and why Acts 2.42-47 is odd; it’s a way of life that doesn’t grasp life.

I call this a hermeneutic of loss, a hermeneutic grounded in the death of Jesus and the loss of the world.

As such, Acts 2.42-47 really functions as more of a reminder of what matters than a dictum to be followed.  The texts job isn’t to exacerbate our failings, but to remind us that this is how people live who live toward the end: People who believe the end is now in the Resurrection, Ascension and Coming Holy Spirit of Christ.  When we forget life is found in death, we live life for life-sake and when death comes we wish we’d lived toward death, because we will regret living as if the end wouldn’t happen.

But this reading shouldn’t come a surprise.

I have never known a hermeneutic of loss, or read scripture as texts toward death, until I lost my own father nearly 12 weeks ago.  After suddenly losing him, scripture has just as suddenly become a new land.  I see in it things hidden before; I feel in it things I never knew to feel.  Eerily, parts scripture make more sense now because it too was born out of a series of traumas that led to life in/through loss.

After my father’s death, all I wanted to do was do these things in Acts 2 with him.  I wanted to sit in his Sunday School class one more time, hearing the apostles teaching.  I wanted to eat with him again, break bread.  I wanted to fellowship more, visit his house after work.  I wanted to pray for him, with him, share in the simple pleasure of hearing him pray one more time before dinner.  I wanted to be thankful more, enjoy life more, not let the trivial things of life irritate me when I was around him.

When he died, he left behind all the things he loved and enjoyed.  His family, his hobbies, his business: it is all still here.  Yet, my father lived as one who never held too tightly to these things.  He left them behind, he knew he would, so he spent his days doing as much of Acts 2 as he could.  If you knew him, you lived Acts 2 with him as well.

Acts 2 reminds us that at the end of our days, either at the appearance of Christ in the Clouds, or in the face of death when it comes for us, we will not regret anything except that we had lived more like the picture given to us in Acts 2.42-47.

My suggestion?

Discover the resurrection of Jesus.  Discover death.  Lean into it.  Find life.  Find Freedom.

My Final Gift to my Father: This Burden

 

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My Dad at our home on 2/11/2017 for my daughters 2nd Birthday Party, Minnie Mouse themed.  16 days before he passed

 

Unsuspecting subjects of the fates is what we become.  Persons wandering the land only to be shackled by a yoke fashioned in the randomness of life.  Living life, free, free of this burden, the world a place of solace and comfort, then suddenly, that world dies.  There is no more freedom, not from sin, not from death, not from your thoughts, not from this burden.

When I was younger, naïve people in church who meant well would often implore us to ask God to burden us with something: those lost to Christ, those children dying of hunger, that ministry God needed you to do.  Lord, give us a burden for you.

What poppycock.  As if a burden sought through voluntary prayer can become something other than voluntary.  As if a burden we choose to receive can change our inner core.  This sort of “burden” was an act of piety to get us to feel something, move, and do something.  It was a faith seeking a burden in order to make that said faith relevant.  Without the burden, the faith seemed empty, not to mention selfish.

Yet, the burden to seek our faith in the first place was not something sought so flippantly, nor voluntarily.

Something about God’s prevenient grace questing after us, unrelentingly, seems to ring more of a bell than a faith so easily chosen.

The most precious things in life are not chosen by us; instead, they enter without our choice demanding our attention, until we can choose no other.

This is what a burden is.  It is not something we choose; it is something hoisted upon us.  It is that which we cannot choose to discard.  It stays with us.  It doesn’t leave even after we ask it to do so.

It is a tortuous refining fire that makes us suffer with it.

It is a real burden.  Those are not simply prayed for, nor are they prayed away.

On 2/27/2017 this year I was given a burden.  It is one that showed up uninvited.

On this day, my father, a 65-year-old man in good health, collapsed, suffering cardiac arrest.  No warning. No signs.  No medical history.  And, of course, no goodbye.  As we stood by his bedside where his dead body lay, saying goodbye to him after the ER had done everything they could, we hugged his warm body until it turned cold.

The burden found me then though I didn’t realize it.  And God, I wish it hadn’t.

What is this burden?  What is it that I now carry with me, the burden I owe to the death of my father?

My father died young, in good health, and he died suddenly.  As we would all wish our loved ones to die when they must, even as we wish death for ourselves someday, my father died that way.  Fast, quick, and painless, with dignity.

He did not have any pain.  He did not suffer.  He never grew old.  He never grew sick.  He never experienced the deterioration of his body that would make his loved ones prefer death for him over life.  My father did not experience dementia or Alzheimer’s and he did not have to fight cancer.

He did not become the waste of a human person that so many of us will become, spirits trapped in flesh that steal our humanity from us.

My dad didn’t have to do that.  He had a good death.  A clean death.  A painless quick death that he most likely didn’t know had happened.  He died as we all hope to die.

Yet, his good death gives me a great burden.

For my father to die as he did, I will necessarily carry the pain of sudden loss, of regrets, of the goodbye never spoken.  Here one minute, gone the next, he was raptured from our life.

I will not have the closure experienced by people who get to say their “I love you’s” and “thank you’s” and “I am sorry’s” before their loved one’s pass.  I did not get the final hug, kiss, or hands held tightly that I would have wanted.

In order for me to have had closure, he would have needed to grow old, grow sick, give me time to expect his death, say our final words, and then say goodbye when the season of goodbye had arrived.

In other words, for me to feel good about his death he would have had to have felt pain, loss, and the realization of his own pending death.  He would have had to experience his own dehumanization for me to experience grief without so many rough edges.  He would have had to suffer greatly so that I could suffer less.  My father would have had to experience what I would never want my father to experience.

My peace would be his hell and then he would die.

Yet, this is not how it happened.  The irony is that my father gave me what he would never want to have given me in order for him to die as I would have wanted him to die.

In the end, the burden that I must suffer his death when he was young, and without a goodbye, is the final gift I can give my father even as I’d rather not give it.  It is the burden I have to give him because he gave me the death I didn’t want to experience even as it was the death I would have wished for him.

This is the trade-off.  This is the gift I can give to my father.  I must carry the burden of his sudden loss so that his death could be the kind of death I would want him to have if he had to have it.

I hate this burden.  I hate that I must carry it.  I hate the pain and shock that accompanies it.  I did not pray for it and I certainly didn’t need God to give it to me.  Yet, it found and forced itself upon me.

I will hate it until I meet my own death.  I hate that he left too soon.  I hate everything about it.

Yet, 8 weeks from my father’s passing I find I love this burden because it is the last gift I can give my father in order for him to die the death I would have hoped for him all along.

For him, no matter how heavy gets, I will carry it through tear stained pain and with a heart of gratitude for the man I am proud to call my father.  I will carry this burden because my dad deserves nothing less.

 

Death asks Questions. Ecclesiastes Answers.

ecclesiastes whats the point

Sudden, premature, Death is the great equalizer.   Both for those who die and those they leave behind.

For those who die, suddenly, everything they were, or weren’t, did, or didn’t do, is finished.  Their dreams, their opinions, their loves, their hates, their things and their family, all stay behind.  The prince and the pauper meet the same fate.  None is greater than the other and the earth swallows both. 

For those who live, suddenly, everything that meant something now means less.  The world stops.  Priorities change.  Things that didn’t mean so much, like small conversations, hugs, “I appreciate yous” or the game of golf you skipped for work…now take precedent over work, money, or any problem you thought mattered before your loved one passed away. 

Death makes us all equal and it equalizes all things.  It crudely displays the valueless nature of our system of values and the value of things we once took for granted.

Here, at the arrival of my father’s death, two main questions began to emerge. 

First, how can something this unjust happen to someone who didn’t deserve this fate now, given all the work he still had to do?  How can I process such an unjust death?  It simply isn’t just and there are no theological jumping jacks that can make it so. 

My dad had no vices, relatively healthy, in good shape, and no medical history of cardiac issues.  The very thing we never thought would kill him did, while people who abuse their bodies, cannot move due to obesity, and are walking diabetic laboratories get more time on earth. 

My father’s death is a miscarriage of cosmic justice.

Some people say it’s because God has timing that we can’t understand.  I heard this from many folks during the weeks following his death.

Me?  I call that stupid.  If it sounds stupid when you say it, it probably is. 

God had nothing to do with my dad dying.  He was human and had an unfortunate internal chemistry that led to a tragic event.  These other people that are alive and shouldn’t be?  These walking diabetic laboratories or people who have abused their bodies with vices for decades…these people?  They are just lucky.  Somehow, I don’t think God kills the good ones and leaves the negligent ones as if to reward their abuse of creation. 

And if God does do that?  Well, when I get to the pearly gates I’ll say “thanks but no thanks” because I couldn’t stand to be around a being that capricious for eternity.  When Ecclesiastes tells us that it rains on the just and the unjust that is simply what it is.  There is no reason for it.  Its life, even in a world created by God.

The second question I asked, however, was concerning meaning.  It is almost laughable how death turned me back toward those foundational questions of religion and philosophy: What is the meaning of life and what is my role in it?  Furthermore, how do I know my answer to these questions is true once given?

Before my dad passed, I thought I knew the meaning of life; I thought I could give someone a satisfactory answer to the question if they’d asked.  Afterward…immediately afterward?  I was left without a good answer.  What meaning is there?  Where is meaning to be found if in an instant death can rupture creation and render all meaning endowed with life meaningless?  We give the world meaning by what we invest in and love, yet all our investment and love can come to an abrupt end without warning!  In an instant, the meaning maker that is the human being can be made meaningless.

Through my father’s death I came face to face with the meaninglessness of meaning.  When he died, suddenly, the meaning I had endowed with work and the problems at work were whisked away. The meaning I had ascribed to my education, my fitness, my calling, my professional life, etc., all mattered no more than a pile of manure.  Human resource problems, customer complaints, goals for the new year, my to do list for the week, papers I wanted to write, pursuing my Doctorate of Ministry, reading any books, caring about ministry, having fun, etc., etc., it all disappeared and didn’t matter. 

Everything that I thought meant something…now, meant nothing, thus leaving me to ask, “Did it all mean anything to begin with then?”

I know, I know, some people will say this is grief, depression, the low water mark of dealing with loss.  To an extent, I agree. 

However, as I have now had nearly 8 weeks to contemplate the sudden death of my father, I have come to realize that it is not simply his sudden departure that makes me feel this way.  It’s not that my melancholy leads me to these conclusions.  Rather, it is the revelation that just as he died, so could I, and without notice, and in that moment, all the things I am doing become meaningless.  All my cares, worries, , loves and accomplishments can be just as suddenly buried…and within months or years my family will move on without me…living.  Within days, most of the general public will no longer care I am dead.  

To pass away is to be dead to the world, our terminal condition revealed for what it is.

This is what death is: it is the cessation of existence in time, the loss of consciousness, the death of what makes us an “I.”  To echo Robert Jenson here, to think otherwise is to cheat and think death as not death…in which case it isn’t really death we’re thinking and I’m not sure what we are thinking about death if we don’t truly think of it as being dead.

This is what makes the ant hill of human civilization and society meaningless: that all our striving and loving all ends the same and could do so without a warning. 

How does one get excited about anything knowing this Grim Reaper lingers so close, even closer than those of us in our youth care to imagine?  How can one invest time reading complex theory or engaging in banal political or theological discourse knowing that none of that can change the place we are all going?  How can we be stupidly consumed with sports and entertainment when it all mounts to nothing more than a distraction of our pending death?  It’s as if we are simply wasting our time to simply pass the time until it is our time.

As I have pondered both these questions (the injustice of my father’s death and the meaninglessness of life), I have found myself in Ecclesiastes.  Like the Psalter, prior to my father’s passing, Ecclesiastes was a book to be studied, something to be understood with the mind, not felt with the heart.  I could ascend to what the author says by simply knowing what the words and phrases meant…yet after this tragedy I now realize I didn’t know then what I know now.  Now, I get it. 

Myself and the Preacher are blood brothers. 

We all know the famous phrase the Preacher uses, “Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.”  The message is simple:  one day we will die and all our toil is for naught.  Everything turns out to be as a vapor, here for a moment, and then gone.  Human life is no exception. 

There is no better time to read Ecclesiastes than after a tragic loss because the Preacher is saying what many of us our thinking, and thankfully, his piety doesn’t keep him from saying it or our forefathers from making it Scripture.  

Thus, as I revisited him I began to know for the first time what he was saying and I began asking him, “Then why do anything?  If all is vanity, why act at all?”

Then, I came to chapter 9.  He paints us this bleak picture:

For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.2 It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. 4 For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. 6 Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.”

In this passage, the preacher and I are speaking the same language.  I get it.  This makes complete sense.  In the face of complete hopelessness there is simply more hopelessness, especially with death the fate of all, the fate of the one who tries their hardest and for the biggest slacker on the planet.  For the Holy man and the indulgent sinner.

What I find most amusing is that one of the most famous passage in Ecclesiastes, the kind of verse that make its way on desk ornamentations and in Pathway Bookstore pictures, Ecclesiastes 9:10, isn’t near as cute as it seems.  In an apparent betrayal of how it is used, however, we find the answer to complete meaninglessness and vanity.

9.10 reads, “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.”  This is usually where the verse stops and we like to use it as encouragement to do our best for God, you know, gird up that Protestant work ethic and work hard.  If God wants anything, it’s a hard worker.

In fact, when I had shared about how sudden death had made life purposeless and meaningless, I was told by one person, “well, that’s one way to look at it.  The other way is to see that life is given meaning by doing everything for God.”  I get it.  I understand the sentiment and why you need to tell yourself that…but that didn’t suffice for me.  It didn’t sit well with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes either.  I needed an earthier answer. 

Why should you do with all your might everything your hands find to do?

 The answer is in the second half of 9.10, “for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.” 

No wonder the whole verse isn’t sold at Pathway.  Verses 11-12 further impress the message:

I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all. 12 Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them.

When read in context, the flowery passage of doing with all your might what your hands find has a very dark connotation: You will one day die and then you can do nothing.  Further, even if you do heed the advice of 9.10 it really doesn’t matter, for the battle does not always go to the one who does it with all their might.  Life is fleeting.  Random evils overtake us all.  Use your hands while they can be used because your righteous life will end just an evil life.

My father did not know he was going to die.  I suspect he never knew what happened to him.  When he stood before God he was probably as shocked as anyone to find himself there.  He was hit so quickly by an unknown force he could do nothing to stop it.  Like Ecclesiastes says, “Man does not know his time…time and chance overtake them all.” 

The night my father died he was that fish caught in a net, unsuspecting, yet still caught.  Living life, swimming, yet death was lurking in the shadows.

Where is meaning in this?  Why care?  Why go on?  Why learn, why act, why be, when Ecclesiastes (and life itself!) teaches us that righteous men and evil men have the same fate…and the just are done unjustly while the unjust are dealt justice?

Why?  Ecclesiastes answers: Because to not live, to not do with all your might what your hands finds to do, is to already be dead.  We are alive.  We are creatures.  We must do with our bodies the most that we can because one day our bodies will do nothing.  We should live because we are alive.  There is plenty of time to do nothing when we are dead. 

Our doing is our protest against death.

Yes, we are stuck in a universe that is random.  We are blips on the universal screen, here only momentarily, yet we are here.  We are alive.  We are not uncreated but God thought it worthwhile to create even if every created thing also has a created end.  For only something alive can “fear God and keep his commandments.” (12.13)

Scripture says that death is the final foe; it is not a friend.  It is not something we should run toward but should deny as long as possible by engaging in life vigorously and unabashedly. 

I know many of us look for grandiose answers to our simple questions, but sometimes, the answer is just as simple: Live now for when you are dead there will be no activity.  Embrace life while you can embrace it.

There is no feeling like suddenly losing a loved one without any preparation.  It is a special kind of hell.  I never understood how a tragic event can suddenly render the world obsolete until now.

Ironically, however, in losing one world I have gained another.  I have been given a new love for my family.  I deeply hurt over the loss of my dad and I hate that he is not here.  I literally hate it.  I still go back and forth between acceptance and denial.  Waves of grief still hit when I think of all he’ll miss, of moments when I want to talk to him, of time I wish I had been a better son.  I hate that I did not get to say goodbye. 

But now, I cherish my family more.  I hug them more.  I kiss my kid’s goodnight more often (even though a couple are 11).  I let my 2-year-old girl drag me around the house and play silly games that I really don’t have time to play because I really don’t have the time to not play with her.  I am more kind to people.  For the few men in my life that are my best friends, we tell one another we love each more frequently.  I am not as angry and frustrated with work as I had been before his death even though work has now become more daunting.  I am reprioritizing my life around what I value the most when all values lose value.  I am making an effort to be more loving, more empathetic, more understanding.  With the help of God, I am trying to be an incarnation of love to those around me and I am trying to give myself to others, my friends and my family, because one day I will be dead.  I am trying to live as if tomorrow will not happen…and if it doesn’t I want to leave it all on the field, so to speak.

I am trying to do with all my might what my hands find to do because that is all I can do as a creature and as one that with each moment alive must tell death, “not yet.”

 

 

 

Gutless Grieving: Taking Lamentations Seriously

lamentations

Today, I have been fatherless for one month. 

 

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my father dying of heart attack (no family history of them), suddenly leaving us without any opportunity to say “goodbye,” speak final words of love or simply say “thank you” for being a great father, a wonderful granddad to my kids. 

Just as I did not choose my father at birth, and I could not speak to him as the newborn he held, so he left this world with me unable to look him in the eye, hug him, and tell him I love him.  In birth, and in death, I had no choices with him.

 

His life was jerked out of ours without warning leaving a new, albeit strangely desolate creation, in its place. 

 

Being unprepared for his departure, I immediately felt a range of emotions which vacillated between anger, sorrow, disbelief, and regret to name a few.  I have felt things in my core I didn’t know was humanly possible and my entire body has ached from the loss, intellect being united with emotion and biology.  I have moaned, and wept, and shouted.  I have sat at my father’s desk, in his chair, and held my heart in my hands.  

 

Even a month after his death, standing in my mom’s kitchen Saturday night, I broke down as if it was February 27 all over again. 

 

I have entered lament.  Not by choice or by desire, but by accidental necessity.

 

For comfort, I turned to my faith.  I didn’t turn, however, to the book of Revelation that promises “streets of gold” or the Letters of Paul that reminds us “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord.”  I didn’t turn there first because to do so is to not understand that death is death…and I am experiencing death.  When we skip to some “ever after” we neglect the reality that death is a cessation of brain activity and consciousness.  To be dead is to enter a state wherein the faculties that give us life have left us, hence, we are dead.  These faculties are not carried with us into some undead state; they die with us and what happens after that is up to God.

 

I am living death, sudden death, and to think death as “not really death” is a cop out. 

 

So I turned to the places where God’s people are honest: Pslams and Lamentations.

 

 I turned here because I knew in these books the people of God didn’t gloss over their anger, hurt, destruction, loss, or fear with promises of a better eternity.  In these pages, people are honest and they say things “good Christians” aren’t supposed to say. 

 

Can it get any more real than Lamentations 4.10?  “The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they became food for them because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.” 

 

Sure, the Lamenter blames this on the wrath induced disobedience of Zion, but does that really solve the problem that God almighty, who had power to stop this, allowed it to happen to teach his people a lesson?  God would rather his children cannibalize their children to teach them a moral lesson?  Really?

 

So we find honestly horrific things in Lamentations, confessions that became Inspired Scripture and were kept in our Bibles for a reason.

 

In turning to Psalms and Lamentations, however, I discovered that until I had felt loss to the core of my being, displacement from my world, a rupture of God’s goodness to me, that I had never understood the Psalter or Lamentations.  They didn’t read or sound the same after my father’s passing.  I was no longer reading them as an academic or a preacher that needed a sermon; I was reading them as one that felt their words.

 

The Psalms and Lamentations weren’t, and are not, simply informing me; They are praying for me when I am speechless.  They are speaking on my behalf the admixture of anger, complaint and praise that often live uncomfortably together. 

 

They allow me to be honest with God and myself…and they allow me to see death for what it is: death.

 

Only when we realize what deep crap we are in can we really lament as scripture does.  Seeing death as a not death cheapens tragedy and it cheapens the part of our Bibles when God’s people could do no other but sit on the earth under the covering of sackcloth and heap the ashes they would eventually become on their heads.  Their tears being consumed by the dust.

 

If we really think it’s going to turn out “ok” on the other side, then why even lament?  It’s just stupid and a waste of energy.  Lament comes from a place that is deeply human as we react to something that isn’t “ok,” that has taken creation and uncreated it. 

 

Until we have experienced uncreation we probably have no idea what it means to lament because the lament is not something we choose.  It chooses us.  

 

Therefore, many people refrain from seeing the honesty in the Psalter and perhaps ignore Lamentations and Ecclesiastes altogether.  Many simply cannot relate to the horror of its confessions.  Many people are raised to deny their human reactions and never question God.  They are taught to think God has a plan and every event of our lives is part of that plan; who are we to question the plan?  They are taught that while their salvation may not be predestined, their lives certainly are.

 

If I have heard it once this past month, I have heard it a thousand times, “we can’t understand God’s way.” 

 

This line of thinking is absurd because it implies that God’s ways are nonsense (or at least above our sense which is the same thing since sense is a human idea to begin with) and if I know anything about God it is that God is not in the business of nonsense.  The very bible we quote begins with a book called Genesis in which creation is the goal.  God is not an uncreative God.  You cannot call uncreation creation any more than you can call sin virtue.  To think that what we call bad, God calls good, or vice versa, is to enter the same complaint of St. Augustine “how then can we know anything of God at all if what is good is not good and what is bad is not bad?”  It renders our speech meaningless.

 

Such a faith doesn’t make any sense and I wonder why we open our mouths at all if that is the case.

 

Lamentations and the Psalter, however, do not fall into this trap.  They are expressive.  They are honest.  They pray deep groanings of the human spirit and they do so with the authority of inspiration.  They also authorize us to speak to God similarly.  We do not have to gloss our feelings or dismiss our hurt; a being by the very name “God” has the capacity to hear whatever we say and not feel threatened by such “impiety.” 

 

In a time in which I never knew I would need scripture to be so honest, Lamentations and the Psalter have been my comfort even as they rehearse my pain.  

 

I confess, however, the sudden loss of my father most likely is nothing compared to a foreign army killing my relatives, razing my home, raping my daughter and forcing my wife to boil our children out of hunger.  That is a level of hell I never want to experience…but in describing that hell the Lamentations have given me liberty to live in the one in which I find myself. 

 

In the process, it has taught me that some of us will  never find grief as the Lamenter.  Our losses will be normal.  We will say goodbye to loved ones in appropriate ways, we will leave behind homes via our choosing, our families will never be impacted by suicide, rape, murder, or the sudden death of a father, mother, child, we only just had lunch with. 

 

Some of us will never deal with these things…and perhaps, never need Lamentations. 

 

But for those of us who have felt our lives jerked out of our lives, our lives ruptured instantly and our bodies wanting to bend over and hurl uncontrollably…the good news of Lamentations is that you are not alone.  God has given us the prayers to speak the unspeakable, to carry our sorrow, to embody our grief.

 

God does not expect us to pretend death isn’t death and tragedy isn’t tragedy.  We are not doomed to gutless grieving, a grief that isn’t really a grief.  Rather, we are taught through scripture that there are moments in our lives when praise and thanks take a back seat to anger, complaint and lament. 

 

And that is ok…because when all we can do is lament at least we are still being honest with God.  And that is still a form of worship.

 

A Prayer of Lament &  Forgiveness 


How Lonely sits the city where silence now resides 

The doorways are clean and empty, the water basins full 

Yet, there are no ripples in the water 

No footprints in the walkways 

The corridors are silent- only filled with the tears of lament 

The joy of my heart has ceased, our dancing has been turned to mourning (Lamentations 5.15)

My eyes fail because of tears, my spirit is greatly troubled

My heart is poured out on the earth because of the destruction of my home  (Lamentations 2.11)

Oh Lord, forgive us for taking this place for granted

For abusing our life with nonsense and frivolity 

Forgive us for being so sure of our life 

Forgive us for not loving one another as we should 

Shame us for our stupid arguments and selfish spirits 

For dwelling on problems rather than love 

Forgive us for valuing things over people 

Forgive us of our laziness toward one another and your world 

Forgive us for not loving you by loving to the fullest those whom you have given us 

Forgive us for not seeing our families as grace, as gift 

The gift is now gone; it is no more

You have given, You have loved

Our Father loved us as you loved us, he loved us as you loved the world 

Forgive us for thinking the city would be filled with laughter forever 

My soul has been rejected from peace. I have forgotten happiness

So I say my strength has perished and so has my hope from the Lord (Lamentations 3.17-18)

He has walled me in so that I cannot go out, He has made my chain heavy (Lamentations 3.7)

O God, we have taken our breath for granted

We have worshipped at the idol of invincibility 

We were asleep – we are awake – to an empty city

Our Father is gone, He is with you 

Remember what has befallen us, Look and see our reproach! (Lamentations 5.1a)

Create in us a new heart and purge us of our filthy presumptions 

Our haughty unloving selves 

Do not hide your ear from my prayer for relief (Lamentations 3.56)

Amen. 

NO! You haven’t been here: The Singularity of Grieving Loss

master-a-grief

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Experiencing the death of a loved one is not fact to be stated, a proposition that is an absolute truth.  That a loved one has died IS a fact; that one has experienced the grief of the death is not a fact; it is a subjective experience unavailable to all people except the one in grief.

It is not an experience that is shared or something with which one can empathize.  It is unique, personal, and subjective because it is larger than the fact of its happening; it taps into the recesses of the human experience that cannot be harnessed by our words or shared.

One may have in fact lost a father, a husband, a child, a friend, but the proposition “I lost my husband too” is simply that; it is a statement of fact, not a statement of truth because truth lies in experiencing the fact that was stated.  Facts have no value.  They just are.  They do not denote a common experience; they denote an event.  Since facts have no value facts do not denote the meaning of life.  Real life, what we hold dear, what we care about, resides outside the facts.  Ludwig Wittgenstein beautifully portrays this when he writes:

“The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world, everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value — and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.  What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental.  It must lie outside the world.” (Tractatus 6.4)

Just because a fact has happened to us does not imply that we then know what that fact means for another.

Take a sunset as an example.  We would agree that we can look at a sunset and see that it is beautiful, yet we would also agree that what makes it so is different for both of us.  My impression of beauty is not imputed upon you or vice versa.  The same could be said for joy or laughter.  We allow that individuals can experience the same emotion while experiencing it differently…yet when it comes to grief we think that because we have experienced grief that you must also experience it as me.

Of all the emotions that refuses similarity, grief refuses it the most yet it is the one we tend to harmonize and try to share.

Grief is the most complex yet we have made it the simplest by the way we relate to those in it.

This is impossible.  The truth of tragedy, beauty, grief or joy is they all transcend our ability to state them as facts and that is what makes them truthful; they are the stuff of real life because they transcend what can be thought, said or expressed.  All of these things refuse thought.  They refuse analogies whereby they can make sense.  They refuse a universal experience even though they are all experienced universally.

Thus, of most human experience it is impossible to speak, to describe, to bring under the submission of our ideas.  Wittgenstein held that a logical language can only deal with what is true, and unfortunately, what is true is precisely what evades language.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”

This weekend, a month ago, he was at my little girls birthday party, wearing Minnie Mouse ears and being the world’s greatest grandad.  Now, my father has been dead for 19 days.  For the first time in my life, I experienced a sudden rupture of the world; a reversal of what is normal into an alternative reality in which the tragic has defined the common place.  On Feb 27, around 5:30pm, I told my father “see ya later dad” for the final time as he left our office to go to a Karate Workout.

In the office that day we talked about what had to be done Tuesday if it didn’t rain, what the week would hold, and that I’d be able to help him with some things Wednesday.  We talked about family history briefly, talked about repairs being done, and he asked me if he should go workout given he had a sore rib.  We talked about mundane things.  Regular things.  We talked as if tomorrow was a given.

I was within minutes of leaving the office to do a monthly inventory at a store and someone stepped into my office and said “someone from Paul Huff called, they said your dad is having another episode.”

My father didn’t have “episodes.”  I had no idea what that meant but I needed to find out.

I made one call, then ran out of the office to my car and sped down Peerless Rd to the gym where my father was working out.  There, I encountered my 65 year old, 3rd degree black belt father, tied to a gurney, with a pulse and shallow breathing.  This situation did not feel right; it wasn’t good.  I was optimistic but my gut was beginning to sink knowing that the man I saw, my father, was on the edge of life…hanging on.

I grabbed my father’s bag from his instructor, threw it in my car and raced to the hospital to meet him there.  Along the way, I stopped for gas (I had been on “E” all day in town and didn’t need to run out now).  I called my wife, called my sister, tried calling my mother.  Panic had overtaken my body but I was hopeful…until the paramedic van took much longer to go to the hospital than it should have.  Finally, it appeared.  I followed it to the hospital, called my pastor as I parked, ran to the ER, and was immediately taken to Consultation Room 1.

My pastor arrived within minutes and was with me in the room when the ER Doctor comes into the room and says “Hi my name is (X).  This is not good.  I am not optimistic.  Your father is not responding to anything I am doing.  Can you tell me something about his medical history that may help me?”

Astounded at the breathtaking bluntness, I had nothing.  My dad took a small dose of cholesterol medication.  That was it.  I told him he was healthy, had a good recent physical, no known illnesses or disease.  The Dr. left the room.  I looked at my pastor and said “So, how many times have you gotten news that stark right out the gate?”  He shook his head, “nada.”  This doctor was not giving me any false hope.

About 10 minutes later, around 7:45, the Doc reentered the room, with long face and a low heart, he looked at me and said “I’m sorry, you father is gone.”  At that moment, my entire heart sank to the ground, my heart raged, my mind confused, I screamed and yelled.  I hit the wall, I fell against it and I sank to my knees as I wept for my father with a groaning and weeping I didn’t even know existed.  I hugged my pastor and I cried.  I squeezed him as hard as I could.  My mom had entered the hospital as I heard the news.  She heard me wail…and that is how she knew my dad was gone.

She entered the consultation room broken, weeping, herself in her hands.  We embraced and shook our heads in disbelief.  At 5:30 I talked to my dad.  At 7:45 he was gone.  Rupture.  Disruption.  Darkness.  Confusion.  Disbelief.  Pain.  Fear.  Loss.  Bottomless Sorrow.  What is this new world?

At 9pm we were escorted back to the room where my father lay. There, lying in a hospital bed and covered with his sheet up to his chest, was the man who only hours earlier had been with us.  Entering the room with me was my mother, sister and wife.  My pastor was also there, along with my dad’s brother and his family.

We spent 3 hours with my deceased father, not wanting to leave him.  We touched him, hugged him, we wept, we kissed him, we talked to him.  His body was still warm when we arrived but by midnight he was cold.  I walked around the room shaking my head, looking at the singularly most important man in my life, wondering how I would grieve him, how life would go on, what this new epoch would be.

How is it that MY DAD IS DEAD?!?  Death resisted, and resists, my thinking.

He was at work that morning, this Monday morning.  Everything was normal.  He said goodbye to me for the day.  I am not even sure I looked up to say goodbye, but I did look up to see him close the door behind him.  That was the last time I would see my father upright.

He went for a Karate workout.  He never came back.  That night my father died…and even as I type this I cannot believe I am typing this.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”

Grief.  Or as one of my friends described it “the bastard of sadness.”  How I wish I did not understand that definition.

I have been alive for 36 years.  I have lost people close to me, particularly my grandparents.  I was lucky enough to have all 4 of my grandparents well into adulthood.  They passed at the age of 75, 83, 87 and 89 respectively.  All of them were sick, some more than others.  Some we knew they would die, others it wasn’t a surprise but neither was it expected.  For all, I wept.  For all, with the blessing of my family, I eulogized them.  For all, I knew life also meant death and all of them had lived a full, long life.  I didn’t want to let them go, but I knew I had to.

None of their passings prepared me for this.  Not even one.

My father passing suddenly, unexpectedly, without warning and without any family history of cardiac arrest, is not the same for me as losing a grandparent I knew was sick or a father that had cancer whom we knew would die soon.  Here I am, trying to process losing my father a full 24 years before he lost his!  My dad was 63 when he buried his father…he had him his entire life.  I get to have my father half of mine.

I am trying to process going to karate one minute, dead the next.

I realize some people never had a father or some may have had a father for lesser years than me.  I am thankful I had him till he was 65 but I mourn he was taken too soon…and knowing I had him 36 years doesn’t change what happened or make my situation easier to compute or accept.

Now, overnight, I’m grieving my father while sitting in his desk, going to his church, running the business he started.  I am using his pens, reading his writing daily, using the folders and notebooks he organized…using his checkbooks with his last entries directly above mine!  I do not get to evacuate his presence and go back to my life because OUR LIVES ARE CONNECTED!  I don’t get to bury my dad in his town and then go back to mine.  I have to walk the same sidewalks he walked, talk to people he spoke to, tell people who call for him that he is dead, and use his emails to conduct business!

Most people don’t have to bury a father and then do what I do every day.

No, you may have lost a father but you don’t have to wake up and wear his shoes.

This is too much!

My father dying isn’t the same for me as attending my old father’s funeral, whom I knew was sick and would die, and with whom I had time to say my last peace, tell him I love him, tell him I’m sorry for ever being anything but grateful.  This is shock.  It is rupture.  It is confusion.  It is senseless.  It is morose.

Likewise, my mother was married to him for 38 years; She was 19.  Now, suddenly, she is without him.  Overnight, her house is silent in the morning and it is silent before bed.  The garbage doesn’t fill as fast.  The dishes are only hers and the laundry doesn’t have any of his clothes.  My mom did not lose a sick, aged man, who had been dying and whom she knew she would lose.  She experienced something totally different.

She lost her world in a single day and now she lives in another one without any warning.

When I think about what happened I cannot help but feel a sense of injustice, injustice that my dad took care of his body, was wary about what he put into it, had regular physicals and blood work, had Lifeway screenings, exercised and refrained from all dietary vices…yet still died without warning while people older, sicker, and in far worse shape avoid the Grim Reaper for some unknown reason.

It rains on the just and the unjust…and this isn’t just.

I don’t really know what people’s expectation of me or my family is.  When does the world expect me to be “fine?” When should I be happy again?  When is my mind free of my father’s constant memory?

I am not sure I know the answer, but if you expect me to be fine after just 3 weeks…I won’t be.  I am not fine.  This situation is not fine.  I will look fine and I will function, moment by moment, but inside I am thinking about my father…and missing him.  Seeing my 65-year-old father in that casket 10-15 years too soon is not fine!  I will tolerate it but I am not fine.

It will be a while before “I” and “fine” are one again…and spiritual platitudes do not make it easier.

I am not an expert at grief or loss.  If I am lucky, this will be the hardest loss I suffer.  I will die before my wife and kids, and my own mother will grow old and I will say goodbye to her in our time, with time and with notice.

I am no expert but I have observed something I feel compelled to share.

It is simple: you do not understand my loss.  You cannot relate and it is not the same as yours.  Likewise, I am also removed from your loss…for good or ill, bigger or smaller…you don’t understand mine and I don’t understand yours.  If yours was easier to deal with, great.  I am glad you had that blessing.  If mine is easier, than you are in my prayers…because this pit is its own special hell and I would hate to see where you are but I’ll acknowledge you’ve been to a place I haven’t.

This is blunt: you do not understand my loss.

Losing an old, sick father, is not the same as me losing a healthy father suddenly.  The slow rupture and loss you felt as you released emotional connection to a man you knew would die is not the same as my father being jerked out of my life, out of this world, and into another.

Just because you lost a dad, doesn’t mean you have any idea how the loss of mine feels.  Please don’t compare it…and please don’t tell me you understand…because you don’t.

Likewise, you don’t understand what my mother feels.  You may have lost a husband, and you may be a widow, but you didn’t talk to him at 5:30, hear him tell you he’ll see you at 7:30, and the next time you saw him was 9pm, in an ER bed, dead.  You losing your old husband isn’t the same.

For those of you who have experienced sudden, rupturing loss, you have an idea…and you know the depth of how bad it sucks…but even then, none of us can experience the grief of another nor should any of us impute our experience of grief onto another person.  I will not grieve as you, nor you as I, so please let’s save the nicety and be honest: we don’t understand how one another feels.

All we can do is be present…and stop with the impossible empathy and reminders that God has a plan because if killing humans is part of God’s plan and “timing,” then perhaps we should revisit whether a capricious God like that is worth our attention.  I digress.

Likewise, I do not understand what it is to lose my father when he was 40, after he dropped me off at school, only to find that later in the day he will commit suicide.  I do not get that pain.  I don’t understand that…but one of my friends does.  I lost a father, you lost a father, but none of us lost a father like that!  We don’t understand her loss even though we lost the same “person.”

You may understand what it means to lose a father, but you don’t understand what it means to lose one that left this world by his own actions.

My uncle lost a son at 20.  He said goodnight to him, hugged him, told him he loved him at 9pm.  6-7 hours later police knock on his door and tell him his son is dead.  He was killed in a car accident, ejected from the back of the rear window, thrown 200 feet, and DOA.  You may have lost a son…but did you lose him like that?

I pray I never lose a child like that…I don’t understand that kind of loss…and I never want to.  Many people have lost sons, and fathers, and wives and daughters…but each loss is unique.  Yet we seem to think that because we have lost that same “person” we understand what the grieving person is feeling.

Well, we don’t.  I never understood that quite like I understand it now so I am sorry if I ever told you “I understand” when I really had no idea.

We need to stop saying it because all it does it either belittle our own loss or it belittles the loss of the other; It does nothing to comfort the hurting person.  We can never feel the grief of the other.  We are always outside someone else’s experience.

I am not writing this to negate your loss or say my loss is greater than yours…but I do believe, and psychological research reinforces this, that certain types of loss are harder to adjust to and process than others.  Loss and grief is not universally experienced.  Your loss may be greater, or easier to process, but our losses are not the same.

Your experience is unavailable to me and mine is unavailable to you.

As for my loss, I do not expect anyone to understand even though people have told me they do because they “lost a father too.”  I don’t expect empathy because my individual experience is just that: individual.

I appreciate all the thoughts and prayers and texts, but the experience of grief via the death of a loved one is not universal.  It is singular and it is experienced singularly via the relationship we had to the departed.  You losing a father isn’t like me losing a father, or vice versa…and you losing a father or husband in old age isn’t like my mother losing a spouse.

I’m sorry we can’t feel for one another but the nature of feeling refuses its synonymy.

Honestly, I feel cheated and robbed by what happened.  My father’s death not only ended his life, but it will change and shape the direction of my life, my mom, my sister, and my kid’s life…all in a way that if it had happened in a decade from now wouldn’t have been the case.  Most of all, his untimely death doesn’t allow me to be a better son, speak power into his life, encourage him when I knew he needed it but was too busy to take the time.  While I will move past those regrets, I will get to live with them.

My grief is mine.  It is not ours.  The sooner we understand this the better humans we can be toward one another when we experience loss, and at some point, we will experience it for ourselves or we will share it with others.

Not all people will go through sudden loss.

Some of us will be lucky.  We will grow old, our parents will grow old, our children will grow old…and we will bury one another in appropriate seasons.  I pray that is what happens for you.  I pray you never feel what it means for a loved one to be instantly removed without warning.  I pray you wake up each day to a familiar world with familiar people.  I pray you get to let them go gently.  I pray you are that fortunate…and I pray I am that fortunate moving forward.

Some Deserts may be traveled with others but they are experienced alone.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”

 

 

 

 

Death on Ash Wednesday: In Memoriam

ash wednesday

James Napier was a man of stark truth.  A man of black and white.

His affability was matched by his billowing voice, a voice that was as inviting as it was stern and filled with rigid conviction.

“When this old body takes its last breath…I’ll be at the right hand of the father…”

He died on Ash Wednesday, a fitting time to die if a time could ever fit.

Having a conversation with him a couple days before he passed…was difficult.  At that moment, when I wanted to be optimistic and he wanted to be realistic without becoming morbid, anything that one could talk about becomes irrelevant.

When death is literally seen approaching the door, about to let itself in, what does one say at that moment?  What does one think in anticipation of that meeting?

At that moment, things aren’t complicated.  Life is easy.  Death is easy.  Speaking is difficult…but speaking is all we have.

This was the last of words I would speak to him.  I have spoken many words to him throughout the years.  Anyone that knew Uncle Jim would doubtless agree; they too had spoken many words to him.  Jim was that warm summer evening that invites a person onto the front porch, asks them to have a seat, take a sip of a tall glass of sweet tea, smell the honey sickle and enjoy his company.

When Jim was around a few things were going to happen.

One, you were going to get called “son” or “honey.”  It was his way of claiming you with his words.

Two, you were going to get an embrace, accompanied by a smile that took up the entire real estate of his face.

And three, you were going to get genuine conversation.  Jim was capable of talking about the mundane and the sacred, both with unmitigated vigor.

“Honey” he said, “I’m not worried about a thing.  Imma doing alright, but the doc told me, he said, Mr. Napier, you may not make it out of here.”

This.  This is real life.  The stark truth staring him, and our conversation, in the eye.  I asked about his visitors and those who had called him.  He replied that “there were plenty of folks who had called and seen him” and “he had plenty of family and friends who loved him.”  Indeed he did.

That’s why I called.

I wasn’t particularly close to any of my extended great uncles or aunts.  I did not know anyone from my grandmother Napier’s side of the family.  I knew all of my grandpa Napier’s brothers and sisters, but Jim held a special place for many of us simply because he was present.  I don’t say this to suggest that others weren’t.  My perspective is only mine and I allow that it may be fallible.  But what I do know is Jim held a special place in my grandpas heart, and as such, he held a special place in mine.

As I sat on the front pew of my grandpa’s church, at his funeral, listening to my aunts and uncles speak about their father as he lay before us, Jim sat beside me.  He sat upright, stately, a man that had gotten older but still carried his dignity and manhood with care.  He sat beside me, one hand on his cane, the other on my knee, an expression of comfort toward one who would somehow speak to folks who had lost a parent, grandparent, brother and friend.  Just moments earlier I watched as he walked up to the coffin in which my grandpa lay, his eyes becoming misty, as he beheld his brother and friend lifeless.  I don’t understand the loss of losing a brother, and at this time, Jim had just lost his first.  You could tell the pain was deep.  The loss was real.

Jim sat beside me.  He encouraged me as I sat before my family, and my grandpa’s church, about to eulogize my grandfathers nearly 90 years of life.  Once it was my turn to speak, Jim was my familiar face to look at.  It was hard to look at my parents, or aunts or uncles.  Many of them had tears.  I didn’t want to cry…so when I looked at people, I looked at Jim.  He would just nod his head in agreement with my words, a tall order for a man that didn’t agree unless he meant it.

Afterward, Jim embraced me and said, “your grandpa would have been proud of you…you did a fine job son.”  How can I, a grandson of just 33 years old, speak anything meaningful to a man who lived with my grandpa far longer than I?  If Jim was being kind, at that moment, it was much appreciated.

I would say if my grandpa had a brother that was a best friend it would be Jim.  Now, as with any sibling relationship, it wasn’t always peachy.  They would disagree.  They would trust one another.  They would take advantage of one another.  On and on.  They were family and it had all the warts one would expect.  BUT…it also had affection and brotherly love.

During my grandpas final months, when I was able to speak to him, of the things he would talk about when talking mattered, he’d tell me we need to go four wheeling again and he’d also mention “ginsenging” with Jim.  Ironically, in the last conversation I had with Jim he said, “the last time I went four-wheeling was with your grandpa.”

Maybe they weren’t the kind of men to hug one another and say “I love you,” but they did in fact love one another.

The very last time Jim went fourwheeling was with my grandpa.  They used to go often.  Just imagine the movie, “Grumpy Old Men,” only with a West Virginia hills backdrop and probably a little more laughter than you’d hear complaining.

I can hear them now…my grandpa would reply to Jim ”Why son you’re crazy…” to which Jim would reply, “Son, I’m not.  I tell you the truth.”  This would be followed by laughter…only my grandpa didn’t laugh when Jim laughed, unless, of course, it was the rehearsal of a childhood memory in which both men shared.

Those of you who knew my grandpa, French Napier, know that he wasn’t the easiest person to convince of something.  If my grandpa had an idea, that idea wasn’t gonna be shaken easily.  If he had a plan, that plan wouldn’t be shaken easily either.

Well, on our final four-wheeling trip, about a decade ago when Jim would have been 70 and my grandpa 78/79 years old (Jack Lalane had nothing on what these men were capable of in their old age), my grandpa had the bright idea of going up this steep bank with his four wheeler.  He said it was the “best way through” this spot.  Jim disagreed.  Jim, a little less reckless than my grandpa, wanted to drive around it.  I can hear him as clear as if it was this morning, Jim saying, “Now son, you’re too old to be trying stuff like that.  That just ain’t a gonna work.”

(Now this may sound crazy to you readers, but these fellas were used to making their own trails where there weren’t any trails…a slight grade of a hill wasn’t much of a deterrent.  We once drove off the hill from Justice cemetery down to Brush Creek.  You may be thinking, “well there’s aren’t any trails down that steep hill to Brush Creek!”  You are correct…there are not.  That is the point…they just made them.  When you went four-wheeling with Jim and French you followed or got out of the way.)

These words would be followed by Jim’s notorious chuckle.

My grandpa, French, would look at him, wave Jim’s concern off with his hand and he’d go headlong into his plan.

Well, this time, Jim was right and Grandpa was wrong.  Grandpa flipped the four-wheeler and if not for his uncanny ability to get out of tight situations that machine would have landed on him.  I didn’t know a 79 year old could move so quickly, but when grapnda had to…he could tap into that extra step.  Jim knew what it was like fourwheeling with grandpa, so on the back of his four-wheeler one could find a giant gray storage box with an array of tools to get them out of any situation.  He asked if my grandpa needed the wench, to which he got a negative reply…because of course he did.  We all got off our rides and flipped the machine back on its wheels…just another adventure when you were in the woods with Jim and French.

The very last time I went four wheeling with my grandpa and Jim was one of the best moments of my life, literally.  I had wanted to go again, afterward, but life got too busy and I didn’t make time for what mattered…cause everything else mattered over fourwheeling in the woods.

I loved being in the woods with my grandpa.  He would take us back into Brush Creek, point to a pile of bushes and tell us what used to be there.  He’d take us into hollers and ravines that were special to him, places where he grew up, where his dad grew up, where my grandma was raised, where my deceased Uncle Paul was born, to the place where the old school was, to the old tree his dad planted, to the site of the old church house and even to the hole he’d carved into a rock in order to take a nice cool sip of a West Virginia mountain stream.  He’d take us to the old cemeteries, many being slowly forgotten, and walk amongst the graves and tell us about these people…whom history was slowly swallowing.

My grandpa and Jim were walking dictionaries…something akin to what is today the “urban dictionary,” only they were the source of knowledge everything not urban.  If grandpa forgot a detail, to which he would never admit, Jim would promptly fill that space with content.

I loved spending time with these men.  They offered balance to one another.  They poked fun at one another.  They joked.  They derided.  They corrected.  They remembered…together…and for those of us who had the pleasure of being with them we were able to experience the priceless story of their world, as seen through their eyes, and listen to voices that would slowly be silenced but still desperately had things to be say.

They would re-member together, and in so doing, help us re-member too.

I knew I wanted to speak with Jim a final time.  I knew the news wasn’t good.  I called his room.  His wife, Willa Jean, answered the phone.  I asked if Jim was able to speak.  She gave him the phone.

He immediately said, “Hey son, how are you doing?” To which I replied, “Shouldn’t I be asking you that question?”

We spoke for a few moments.  I listened as Jim, with a steely resolve and confident demeanor, recapped how he’d ended up in the hospital and reaffirmed that regardless of what happened he wasn’t “worried.”

He said “Son, I’m not worried about me.  I just wish I could gather all of the family around me here and tell them how much I love them, how important they are, and how much they need to love one another.”  He said, “You tell all those boys, your dad and the rest of em, you tell em I love em and I’m thankful for em.”

That was his final request…when he was staring out his screened in front door and saw death coming for him…his final request was for family to love one another.  This was the same request as my grandpa

That was my moment…that’s why I called.

At that time when there is nothing to say because nothing matters when you are faced with what really matters, I told Jim that I appreciated him.  I thanked him for his support at both of my grandparents funerals.  I thanked him for his conversations and wisdom.  I thanked him for four-wheeler trips.  I told him he was loved and appreciated and that I would hold my memories of him and my grandpa dear to me.

And in his usual, affable manner, he said “Son, well I appreciate you telling me that…and you hold onto those memories as stories from two old men.”

I could tell he was getting tired in just the few minutes we spoke…his coughing getting the best of him despite what he willed.  I told him I was praying for him and that I was optimistic.

He didn’t correct me…but he knew my optimism was misplaced

He said, “well, son, thanks for calling me.  I’ll talk to you later…”  I replied, “Yes sir uncle Jim, we will.  I love you”…and He said, “I love you too honey. Bye Bye”

Saying goodbye is never easy.  Saying goodbye to people that are tangible connections to our past, to those who give us a sense of who we are…saying goodbye to them is even harder.

I got word of Uncle Jim’s passing from my Uncle Greg at 6:30pm, Ash Wednesday.  I was driving to church, where, ironically, I was about to receive the ashes of my own mortality on my head, a reminder that from ashes we have come, to ashes we shall return.

Uncle Jim had just made that return.

I can still hear his words echoing in my ears, “When this old body breathes its last…I’ll be at the right hand of the father…”

I’m not sure God is going to be able to handle the kind of conversations my granpda and Jim must be having right about now…