In Memoriam: The Epoch of Richard Harper

One of the great tragedies of life is that we can be living in the middle of an epochal moment and take it for granted, pretending the moment somehow will live forever or that the people with whom we share life will continue in their station unabated. We are prisoners of the present, even for those of us who are conscientious about the past. Yet at that moment when the past enters the present, through another epochal reminder, the tragedy of our forgetfulness comes pouring into our senses and we see clearly that we had the privilege of living through, and with, an epochal shift in life.

This week, I was reminded of an epochal shift, one marked not by a large impersonal universal event, but one marked by the impact of a life that had been shared with me for a few brief years.

You see, an epoch is a period that denotes change, and when I heard that Richard Harper had passed away, I quickly realized he had been an epochal moment in my life, a moment of subtle shaping, as a river shapes rock after years of continual flowing.

This is the beautiful tragedy of an epoch: even as we are witness to it, living through it, we are only aware of the change it has pressed into us when it is over.

When Richard came to Cleveland I had not long been out of seminary, graduating Mercer in 2008. As one trained to be a pastor, and Richard being a pastor, we had much in common. It was not hard for my 30-year-old self to befriend 70-year-old Richard and I could tell he was eager to take on another pupil. In a world lacking mentors, Richard embraced that role and felt it was his calling to stand alongside of young pastors.

Rather than reinforcing a cultural wall of separation between seniors and young people, the decades and generational differences seemed to be the magnetic ingredient that brought us together, connecting two pastors born 5 decades apart (He in 1938, myself in 1981) yet intimately interested in becoming all that God had created us to be. At the time, I was ignorant of this Epoch, but over the next several years I found myself as a part of a sort of ministerial dream team, surrounded by men of wisdom, meekness, understanding ministry, and an uncompromising commitment to Scripture.

Richard had a saying, and of course it was a literal Proverbial one, “Iron sharpens Iron, “hearkening back to old Hebrew Wisdom found in Proverbs 27.17.
He had a calling to not only shape others, to change others for the sake of the Gospel and with the Gospel, but also to be shaped by the Gospel and by others. He firmly believed that through one another God is making us into the people he was calling us to be.

With this conviction, we had a season of several years in which Richard led a team of pastors in the area through morning meetings. Sometimes the gatherings would consist of the team at our local Cleveland Nazarene Church, sometimes it would include us and Nazarene Ministers from the Chattanooga area, but always it was meant to be an occasion of iron sharpening iron, our hearts and thoughts tempering one another within the warm grinding of our words.

As we met, Richard would usually start us off with a topic or he would ask if anyone had anything that we wanted to discuss, and from there the fireworks would be organic. I can see Richard now, as he leans over the table, grinning ear to ear, talking about the ministry and putting a finer edge to a point he had perhaps never seen before. He was an animated speaker, an active listener, and a constant encourager. He wanted to include as many as possible in these groups in which we would discuss culture, salvation, sanctification, preaching, etc. You name it and we probably covered it in those meetings. Those meetings were gifts and they were started by Richard. He was the spirit of the meetings, and when he and Roberta moved to Jackson they ceased, but the indelible impression left on those of us who participated in them cannot be understated.

One of the things that made Richard a powerful role model and attractive to many, a person worth listening to, was his humble spirit and desire to grow spiritually. He was in love with God and he was in love with scripture. He was desirous that all would find themselves so in love and his life pointed you in that direction.

Contrary to the image of the older Christian curmudgeon who is set in their ways, only wants to fight culture wars, and has crystallized their own sense of doctrine and knows the meaning of every single Bible verse, his life was a deconstruction of this very image. In my early 30’s I had never met an older Nazarene pastor that was as humble in his spirit and as open about his quest to know more, and learn more, than Richard Harper. How much more wisdom and insight could he gain after nearly 50 years of walking with Jesus and being in ministry? Yet, he had not arrived. His singular focus was to know God more deeply and he encouraged everyone around him to dive deeper into that well of living water.

I have sat at the feet of Richard as he provided keen insights and heard him preach many sermons, but there is one lesson that stands out amongst them all: salvation and holiness is not a fixed moment in time; it is a daily deeper walk with Jesus. This is a lesson that is easy to comprehend, but it is quite another to see it lived. I believe Richard would like to think I remembered a thing or two he taught me, but I believe he would be most pleased that his life was the best example of all.

I am still lost in wonder that a man born in 1938 was not stuck in the era in which he grew up. He was conditioned by his life experiences, but he did not let vestiges of bygone theological and ministerial eras stagnate his spirit. Coming from an era in which many of his peers would have understood walking with God in a momentary and transactional way, even quite legalistically, Richard embodied what it means to be holy. For him, holiness did not mean he had arrived at the pinnacle of Christian experience; it very literally meant his heart was now receptive to hearing God speak more softly. Holiness was the fine tuning of the spirit, not its final formation. Richard understood sanctity as a constant quest, a constant submission to God, and he was transparent about the obstacles posed by his own humanity.

He had an active faith and as such was a walking saint, even though at the time I only knew him as Richard.

One of my fondest memories of Richard was when he was present on a morning I would be preaching. I would often stare into the congregational sea of faces, and there, on the left side of the church, would be Richard and Roberta sitting beside one another. He was often in deep thought considering my words, smiling in agreement, or maybe even considering how crazy I was. If it was the latter, he never let on. Afterward, he was the first one to meet me and I can hear his voice even now.

He would approach me with his perfectly manicured silver hair, Elvis-like in orientation, often wearing a tie, and holding in his holster a firm handshake, and he would extend his hand to mine and say “Wow. Wow. Wow. If we could only grasp the implications of that scripture! That was the truth! Great Job!”

The entire time Richard would be smiling, putting his hands on my shoulder, and affirming the Word I had been given. I was not deceived into believing that I was the second coming of Billy Graham, after all I still have a day job, but what these moments did for me was confirm my calling and my intuitions.

As a young minister with much to learn, Richard was there to offer words of encouragement and to grow along with me. I had many supporters in my ministerial team in Cleveland, but chief among them was Richard Harper. He undoubtedly thought better of me than he should have. He was a father figure, placed in Cleveland by God, iron placed to sharpen iron.

Earlier this week, I received an email from Richard’s account. I looked down in puzzlement wondering if Richard had set up a posthumous message in the event of his passing. He was one of the most thoughtful persons I had ever met, so this would have surprised me little. It was his son Scott, whom I think I have only met once, sending us a final email from Richard, bringing closure to an electronic correspondence that Richard would send his fellow pastors and friends from time to time.

In much the same way that Jesus would send the Holy Spirit in his absence, so Richard would send us what he called “one pagers,” in his absence. Though he had gone to Middle Tennessee to be with family, he would be present with us left behind in his “one pagers.” In these documents, Richard would extrapolate in detail the things he was learning, new “light” being shown to him by God, scripture he was considering and its implications. At the close of a “one pager” was always an encouragement to go further into faith, to step into a deeper part of Gods pool of refreshment. I did not respond to many of them, but I read them and often let Richards devotional time become mine.

As I read this final “one pager” written by Scott, I thought to myself, “This could have come directly from Richard…” It sounded just like him. What a powerful final thought given to us, by Richard, through his son.

So to Scott specifically, I want to say especially on this day…I mourn with you, but be encouraged, the apple does not fall far from the tree. You are his son. You carry him with you forever. Thank you for sharing him with all of us and thank you for these very fitting final words. I pray God’s peace be extended to you and your family in these coming days and years.

The Gospel of John notes there many more things that could have been written about Jesus if only there had been enough pages to contain them. Similarly, I am certain it would take many books to fill the pages with Richards 81 years of life. My words are but hints toward the fullness of the epochal change that has been left in the world because Richard live in it.

Today, the church and his family will bury some of the grace given to us known as Richard Harper. To use an image given to me by Scott, today the road will meet the heavens.

To Richard I say, “Thank you for being a friend, mentor, encourager, an example of Christ, and a model of what the Christian life should be. May God embrace you with his spirit, may his love consume you as you enter his rest and may that which you so vigorously pursued now burst in your sight!”

I was witness to the epoch Richard Harper. Richard was witness to the Epoch of Jesus. May we all live from this day forward as people who have encountered them both.

A Thanksgiving Re-Membering

It was probably 22 years ago when I made the comment that would follow me the rest of my days. I was a 13 year old kid riding in the back seat of my parents car on the way to West Virginia for Thanksgiving.

My mother, always the astute observant one, said, “well today is the busiest travel day of the year.” Her son (me) not to be trumped by her astuteness responds, “What? Wednesday?” My mother looks at me like the idiot I am, the 13 year old boy who was as clueless as he seemed, and said “No you knucklehead, it’s the day before thanksgiving.”

Now, flash-forward 20 years and 2 degrees of higher learning later…I am sure I will be reminded this year, as every year, of what is apparently my dullest intellectual moment.

But this is what partly what holidays are about: those moments of memory making that get lodged in familial consciousness and become part of a larger narrative. Moments that help us re-member the moment when its gone and provide a connection and place of belonging long after.

Last night I watched the Thanksgiving episode of the new TV show, This is Us. If you have been missing this, stop doing so. I rarely watch TV and never saw an episode of Friends until it had been off the air for 5 years…but this show is excellent. The elements at play and the multiple narratives in this family unit transcend the screen and speak to all of us.

Aside further commentary on the show, last night’s episode was about (among many substories) the making of family traditions and how those influence the present. The episode pitched present practice in light of historical happening. We saw characters doing things particular to that family such as the traditional Thanksgiving walk in the woods, hot dogs wrapped with melted cheese and rolled in crushed saltines, and the infamous Pilgrim Rick. We scratched our heads and wondered how this family got here with these forms of life.

The episode unfolded and gave viewers insight into the peculiarity of this family and how they became who they are, how past practice shaped present life. It was also a catalyst for the future, an open ended uncertain one (just like all of ours) but I’ll refrain from going further.

This episode took my back to Thanksgivings I will never again live. They are the dead living Thanksgivings that shape the present yet still provide an entrance into an unknown future.

For the majority of my life, until the passing of my grandmother in 2012, Thanksgiving was always spent in West Virginia. I remember riding north on Interstate 75 to the 64 West junction, the Lexington to Ashland corridor, on the way to West Virginia.

As we would near the end of that stretch of 64 and pass over the river into W.V. I would look up at the interstate sign that welcomed us. It read “ Welcome to Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia.”

As a child, I always understood the “wild” part but it was much later that I understood the “wonderful.”

We would arrive at my grandparents the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

As we stepped onto the porch and knocked on the door, my grandpa would stomp through the house as only he could; it seemed the pictures inside were most likely hanging on for dear life with every step he took.

He’d open the door with a billowing southern drawl and would say, “Come on in, come on in.” Then, almost like a religious tradition, he would yell at my grandma, “Mom, Mick and them is here…are you hungry? Mom, go to the kitchen an fix’em sumthin.”

My grandma would usually hop up, straighten her shirt, give us a hug and ask, “Are y’all hungry? You’re probably hungry. I’ll go fix ya sumthin.”

My grandpa wasn’t a huge fan of wearing shirts, so he’d often make this greeting shirtless.
Did I mention he liked to give hugs?

We’d walk through the door and the heat from the wood burning stove would smack you in the face. He’d ask if you were cold and if he needed to add wood to the stove. No one ever indicated they were cold…because that was impossible in that home at this time of year.

The evening would ensue with conversation, hugs, grandma making some hot cocoa or perhaps even making the hamburger you didn’t ask for and eating it anyway.

We didn’t stay up long because the next 3 days would find us in the woods. We’d crash wherever we could crash and for kids my age that meant the floor or couch.

You see, my grandparents lived in the woods. It was the kind of woods that lived in the woods, not the kind of woods you could drive out of and be at Wal-Mart in 15 minutes. It took work and a good dose of Imodium to want to go into town from their house.

As my grandpa was not want to say, “You can kiss yourself driving around these hills.” There isn’t the slightest bit of hyperbole in that phrase.

So when we got there for Thanksgiving it was to stay, in the house, in the woods. Most of our time would be spent in the woods as well.

Early Thanksgiving morning we would get up around 5am, put on our coveralls, gather the shotguns, and head into the woods, the cold pitch black night behind their home.

My grandparents lived in a “holler,” a small grassy flat in-between 2 mountains. We would literally walk out of the house and within a 50 yards be walking up a hill. There were no flat places to walk really and no way to use a 4 wheeler either. We did it all by foot, often a 45 minute walk with the ice bitten weeds crunching beneath our feet. We were going into our part of the pitch black where we would sit as the sun rose, hoping to not only see deer but maybe even bring one down the hill.

I’ll never forget those walks up those hills, Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving. It was brutal. I always thought I was in good shape until early Thanksgiving morning every year. Often it made me question my sanity for doing so and it certainly made me wonder how my grandpa got up these hills when my 15 year old body was thinking of a billion other things it would rather be doing at the moment.

Usually my dad, myself and an uncle or two would walk together and then part ways in the dark…being careful to tell one another where we’d be.

And then, as if reaching the pinnacle of Mount Sinai, we’d arrive. Then, we would sit. It was a little anti-climactic. We didn’t use fancy tree stands or fancy hunting covers. We wore camo and sat on the ground or stood beside a tree.

Daniel Boone would have been proud.

Those mornings were characterized by the wind howling through those mountains, shaking the trees overhead. Squirrels would litter the forest floor, making your head turn in multiple directions in hopes that it was a deer. We would sit in these woods for hours, on that hilly 100 acre farm that was my grandparent’s home.

As the sun slowly rose, and the dark gradually give way to the light, there was often a chorus of gun fire as hunters would fall upon unsuspecting deer. The realization that if we didn’t have a deer now, we most likely wouldn’t, had set in…but stay in the woods we did. Hope springs eternal in two places: Baseball spring training and in the mind of hunters.

Then, around 11am if nothing was happening, like Moses we would descend the hill.
It was time to eat Thanksgiving dinner.

Above my grandparents home, on top of the hill, was a large clearing where cattle used to graze. It was a large open field that you could literally look all the way across, several hundred yards long and it least 200 yards wide. My family and I often meet up in that clearing, survey the grassy plain and surrounding woods. We’d discuss how the morning went and would accompany one another down the hill. It was usually a time of laughter and genuflection.

We’d descend down the washed out road, overgrown with thorn and thistle, that led to the house. In earlier days, when I was younger, this process also included dodging the occasional cow pattie.

We’d arrive at the bottom of the hill, pretend we were wrestlers and hold the barb wire fence for one another as we passed through it and trudge to the house.
Climbing onto the porch, coveralls and boots would be removed, loaded guns would lean against the house, and we’d enter the house greeted to the smell of homemade biscuits, canned green beans and turkey.

Grandma had gotten up around the same time as us. We went into the woods; she went into the kitchen. Her time spent working with her hands had usually been more productive than our time in the woods.

We’d congregate in the living room, a small 12×20 space if I can recall, with a stained spackled white ceiling and worn hardwood floors. We’d share stories of what we saw, didn’t see and what we’d hope to see later in the evening when we went back into the woods. My grandpa would then chime in and rehearse the deer equivalency of “big fish” stories and fill our heads with impossible images of bucks with 12 point racks making fun of us as we pretended to be ninjas walking through the leaves.

My grandpa would sit in his recliner like a teenage boy, shirtless, with jeans that hadn’t been washed in a week. He’d have one leg slung over the arm of the seat and the other on the floor usually chewing on a saltine cracker or with a coffee cup in his hand.
He’d smile, laugh, tell us of all the deer sightings he’d had in the past year..or 10, and then grin as only he could and say “yes sir, those deer are up there a watchin you…rolling around laughing at ya as you walk right by em.”

Grandma would then come into the living room, her hair often stuck to her forehead matted from the heat and perspiration generated in their tiny kitchen. She’d say, “foods ready” and then she’d sit on the sofa, relaxing and holding a cup of coffee, as we all entered her office to enjoy the fruit of her labor.

There would often be about a dozen of us or more at their home for Thanksgiving. As my grandma got older (to make it easier on the clean up) we would use Styrofoam plates and eat Thanksgiving dinner in the living room or on the front porch if it wasn’t too cold.

Grandma would ask about how we liked the food and we would eat our fill. She took great pleasure in taking care of her family. She was a child of the Great Depression, so certainly the stereotypes of that era worked their way into my grandparents home, so for better or worse she understood herself as a caretaker. She loved her kids and grandkids. She loved taking care of them, spending time with them, and as she got older and more bold, calling my grandpa on his crap a lot of the times (grandpa was known to exaggerate just a little).
There was nothing better than hearing my grandma laugh as she’d tell an old story or correct my grandpa as he was telling his usual “whopper.”

After supper we’d get redressed and make our way back into the woods, hoping for that illusive Buck we missed earlier that morning…and we’d sit until dark, often times letting the lamp near my grandparents shed guide us back down the hill when the sun was no longer able.

The evening would be filled with stories about what we’ll do differently tomorrow and what parts of the hills need coverage. We’d rehearse what we learned (which was really not much) and how we’d hunt the following day. We’d talk about the gun shots we heard on hills on the other side of the holler or those that were in close proximity. We told lots of stories because that was really the whole purpose of this tradition: continuing the story of Us with each other.

In retrospect, the goal was never bagging a deer; the goal was time, spending time with one another, sharing stories, and being in nature. If we got a deer, great, if not, we still had the experience…and many times the experience is what matters most.

After story time, the next family tradition would begin: cards.

We never used money or real life peanuts, we just kept paper score. Back then, playing was the point. Winning or losing incidental.

Gathered around the kitchen table would be myself, grandpa, my dad, uncles and cousins. On occasion an aunt would play as well. We’d all gather in that tiny kitchen with a hutch too large for its space, and a table that somehow was crunched between a refrigerator on one side and stacks of food on the other. There wasn’t enough room for 6 grown people to sit around a table but there was always room for 6 grown people around the table.

Grandpa would usually begin the ritual with, “You boys want to play cards? Mick, mom’s got the table cleaned up lets go on in there and play some cards. Come on boys.”

My dad would usually shuffle the first hand and he was always the score keeper.

The games of choice: Hearts or Bid 10. Hearts is common enough; it’s the opposite of Spades. Bid 10…well, I’ve never heard of anyone else playing it. Maybe it was made up, maybe it was a thing and isn’t any longer, but for us it was ritual. It was a classic card game dealing cards, revealing the trump suit, and trying to win as many (or as few) hands as possible.

The animation was never lacking at the table. We were all in it for the fun but my grandpa, I think he was in it for the glory.

As for hearts, there was nothing more funny than watching a game of hearts unfold with my grandpa. He’d start out fine. Everyone would be playing nice. A heart here, a heart there. It was as if Oprah was giving out hearts to everyone.

Then, my grandpa would do what he always did: he’d try to shoot the moon. And often it was a success. I don’t believe anyone shot the moon as much as my grandpa…

But, if he tried to shoot the moon and didn’t get it what would ensue would be a dangerous spiral of self destruction. He’d shrug it off, demur its importance and we’d resume play…but then somehow he’d end up getting way too many hearts. His game would fall apart; He’d shoot for the moon again and miss…by 1 card. And we all would just keep feeding him the cards…and he’d get hotter by the moment. (this is where I’d insert an emoji of LOL).

If he was playful, he’d give you a wily smile and say, “Don’t you worry about ole pawpaw, pawpaw will take care of himself.” He’d shrug off the loss and we’d move onto Bid 10.

Bid 10 was a game of chance, skill and pure luck. Chance and luck not being the same in this game. Here, the object was to predict how many hands you would win. If you won that many hands you got positive points. Failure to be a prophet meant negative points. To complicate matters, each game was composed of 20 hands and 20 alone. You start with 10 cards, then 9 and so forth, until you get to 1 card then you go back to 10. Along the way you predict if you will win or lose hands along the way.

My grandpa loved Bid 10. When he was hot and on a roll, he’d even try to cripple the table with the thud of his giant hand against the table placing his card at its center. It was his way of asserting his superiority of the present situation.

My grandpa loved to win but he also loved to see his boys lose.

When he was in it for fun he’d laugh whenever Lady Luck frowned on any of our nights. He’d play it cool, sit in his chair at the tables end, chew his tobacco and laugh. His chair was always close enough to grab the door that led outside, pull it open, spit and resume play. The cool breeze into the tiny kitchen usually didn’t hurt either.

After 2-3 hours of play the card games would come to an end. It was time for bed, time to get rest before we made our way back into the woods.

Thanksgiving Day was over but the Thanksgiving weekend had just begun. The next 2 days would be likewise: Morning walks into the woods, afternoon lunches, front porch or fiery furnace living room conversations, walking back into the woods, then back down the hill for a nightly round of cards.

Throughout our time there aunts and uncles would stroll in and out of the house. Cousins would come and go. Even distant relatives that lived in hollers 10 times removed would make a cameo over the weekend.

If a person could survive staying in woods that were in the woods, in a house that would dry out your sinuses and skin yet keep you warm, and didn’t mind a steady stream of watching Westerns every evening…then you’d love this kind of Thanksgiving. I know I did…and I wish it was the kind I was having this year.

My grandpa never met a stranger and my grandma never harbored ill will. We’d talk about politics and we’d talk about religion. But we never hated one another over either. That’s not to say the family was absent drama; we had it, just like everyone else, but it wasn’t over politics or religion.

These were our rituals. These rituals had the actors of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. We are part of a large family. I have 8 aunts and uncles so I never understood what it was like to have a small family get together. Each person was unique, offering their own sense of dry, wry humor.

As I got older, had my own family, and started staying closer to home with my kids, I slowly began to miss out on these Thanksgivings. It was one chapter of my life that gave way to another. I took my kids to my grandparents house a few times but my kids staying at a house in the woods that lives in the woods is a recipe for mental breakdown. Not to mention the house wasn’t large enough for adding humans on top of humans. It was crowded enough growing up…without bringing my newly created clan to the party.

I hate that life does this, that it merges into different tributaries keeping you connected yet slowly creating a distance. I knew growing up that one day would be the last, that one Thanksgiving would be the last one shared with my grandparents in that small house that sat between two mountains.

I knew that a day was coming when I couldn’t rely on an uncle for narcissistic wit or an aunt for long lost hug. I knew there would come a time when my grandma would make her last homemade biscuit and my grandpa throw down his last card. I knew it would happen…but honestly, it sucks even though you know you can’t stop history from making itself.

I knew that one Thanksgiving I would say goodbye to my grandparents for the last time. I knew it and now I live with it.

I miss those days.  I wish I could get them back, bottle them, secure them in my memory. I wish I had one more holiday in that house, with those people, and that I’d make more of it than I probably did.

But I can’t go back. We can’t go back. Those days are gone. My aunts and uncles all have grown kids. My cousins have their own families, who have their families. Someone else owns my grandparents old farm. My grandma was buried in 2012 and my grandpa in 2014.

Pandora has left the building.

To my family, those that helped make these Thanksgivings and memories, I say thank you. My life would be much less without you and my memories more anemic. We have created rituals, lived them, and now re-create them as history has taken us here.

I am sincerely thankful for all of you and the rituals that have shaped who I am and what matters most.

This Thanksgiving I give thanks for all of you, all of us, and all that we have shared.

As I close, I want to share the closing lines I spoke at my grandmother’s funeral. I had the honor of giving the eulogy at both their funerals. I am thankful that my family placed such confidence in me.  I have not shared this publicly before but perhaps there would never be a more appropriate time to do so than now.

The hardest part of telling stories and rehearsing rituals is that parts of the story will inevitably come to an end. Endings are endings…it’s hard to give them a more apt description. We know what they are even as we wish they weren’t.

Saying goodbye to this part of the story, to Thanksgivings past, is saying goodbye to the two people that held it together: my grandparents. This is how I said goodbye to one of them for the last time.

“As we say goodbye today, there is an image that stands out in my mind of mawmaw. It’s an image that’s not just mine, its all of ours in her family. It’s an image that we share as children and grandchildren. It’s an image that she would often share with grandpa by her side.

The most difficult thing about leaving mawmaw’s house was seeing how much she loved her family…seeing how much she longed for you to stay longer. And she would always say, “Come back and see me,” “Are you sure you can’t stay longer?” Then, reluctantly, we would all say “yes grandma…yes mom…we’ll come back. We’ll see you again.” We would give her a hug, kiss her on the cheek, and she would hold your hands as you pulled away from her hug. We would carry our luggage to the car, shut the door, turn on the engine and begin to pull off that country property surrounded by tall grass, old hollers and the dense woods that we all grew up associating with mawmaw and pawpaws house.
We’d pull out of the back driveway, hoping our cars had good shocks as we would get a vehicular jolt as our car pulls up onto that narrow road that would slowly ascend in front of their house. We would roll down the windows, look back at the house, and there we would see it. We’d see that image…there she stood, with grandpa’s arms around her waist and her’s around him…there she stood…waving. She was waving goodbye. We’d honk our horn, wave some more, and she kept on waving. And the thing about grandma was…she was never the first one to stop waving. We’d always stop waving, but as I often looked back as a child, grandma didn’t stop waving…I never saw it. I imagine she stood there waving, until we were far out of sight…she may have even walked off the porch and looked down the road, just to make sure we were gone before she stopped waiving. Those times we left, we always had a tear in our eye. It would slowly run down our face as we said goodbye to our grandma, our mother. We drove off, turned to the person beside us and talked about when we were coming back to visit her. We were sad to leave her, she was sad to see us go…but we always knew that there would be another visit.
As we leave this place, I think this is the image grandma would like us to remember. Only today, she is the one that stopped waiving first…but that’s ok grandma. We understand…because we know that you really didn’t stop waiving. You may not be standing on the porch this morning waving goodbye; but we all know why…You just went inside for a while to rest. But we know the end of the story, just like so many visits before…we may not know when we’ll see her again. We don’t know when life will bring our paths to cross once more, but just like the road that always led us back to mawmaw’s house…we know that eventually the road will lead that everlasting countryside…and if I know grandma and if I understand how much she loved her family…I know she’ll be standing on the front porch waving when we visit her once more…only then, we’ll never have to say goodbye again. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Rev. 21.4)

I wish all of my family a Happy Thanksgiving and want you all to know I am thankful for each one of you…and for those who are no longer with us.

In memoriam


In Memoriam: Posthumous Lessons from my Boston Terrier, Jax

My little boy kept going over to the blind, opening it, and peering outside, to see if it had really happened.  His mother would come behind him and close the blind again, trying to put a salve on the curious wound that had now been opened.   He would not be deterred.  Again and again, this happened, for several hours, until the night swallowed up the day and the empty pavement was no longer a distraction.

A few hours earlier, Jax, my Boston Terrier, had been hit by a car.  This 11 month old puppy, with whom I had not even shared a birthday, his or mine, was dead, his lifeless body lying at the head of our driveway, motionless.  There are three little boys to whom this dog belonged.  One had been told to bring him inside only moments earlier.  Moments earlier, Jax, was being himself.  He was on the porch wrestling with his favorite play thing, the cat.  All was normal.  Jax was being himself and the cat was on the receiving end.  They let him remain on the porch in his usual style with his usual best animal friend.

A minute later, another one of the kids was asked to bring Jax off the porch.  He goes over to the door, looks out the window panes on either side, and Jax is missing.  He was just there, now, he’s gone.  The boy goes outside, looks around, and suddenly rushes back in the door and exclaims, “Something is Wrong!”  All the children run outside with their mother only to find that death had snuffed life from the place where it once resided.  What was offered as a few minutes more of playtime had turned into a tragic tale of a dogs love for life proving his demise.

We are not sure what happened.  No one saw it.  It happened too quickly.  We surmise he was on the porch with the cat, whom was not faring so well, and the cat took off running across the road.  Jax, for whom caution was no obstacle, most likely dashed toward him, while an unforeseen vehicle driving much too fast on the road in front of our house, was dashing toward him.

There was no sound, no screech of wheels.  There was no remorseful driver that made their way to our front door, dog in hand, apologies falling from lips.  There was just our small puppy who had brought himself up the driveway going to the only place that he knew could help him. 

I hold many powers, but resurrection is not one of them.

About this time, I get a text, “Jax was hit by a car.  He’s dead.  I’m so sorry.” 

My reply “No. No.”

How could this little guy who had just played hide and seek with me only hours earlier be gone?  This little dog who kind of sorta smelled like Fritos and would wait for his turn to lick out the remaining contents of my morning yogurt container, gone? 

This news hit me like a punch to the gut, instant pressure and breathlessness moved over my chest as the suddenness began to overtake my senses.  This was a little guy that I took selfies with, and if you follow me anywhere on social media, you know I don’t take selfies…but now, I’m glad I did.

My favorite memory of him was the neurotic way he obsessed over my hands.  My hands were his favorite play thing because they contained the magic of the man/dog wolf pack of two that we had created together.  He liked to play rough and he liked being pushed and shoved and tapped on the nose with lightening speed.  He’d growl and nibble at my hands, and he would sound ferocious, but he’d never bite me and if I stopped playing rough, and went full silly voice, his ears would go back and he’d lick me until I needed another bath.  He was so obsessed with this way of playing I would often come home, sit on the couch, hands in my pocket, and he would come over to me, begin to nudge my pockets and attempt to dig my hands from their lair.  He would not be deterred.  I possessed the greatest toys around.

My wife moved him into the garage, wrapped him a towel and placed him in his bed.  She turned out the lights.

A few moments later she noticed one of our kids going to the garage door, looking through it and turning on the lights, the same child who was earlier opening the blinds.  She asked him what he was doing and he replied, “Jax doesn’t need to be in the dark.”  He loved his dog and he wanted to make sure that he was ok, that he wasn’t left all alone; he was hoping Jax would get back up…he was hoping for a miracle. 

When everything feels dark, it’s only natural to turn on the lights.

Two of my boys are huddled on the couch crying together, wrapped in a blanket, and the other sits with his mother and says, “I sure wish magic was real so I could bring Jax back.”

All three kids are crying, not able to concentrate on homework, not able to play or be kids because Jax is in the garage, dead. 

I step into the house and the absence is palpable.  I get home and find them all in their room, attempting to do the impossible: sleep.  This just doesn’t feel right.  I, for one, am speechless.  Not that I don’t have words; I just want to keep them inside.  I don’t have much time.  Jax needs to find his final resting place tonight, but I want to the kids to have one more opportunity to say goodbye.  We ask them if they would like to do that before I go and take care of Jax.  They all say yes, climb out of the bed in their pajamas, make their way into the garage, and stand around Jax still not sure what is happening but knowing that whatever this hurt is, it is real.

I was at work all day.  The last time I saw him I put him in his cage, told him he was a good boy and left the house, fully expecting him to be excited to see me hours later.  Instead, what I found was a poor little puppy, wrapped in a blanket, rigor mortis set in, his eyes open peering into mine, as he lay in his dog bed.  Animals this small begin the death process quickly after they breath their last.  I really hoped I’d find a softer puppy I could pick up, look at and hold, but he was too stiff and his body was cold.

He had died around 3:50pm.  I did not get home until 9:15pm.

I find a box that is suitable for him.  Put on my hat, gloves and goose down coat, and carry him in his box into the yard, the cold biting my face but my face not even flinching.  I have parked my car at a slant facing the part of the yard where I will bury him and I turn on the headlights so I can see.  I choose a spot right next to Bailey, his predecessor, and our family dog of 11 years.

What made burying Jax so difficult tonight was the fact that we had just buried Bailey last April.  Bailey was our Westie we had gotten the week of college graduation, Spring 2003.  He had been the dog that was home through our first milestones: babies being born, 3 different apartments, 2 different houses, moving out of state, and sat by my feet as I wrote many papers for seminary.  Jax was brought into our home 3 months later.  He was supposed to be the dog for the next 10-15 years, the dog the kids would leave with mom and dad when they went to college, that their High School girlfriends would pet, the dog they would really remember as their own.  And now, in an untimely fashion, I was burying him feet away from Bailey.  Losing him seemed like losing Bailey all over again, only now with a year of memories to boot.

I understand that having a pet will mean dealing with loss and I am totally “ok” with that loss happening once every decade.  I can deal with a gaping hole that is more loyal than most humans happening to me once every 10 years…but twice in less than a year just sucks.  I promised myself that all the things I didn’t do with Bailey, or the ways I would sometimes think of my dog as an inconvenience, I would not do with Jax.  Jax was my redemption, my next attempt at being the owner that Bailey deserved when I felt like there were times when I had not loved him as much as he had loved me…and that’s why losing Jax hurts…because I was a good owner and I loved him the best I could and he loved me…and now he’s gone, so I have lost the dog that knew my voice for the past 11 years and now I lost his successor much too quickly.

I picked up the shovel and began carving out a 1 ½ x 3 size square into the ground.  After 35 minutes of digging in the dark, taking brief pauses for emotional moments, I opened the box and looked at him one last time.  I cried.  Actually, I wept.  I touched his face.  I apologized to him.  I told him I loved him.  And I thanked him for being a great dog.  I closed the lid.  Placed him in the ground and covered up my newest best friend.  With what remaining strength I had left at the end of the day, I padded down the dirt, leaving a mound for the ground to settle…walking away, I looked back, still not sure of what I had just done.

Funny thing is I used to not be a dog person, until I was.  Bailey and Jax did that to me.  They made me love them because they loved me.  Even when I didn’t realize it, they were working their magic on me and I only realized how successful they were when they were gone.

It seems ridiculous to be hurt and tore up over losing an animal.  I used to think so myself, until I felt the hole that is left when something you love so deeply is gone.  No, they are not human…but when they live in the house with you they become one of your creatures, part of you, and something you consider when making decisions.

The reason it hurts when we lose humans close to us is because they were close to us, not because they were human.  Humans die every day and none of us care.  Humans in our families die, humans that we didn’t see or talk to much, like our “moms dads cousin” and many of us have been to their funerals, offered condolences, but it hasn’t kept us up at night.  But humans that live with us, humans we share life with, humans that are human with us, those humans matter and when we lose them we are inconsolable.  And truth be told, we never really get over that loss.  The loss remains and we know it.  We just learn to incorporate the loss into our lives and learn to live a life of loss under the charade of healing.   But we all learn that part of living is living with losing.

Jax’s absence is already salient because he lived with me.  He slept in my bed.  He followed me around the house.  He rode in my car.  He would greet me every day when I got home from work.  He would bring me his toys and he would lick me to death if I’d let him.  He was the creature that would get my copyrighted stupid voice every day because only he would be entertained by it.

What makes us value those creatures, human and animal alike, is our interaction with them, and for many of us who are pet owners, we can literally have thousands of interactions over the course of a lifetime with our animals.  The interaction we share with God’s creatures will often times dwarf what we share with most other humans, even the ones in our family, so it makes sense that we value these relationships and it makes sense that it hurts when they are stolen from us.

Our connection with our animals also indicates that we are created to be in harmony with both the human, and non-human, creation.  We want relationship with people and creatures…it taps into something that tells us we are not so different even though we tell ourselves we are.  This is why we are able to become attached so quickly.  Within a matter of days of bringing a dog home, he is already part of the family.  Once this belonging has been established, removing him from the family can in no way be undone without causing trauma, even if it is only a slight wandering of our mind toward “what if?”

The loss of our animals hurts because they are a gift to us; very literally, they become a grace to us, giving us forgiveness, acceptance and affection when we do not deserve it.   Grace is an unmerited favor bestowed upon someone without cause or purpose; grace is typically preceded by an unconditional love.  Jax, and all our animals, teach us many things, but perhaps the most important is that love can be given without condition.  Our animals love us regardless of how we treat them, what we buy them or how often we even give them attention.  Dogs, and I’ll go on a limb her, are perhaps one of the best examples of incarnational love in the animal kingdom because they truly, in essence, embody the love of the Christ toward us…a love offered by God, without stipulation, toward us, in order to save us from ourselves and our own damnation.  And they do it without thought for personal gain. They just want to love the world one lick at a time. I don’t know about you, but on more than one occasion Jax saved me from my own pity and loved me even when him licking my face was the last thing I wanted at the moment.

So I write these words and these thoughts in memoriam to my good buddy Jax.  I am thankful that he reminded me my heart is not rocky soil and I am thankful for the grace that he was in my life.  I sure am gonna miss him.  If God is ever going to be in the business of renewing creation like scripture says, Jax better be there or me and Jesus are going to have words.

Jax Napier.  In Memoriam: March 2014 – February 2015