death

Mourning.

In my message on Sunday morning, I was overcome with sadness and I want to tell you why.

A few minutes after 10am, I discovered that a man who was my neighbor had passed away from a prolonged battle with pancreatic cancer. Immediately upon reading, I broke and could not contain the tears that flowed and the grief that racked my body.

To be honest, the pain was a little surprising. I loved him, but hadn’t seen him in many years, like more than 30. (I know not seeing someone for 30+ years makes me VERY old, but we’re not discussing my age. I still look 18 in just the right light from the right angle and distance, and while the running I did this morning makes me feel 144, I usually feel better than I did in college.) It just came so quickly, without time to think or process. I was just crying. Hard.

They were my neighbors when I was a young child, almost a mirror of my own family. The boy was my age, the girl was my sister’s age, their mom was my mom – and almost as awesome, which is high praise indeed – and their dad, my dad. Our dads didn’t hang out, they both liked their time in their own homes, but we all saw each other everyday.  

He passed last Thursday during the COVID-19 global shutdown, which means that there will be no service and that this wonderful family will mourn together alone. Without lines of people waiting to love them and without eloquent eulogies and without Psalm 23. I know God is there with them, we’re loving them from here, and Psalm 23 is always there about 1/3 into the Bible. But it feels totally wrong and I hate COVID-19 for it right about now.

It’s a common thing to ask “why?” in this situation, and maybe I will, maybe they are, but I just want to wrap my arms around each of them and tell them how much he mattered to me, even though for 30 years I didn’t recognize it. And tell them how thankful I am that he was in my life.

So, why did he matter to me? After the choked up Sunday sermon on Ruth was over, I mostly just sat in a prayer without words, and when Gisy asked me later, “Do you know why you’re surprised? If it’s that painful, there must have been something special about him,” I had an answer. There WAS something special about him. 

He was a man.

In a world where boys grow up into bigger boys, irresponsible, inconsistent, chasing something – who knows what??? Maybe past glory, addictions, pleasure, power, money, status. Maybe they chase to remember, maybe to forget. Maybe to feel or to numb. Who knows? What I know for a fact is that there is a disheartening lack of authentic masculinity. I was always looking to be inspired by the example and leadership of men.

Of course it’s an old-fashioned idea, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Incidentally, I was also looking to be inspired by the example and leadership of smart, strong, courageous women, but there were SO MANY more of those. I had 2 in my own home growing up. Men were much harder to come by, and as a boy, perhaps I couldn’t have named it, but I was looking for someone to show me how to do it; how to grow into one who loved Jesus, his wife and family well, who was consistently genuine, merciful, faithful, trustworthy, loyal, kind and strong, a peaceful warrior, open, safe, and passionate. How was I supposed to know?

He was a man, and there are too few of those in the world, and now that he’s gone, there are less. That was what I mourned, I think. I mourn for his wife and children and friends, that he is now gone and they are without him. But I really liked living in a world with him in it, there was something comforting to know he was here. I guess I mourn for all of us, that a beautiful man is gone and we are without him.

George Heath

Tuesday I attended a funeral service for a man I had never met. He was 97 years old and had lived an active, full life – factors that tend to shift the familiar mix of grief and hope, sadness and relief, toward the celebratory. I was there because he was also the father of one of the finest women I have ever had the pleasure of calling a friend. She called him “Daddy” and loved him dearly. The effects of his illness and inevitable end settled on her face and shoulders, making the answer to the weekly question, “How is your dad?” redundant. We all knew, and each of us struggled with what exactly we were praying for. The impossible battle with the government agencies for aid/military benefits which everyone agreed he deserved but which no one could actually manage to procure weighed heavily. (I’ll just leave that there – I’ve been wrestling with what all to say about that, have written and erased words for far too long. Maybe that means it’s not my story to tell. What I will say is that it is often very difficult to find help for people who desperately need it. —— )

When I began to lead small groups in my previous church, I started to notice a too-rare occurrence was any reference to a father as hero or positive role model. Usually, a father provides an obstacle to healthy relationships, more often absent than engaged. One of the first questions I ask is “how was your relationship with your dad?” and the answers are depressingly similar. But my friend Cathy had a unicorn, those lovely, mythical creatures we have all heard of but haven’t really seen. 

She (and her sisters) remained devoted to him, giving care and money and prayers and time and energy to him every day of his life. She loved him without limit, as he had loved her. (I know he must have had faults, as we all do, but those faults were buried deeply under all of the love and honor they shared.) Who she is is the ideal eulogy for a life well lived, and I wish I could’ve told him so.

I wish I could’ve thanked him while he was still here.

I love her dad, I love my dad, I love all dads. I used the word unicorn to describe those engaged, compassionate, generous, beautiful men in our midst, but that was a poor choice. Unicorns don’t exist. These men are everywhere, we just need to open our eyes to see and appreciate them for what they do and who they’re are. This funeral was inspiring and completely hopeful, (for what was possible when a man lives with purpose, wisdom, strength and a heart that loves passionately), as was his life.

My friend’s Daddy doesn’t make me want to be more like him, it’s much better than that. He makes me want to be more like me, more like the me I was created to be.

He wrote songs, and the service ended with all of us standing, singing his ‘Words for the  Closing Chorus:’

May the Lord who reigns above

Bring to you His peace and love

Give us strength to carry on

Light to show us the way

Walking ever in His grace

Lift your eyes and see His face

And live in His love evermore