We were in Edisto Island, South Carolina. It happened as we were walking the beach. It was January so it was not that warm. Warmer than northern Indiana at least. And sunnier. Much sunnier.
As my sun-deprived body soaked up the vitamin D, I had a memory flash across my synapses. As the waves crashed against the shore, a wave of grief washed over my mind. I walked ahead of Emily and the kids, allowing the tears to come.
Last April my dad was in the hospital. He had been in and out of the hospital over the last six months. He had cirrhosis and his health was declining, but the other hospital visits were only long enough for them to get some of his levels where they needed to be. Then, he was discharged and sent home.
This time, the medical team initiated a conversation about hospice being an option. A meeting was scheduled. Family gathered. My brother and I joined via a conference call. The Hospice nurse was so gracious, kind… pastoral even. She shared about the different options and, gently, shared the reality that dad’s health was on a trajectory of decline that doctors could not detour. The hospice nurse asked a question about how my dad would want his last days to be. “If” they were indeed closer rather than farther away, how would he want to die?
My dad, envisioning how he would want his end of life picture to look said, “I want to be on the beach in Florida surrounded by my family.”
Our family was on vacation in South Carolina at a Wyndham resort. There was a golf course on the resort grounds. I remember one of the few times my dad and I went golfing together was in Hilton Head, SC. We were terrible. There were so many gators in the ponds and streams. So many ponds and streams. I lost so many balls. I found about as many as I lost which told me we were not the only terrible golfers on the course.
A golf course in South Carolina caused tears to slowly and gently come.
The beach. Palm trees. Florida. Vacations. Staying at our vacation RCI resorts. These were some of my most cherished memories and are now nostalgic triggers of grief. Not in a bad way. It’s weird. The memories and the nostalgia are still good memories. Like, the grief doesn’t ruin it.
I remember seeing an interview with the actor Andrew Garfield. Apparently, his mother had passed recently. He said something that I thought was very profound. He said, “I hope this grief stays with me because it's all the unexpressed love that I didn't get to tell her.” Grief is unexpressed loved. I like that. Grief is sadness over loss, but it is also evidence of love.
In her book This Here Flesh, Cole Arthur Riley writes about the healing necessity of lament,
Lament itself is a form of hope. It's an innate awareness that what is should not be. As if something is written on our hearts that tells us exactly what we are meant for, and whenever confronted with something contrary to this, we experience a crumbling. And in the rubble, we say, God, you promised. We ask, Why? And how could we experience such a devastation if we were not on some mysterious plane, hoping for something different. Our hope can be only as deep as our lament is. And our lament as deep as our hope. Now there is a distinction to be made between true lament and the more sinister form of sadness we know as despair. Despair is lament emptied of hope. It is a shell that invites the whole of your soul to dwell in its void. Many of us will visit this shell, but despair depends upon our staying.
She writes about how much of modern Christian hope tends to push people to a sort of denialism that upholds positivity as the highest aim. She argues that there is actually a long tradition of lament in the Scriptures. About 70% of the Psalms are psalms of lament.
Lament is not evidence of a loss of hope, but evidence that we hope. She suggests that healing is not found through a sort of optism-at-all-costs repression of grief, but rather a journeying through grief holding hope and loss in tension.
“We are born knowing how to cry, but it takes another to teach us how to cry well and with purpose…I walk the path and whisper to myself, You are no shell. I make the pilgrimage into my deepest sorrows, knowing tragedy doesn’t own me. Your wails are worthy to be heard. Journey to the center with me now; together, we won’t get lost in despair….”
It was April 16th 2022, the day before Easter. It was my first Easter as the lead pastor of LifePoint Church. Up to that point, I had not shared much about my story related to my dad, but I realized that I could not speak about Resurrection hope without acknowledging what I was experiencing. So, my first Easter sermon was somewhat messy and vulnerable.
Today is not Easter Sunday. That was last week. But, I realized about two weeks ago that even though the anniversary of his death would not land on Easter, Easter would always be a reminder of that Easter I preached after he died.
I have been in the church long enough to know that the lingering question in people’s minds is: “Was he saved?” What people are usually getting at is this: Is there hope even in the face of death?
I know I am supposed to like that question, but I don’t. Here’s why: we can sometimes act like the answer to that question can be determined by our particular criteria that is shaped by our denominational traditions. Whether we want to admit it or not. For some, he wasn’t saved if he wasn’t baptized (he was), if he didn’t say a sinner’s prayer (he did), if he didn’t live the victorious life (he didn’t), if he didn’t speak in tongues (he didn’t), if he didn’t actually live like a disciple of Jesus (sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t). So, was he saved? I suppose that depends on what your criteria would be.
Do I have confidence that the gracious embrace of the loving Father met him on the other side of death’s threshold? I do. He knew he needed Jesus to rescue him. There were decades of compounded shame and self-worth wounds that had a hold on him and hindered him from fully experiencing the freedom Jesus offers. But, I believe all of his wounds are healed now. He is whole.
Two biblical scenes come to mind as I think about his life. The story of the prodigal son, and the thief on the cross. The thief on the cross didn’t say the repeat-after-me sinner’s prayer, he didn’t get baptized, he didn’t live a life of discipleship, he didn’t even clarify whether he believed in all of Jesus’ teachings. He simply said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Jesus said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Sometimes I think we focus on the paradise part, but I want to zero in on the most important part: “Today, you will be with me…” To be with Jesus—that is what it is all about.