Greetings, one and all, after seven months! I apologize that I have not posted anything here for so long. I started a note in April, and then again in July, but I never got one finished. Hopefully this time I will succeed.
The time since the anniversary of Al’s death in early February has been a full time—full of joys and sorrows.
On the joyful side: all of us made it through the school year; Eowyn and Alden each attended two proms/formal dances; we celebrated my nephew’s wedding with all of my extended family; we visited Al’s family in Florida, and one of Al’s brother’s families visited us in Pennsylvania; Becky is loving her job; Lauren competed in her first triathlon; Alasdair donated bone marrow for the second time; Eowyn worked at a day camp this summer, and she also house sat for some friends, a combination which made her seem extremely grown-up and independent; Alden went to Guatemala with Food for the Hungry to work in the mountain village of Vipec Balam, a village that our church partners with; and Alasdair and Eowyn went to Africa to help a pastor there serve his community.
On the sorrowful side, my dad passed away in March. Two of my sisters were able to be in Vermont to help him and my mom in his declining weeks, and the other two of us had the privilege of being there to care for him when he died. He was a great man, and we all miss him. He and my mom would have been married 60 years in May. Immediately upon my return from Vermont there were other sorrows that hit, and I felt as if I were watching death unfold around me once again. Then in June my elderly neighbor passed away just before her birthday, which we always celebrated with her. (This neighbor was in her eighties, but her father was born during the Civil War!)
Through all of this, the Lord has consistently reminded me of his presence and his tender care. For example, two days after my dad died my mom and my sister and I happened to be at a large hospital where Al’s college roommate used to work. I didn’t know if he still worked there or not, and I didn’t know how I would find him even if he did, so I thought, “Well, Lord, why don’t I just pray that if by some chance Tom is here today, you will arrange for us to run into him?” Sure enough, later, in the restaurant we just happened to pick for lunch, there was Tom getting some coffee. Aside from how great it was to see him, that answer to my prayer was such a neat reminder that the Lord was right there with us, very present, very real, very powerful, and very tenderly assuring me of his love.
Another example: I have been increasingly aware of my inadequacies as a parent, particularly a single parent. This is not because my kids are going off the deep end or something like that, but because I see more and more clearly so many places where I fail and where Al’s gifts and strengths compensated for my own weaknesses. (e.g. I am much more comfortable being the “good cop” than the “bad cop.”) As I have cried out for wisdom again and again, the Lord has arranged various ways of providing it—chance meetings with other parents as we’ve dropped kids off at events, friends giving me books, etc. Again, aside from each individual piece of advice or encouragement being helpful in itself, each has been an answer to my prayer and a reminder that God is present with us as a family and that he is parenting my kids with me. He is their father, he loves them even more than I do, and he is even more committed than I am to seeing them grow to be like Jesus. That is such a comfort! And feeling out of my depth has also driven me to depend on him in a much closer way.
Just one more example: For a variety of reasons, Eowyn and I are quite behind on the process of figuring out where she will apply to college, and we just didn’t seem to be able to make any headway on the question. In God’s mercy, the father of one of Lauren and Alasdair’s friends, who is an expert in that field and is starting a business helping families find good college matches for their particular kids, has offered to help us sort that out! What a Godsend! (His business is called “Your College,’ website www.yrcollege.com, if you are in need of similar help.)
I find that there are three modes that I seem to operate in. (1) Sometimes I am simply busy doing life. (2) Sometimes I feel intense sorrow and grief as I miss Al. (3) And sometimes I am captivated by the hope and glory of heaven and the fact that Al is there now experiencing it, and I am deeply glad for him and filled with joy as I anticipate joining him someday.
Of course there is a certain extent to which I can’t predict or control which emotion will hit me at any given moment. Something completely unexpected may trigger grief that pours out in tears and will not be stopped.
But in a different way, I can choose which of the three modes to operate in. I remember being at an open house night at the high school last fall, and some friends asked me if it was hard to be there on my own. In fact, I hadn’t thought about it. Once they brought it up, I began to think about the fact that at open house night the year before Al had been with me and we had tailored our activities to his fatigue and his limited ability to walk (due to blood clots). The memory made me miss him terribly, and I knew that I could very easily dwell on it and be undone. So I consciously put the thought aside and chose to live in and focus on the present and save the grief for later. I try to do the same thing during Father-Daughter dances at wedding receptions. That is not always an option, but sometimes it is, and often it is the best choice.
Other times when memories arise that start the tears flowing, the best choice is to let them flow, to savor the memories and enjoy them to the full, even though they make the heartache more painful. It is tempting to flee from the pain by shoving the memory away and stuffing the emotions down under wraps, but I think it is good to relish the tender remembrances and to let the tears wash over my aching heart, even if that allows their saltiness to sting its wounds.
And always it is good to remind myself of the truth that Jesus conquered death and gave us eternal life, and that those who have died in him are already living that wonderful life in heaven. We are living a foretaste of it even now, but they have woken up into its full glory. Al is seeing God face to face—something he always longed to do—and worshiping him in all his revealed glory, bowing or dancing before his throne. Al is drinking in the pure air of heaven, walking in the light that comes from God rather than from the sun, rejoining people he loved or meeting ones he never knew in this world, exploring the wonders that the most breathtakingly beautiful things on this earth only poorly mirror, running over the hills of heaven with indescribable life and health pounding through his being, and perhaps playing basketball for all I know. Maybe some aspects of what I picture about our heavenly bodies will not happen until the final consummation, I don’t know, but I do know for sure that Al is living in the Lord’s presence with God’s people from all of history, and even just that is enough to overload the circuits of our limited earthbound minds. It is so good to remember this.
In the days and moments of life I find that all three modes are necessary. If I only lived in the busy present and never allowed myself to face the sorrow of Al’s death, I would become emotionally and spiritually crippled. Yet I do need to live in the present and to function in the life and responsibilities that God has given me to live out. If I only dwelt in the grief, I would be overwhelmed. Yet I do need to embrace and process that grief. And if I only thought about heaven, I would be so caught up with the glory of it that I would never get anything done! Yet I absolutely need the hope and joy that comes from knowing that Al is there and that I am heading there someday. So all three modes are needful, and while sometimes I can and should separate them, frequently they intertwine.
The last few days I have felt more sadness more consistently than I had in a while. There are factors that contribute to that: the death of a friend at church at the end of August and the grief of her family; the start-up of classes (all the seasonal events in the academic calendar remind me of Al, especially since I am still on campus); a gathering with friends (at a Brazilian restaurant—Al loved to explore ethnic cuisines that were new to him) to commemorate joys and sorrows we have shared together in recent years; disbursing the remainder of Al’s academic books (to students who will return to parts of the globe where there are few, if any, theological resources—I think Al would be pleased about that); the death of a dear friend’s mother just this past week; wondering what Al would have suggested to Eowyn about where to apply to college; and my unexpectedly becoming a Teaching Assistant in a Hebrew class at Westminster, which I think would have made Al both amused and proud.
Perhaps because of the cumulative effect of those assorted happenings, things that ordinarily would not prompt tears have done so this week. Doug Green gave an excellent overview lecture on the Psalms to our Women’s Bible Study, and it made me remember how much Al loved the Psalms. He read them through every month for years, and he lived and breathed them. That made me miss him. I bought a bottle of wine for a friend’s birthday, and my ignorance of wines and wine choices made me remember how Al would study wines and have favorites that changed every few years. Standing in the wine store I got a lump in my throat missing him. There is a drawer in the bathroom that still has lots of Al’s things in it, because I have yet to clean it out, and although I have opened that drawer dozens of time over the last year and a half, when I did so this week his absence hit me like a stiff gust of wind. I just miss him, plain and simple, and have been more aware of that recently.
But heaven seems close, too. Not surprisingly, I have been thinking about heaven more than ever in the last few years. But in addition, our women’s retreat this year was about heaven and how an awareness of what we look forward to in heaven makes a difference in our lives here and now. Jayne Clark did a fantastic job of helping us think about that topic.
Not long after that retreat in May I had conversations with two people who were facing likely “promotion to heaven” in the short term future. One was the woman who passed away a week and a half ago, and the other was a man who still lives in the area, whom Al met at the gym. As we talked, it was clear that they both were living with a calm awareness that their days this side of Paradise were probably not numerous and that, barring a miracle, their graduation to glory would likely come soon. And both of them, like Al, were also aware that the greatest miracle had already happened—2000 years ago in Palestine—and that because of it they had nothing to fear in death, only a glorious expectation of Much Greater Life ahead.
As I thought about them, and about others I have loved who have died (especially Al, of course), I began to see life as more of a continuum, with the boundary between earthly life and heavenly life seeming much thinner than I usually picture it being. We are alive here now (for some period of time that only the Lord knows the length of), the friends I mentioned in that last paragraph are alive here but probably will be in heaven soon (now as I write this, Nancy is already there), Al was recently here but has now been living there for a little while, and others once lived here but have been enjoying heavenly life for a long while now. I feel close to Al, even though he is there, and I was talking to those two friends who were with me at the time but would likely be with Al shortly. It made heaven seem very near at hand. Of course the days are numbered for all of us, but somehow talking to folks who knew that they would be stepping through the door into heaven soon helped me see just how close heaven is. And as the light of eternity shone through to this side and lit up their lives, it helped me see what “soon” means. Even if we live to 100 here, that’s nothing more than a blink in heavenly terms, and then we’ll be there. Ahhh, sweet comfort.
The man I mentioned, who has a wife and two young sons and who has been undergoing radiation all summer, has written letters that are so enormously encouraging that I wish I could put them all on this blog. But let me include just a passage in one of them that captures some of the ways I picture heaven. He wrote:
“As for me, I fix my gaze on heaven as I wait. Near my school, I run in a beautiful, wooded valley laced with trails winding their way along clear streams and through thick trees. Even this precious place has grown dim for me, a mere shadow of its heavenly counterpart, but at night, I daydream about heaven like a boy dreaming about playing professional baseball. I imagine running with a body now swift and strong. Golden hair streams behind me, and my muscles explode with power. Sometimes I run alone; at other times I’m with many of you, and we shine with radiant beauty for we are now part of Christ’s glory. (John 17:1) We sprint between trees as thick as houses with roo