Burying a son

My dad’s 86th birthday is this weekend. It won’t be an especially joyful occasion for dad. About a week ago he lost his youngest child, my brother Darrell. Darrell died at age 56 from complications to pancreatic cancer.

Mom turned 85 a couple weeks ago. For awhile we wondered if Darrell might die on her birthday. Instead he lingered a few more days. These were hard days for my parents. They were basically housebound 500 miles away from Darrell’s hospice house. Their fare­well was accomplished with a phone call, although Darrell was unable to speak. He communicated only by grunts and gestures which were relayed by our older sister Pam.

After Darrell’s memorial service in South Carolina, I spent three days with my parents this week in Ohio. It wasn’t especially a deep or spiritual time, although we did pray together a couple times. We didn’t tell stories about Darrell or look at any old pictures of him when he was healthy. Maybe that will come later. Dad is stoic and self-contained. He wants to move on. Mom is tender and open, but quiet. I know the pain of losing a brother, but they have endured the crushing experience of burying a son. That’s a much greater loss.

The Scriptures provide numerous episodes of parents who lost their children to untimely death. They include sons and daughters of both the rich and famous as well as the poor and obscure. It isn’t a rare phe­nomenon. The parents of the human race, Adam and Eve, lost a son to murder.

Naomi lost two sons to death and her husband as well. King David lost multiple children to death by murder and the judgment of God. Jacob mourned the death of his son Joseph, but Joseph turned up alive in Egypt many years later.

A few of the children who died were subsequently restored to their parents. They include some of the most unique stories in the Bible. Elijah raised the son of a widow in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-24). Ironically, we are told neither the name of the woman nor her son. Elisha raised the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:8-37). Again, their names are not provided. Jesus raised the son of a widow in Nain (Luke 7:11-17) and the daughter of a synagogue ruler (Matthew 9:18-26). These are the exceptions.

For the rest of us, death is final in this world. The mothers of Bethlehem mourned the loss of their baby boys by the sword of King Herod. But the children were not restored to their parents. Not yet.

Abraham almost lost his son Isaac in a very strange way. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering on an altar (Genesis 22:1-2). Amazingly, Abraham obeyed without hesitation. He believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. That’s incredible faith. At the last instant, when Abraham’s knife was in the air to slay Isaac as a sacrifice, the Lord stopped the procedure and rewarded Abraham’s faith.

At first it seems like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac doesn’t make any sense. Why would God command Abraham to do that? The initial answer is that it was a test of Abraham’s faith. But the meaning goes much deeper than that. The typology wouldn’t be fulfilled for two thousand years until God himself sacrificed his own son Jesus on the cross. This time the Lord didn’t stop the procedure. Jesus died on the cross. God buried his own son.

Parents bury their children because they lose them. But God buried his son because he gave him (John 3:16). A few dead children were restored to their parents. Their resurrection is a type (a picture) of what is yet to come for all in Christ. Because he lives, we too shall live. Such is the hope of a parent who has buried a child.

Resurrection. To Abraham life after death was a belief and a hope. The resurrection of Jesus made it a reality. He was the firstfruits of resurrection. We will follow later in due time. In the meantime, resurrection remains our belief and our hope. Parents still bury their children with the hope of a future resurrection. When Christ returns, he will make that resurrection a reality.

A grief observed

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7

My brother Darrell died last Saturday from complications of pancreatic cancer at the age of 56. I received the news while finishing a salad lunch at Costco six miles away. My sister Brenda was seated beside me with her cell phone. She said simply, “He’s gone. About five minutes ago.”

It felt like a sucker punch to the gut. For a few seconds it didn’t matter that Darrell’s suffering was over. For a few seconds I forgot that I had prayed a benediction over Darrell and told him I loved him several nights in a row. It just hurt badly.

I had recently blogged that death was welcome. But it really wasn’t. Not at that moment.

The hurt was immediately followed by regret. We hadn’t been there with him. We had stopped for a 25 mile torque check on our rotated tires. We were going to pick up salads and eat them in Darrell’s room. But they told us it would take 45 minutes with the car. So we ate the salads there. And lingered a few minutes more. We hadn’t hurried. After all, we had been waiting with Darrell almost a week. We were commuting from my older sister Pam’s house in Asheville, North Carolina. That was 65 miles away and we hadn’t seen Darrell yet that day. It was already noon. Suddenly he was gone.

Pain and regret stabbed me. I ran for the car, which I had just learned was ready. On the way, I realized that God’s timing was right after all. Anne needed to be alone with Darrell at the end. Suddenly I was glad she had been there instead of us. Had we arrived earlier, she might have left before he died.

By the time I pulled the car to the no-parking zone at the door two minutes later, Carol and Brenda had already reached the same conclusion. I loaded Carol’s crutches into the back (she had sprained her ankle 12 days earlier), jumped into the driver’s seat, and said, “Let’s pray.”

We drove and prayed. Or prayed and drove. When we arrived 10 minutes later, God was already providing peace. Anne was ready for us. All was well. At least, all was going to be well.

In the days since, I’ve been aware of deep grief. My mind regularly goes back to Darrell. He was my only brother, but we weren’t especially close. I was almost five years older by the calendar and four years ahead of him in school. I was finishing college and getting married when he finished high school. I was the oldest in my high school class. Darrell was the youngest in his class. It made a difference. We were very different. We didn’t do a lot together as kids. Not only was I older than Darrell, we also had different values and different interests. Our life paths diverged.

We met a few times over the years for vacations and holidays. But we didn’t see each other a lot, not even every year. We weren’t angry or fighting. We were just in our own very different worlds.

Late in January, Darrell called me. He said he was finally ready to open up. He told us his disease had returned and the news wasn’t good. He was scared. He asked for prayer. We prayed.

After that, I was the one who initiated contact. Darrell was still very private. He didn’t want calls more often than every three weeks or once a month. Sometimes it was hard to reach him. He was hospitalized a few times. He kept saying, “No visits and no money.” I nudged him toward Jesus and pointed him toward some resources. He said he’d check them out. I asked about his faith. He said it was “slow.”

At the informal memorial service on Sunday, one his co-workers (Rich) stood up and said he had very directly confronted Darrell about heaven in one of his last coherent days. He said, “Sometimes you had to be very direct with Darrell.”

That was true. Darrell didn’t respond to subtle hints. Rich told the group how Darrell had confirmed that he was going to heaven. That is a comfort to me. But Darrell’s death still hurts. I’m not sure I expected it to hurt this much.

Anne told me about another person who was coping with death by pretending it never happened. I’ not sure it’s possible to do that. I think if you try it, you’re left with only a very superficial life.

It’s much better to live deeply. That involves the spiritual world. That means connecting with Jesus. He has offered to carry our pain. I can testify that it’s a genuine offer.

Jesus does carry our pain. I still feel the loss, but it’s not crushing. All is well. At least, all will be well.

 

Crossing the Bar

“All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” Isaiah 40:8

My brother Darrell passed peacefully from this world into eternity at 12:25 p.m., a little more than an hour ago. God was right on time. His wife Anne was by his side. The rest of us were on our way, a few minutes away. It is proper that God arranged for Anne to be alone with Darrell at the end. The rest of us would have crowded her.

No formal funeral arrangements are planned. A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.

Crossing the Bar
Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1809 – 1892

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have cross’d the bar.

Tarrying

For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay.” Hebrews 10:37

Many people have declared that the Lord’s timing is always perfect. God is never late. Nor is he early.

It’s a challenge to embrace God’s timing when you’re watching your brother die a slow and agonizing death. I don’t know if the process is agonizing for Darrell. He is non-communicative, non-responsive, and heavily medicated. We don’t see signs of conscious suffering, for which we are grateful. But his uneven, shallow gasping for breath is agonizing to watch. Apparently the fluid retained in Darrell’s swollen legs and feet are hydrating his body and prolonging his life.

How does this delay of death fit into God’s timing? Is God ever late to a funeral? Do bodily fluids take life and death out of God’s hands. In reality, is this merely a matter of nature?

The short answer is that providence, sovereignty and omnipotence imply God’s presence and perfect divine timing. Life and death are matters of nature from a human perspective only. God is above nature. He is supernatural.

But what about the natural, human side of prolonged suffering? What we are experiencing with my brother is not even an exceptional case. Prolonged suffering abounds throughout this fallen world. Much of it is far greater than we are enduring here in South Carolina.

What is God’s timing about such things? Hebrews 10:37 indicates that God’s timing is reliable. It is preceded by verses which issue a call for confident living and perseverance in the face of suffering. It is followed by a call for the righteous to live by faith. This is not a new idea. The writer of Hebrews is citing Habakkuk, who wrestled with the same problem around 600 B.c.

Habakkuk saw evil everywhere and pondered God’s apparent absence and indifference. God’s response shocked him. God told him things were going to get even worse before they got better. Judah would be carried into captivity by the Babylonians.

That’s like bodily fluid delaying the inevitable. Habakkuk explained how the suffering of God’s people would be prolonged. But “revelation” would come (Habakkuk 2:3). God would win in the end.

The writer to the Hebrews took that concept of approaching revelation and applied it personally. The Lord would come to remedy evil and suffering. God himself is the ultimate revelation.

What does all that mean to the reader of Scripture? It means that although the world appears to be falling apart, God is still in control. His timing is still perfect. It means we are to live by faith, not by what we painfully observe in slow motion on a hospice bed.

Based only on our sight, the Lord appears to be delayed, subject to bodily fluid in a dying man’s body. God appears to be absent or even indifferent. Life and death seem arbitrary and mechanical.

Habakkuk says, “Not so. God’s timing is impeccable.” The writer of Hebrews agrees. What appears to be apathetic tarrying to us is divine timing to God. We walk by faith, not by sight. Therefore we will not shrink back in the face of an agonizing loss. Not only will God be on time, he’s already present with  mercy and grace. Life and death are still in God’s tender hands, Darrell’s bodily fluids not withstanding.

Three weeks ago a friend in Minnesota was retelling a story about a horrific motorcycle accident he had barely survived 45 years ago. I asked, “Where was God in all this?”

He answered, “God was late, but he eventually showed up.”

No, not really. God was there all the time. And God is present with Darrell here. To borrow a line from another pastor: In the meantime, God is not absent, apathetic or angry. (cf. www.meantimeseries.org)

 

 

Pastor or brother?

And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. 1 John 4:21

My brother Darrell is dying of pancreatic cancer. He is a 13-year survivor. Almost 14 years. We’re not aware of anyone who has lived longer. When the cancer was first diagnosed, Darrell and his family were casual participants (perhaps members) of a Methodist church. They had a good relationship with the pastor. Then in the time of their great need, the church suffered a split. The pastor was ousted. As I understand it, they tried another church. Then it, too, suffered a split. Or maybe it was the same church a second time around.

In any event, my brother had what we call “a bad church experience.” There are two sides to every story. I didn’t hear the entire account. But in the aftermath, Darrell and his family essentially adopted a secular worldview. They felt burnt by the church. He never ceased claiming to be a believer, at least with me. I didn’t observe anger directed toward God. But his attention was drawn to other endeavors, especially beating his cancer by medical means. In my last extended conversation with Darrell, he described his walk of faith as “slow.”

When we arrived at the hospice home Sunday night, Darrell had been unresponsive for a couple days. Nevertheless, I read Scripture with him, invited him to faith in Christ and prayed with him. To watching family members, this was my pastoral task. Every day I’ve read Scripture to Darrell, expounded on the passage, and prayed with him. My role here has indeed been spiritual. But is it pastoral?

As Darrell has lingered, the question has arisen whether I should continue to stay near Darrell or drive to Ohio in support of our parents. In considering this decision, someone asked me what I want to do about Darrell as a brother, not just as a pastor. In other words, am I a pastor or a brother?

The question surprised me. As a pastor, I’ve read Scripture and prayed with people thousands of times. That experience has given me familiarity with the situation here. But I’m not Darrell’s pastor. I’m his brother. As his brother, I’m required to love him. In this situation, that means reading Scripture to him, presenting opportunities of faith in the face of death, and praying with him. I can do nothing less for my brother.

Pastor or brother? The answer isn’t both. I’m not the pastor here. I’m a brother.

 

Welcome, Enemy

 

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1 Corinthians 15:25-26

Death is a vile enemy. It defies faith. It denies hope. It devastates love.

Death is a vicious enemy. Jesus prayed to his Father, “If you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Then the Savior submitted to the most ignoble death possible. He willingly suffered the humiliating condemnation of a Roman cross.

Death is a defeated enemy. The Resurrection changed everything. Jesus turned death on its head. He came back from the grave, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Death’s final destruction is yet future. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54). In the meantime, humanity remains subject to the despicable throes of death. At present, death is still a powerful, hated enemy.

My brother Darrell is dying of cancer. It’s not a pleasant sight. He has not received food or water for six days. Yet he lingers. As far as we can tell, he is not aware of what is going on around him. His breathing is shallower today. Yet, incredibly, his vital signs are actually improving. His blood pressure improved today. His heart rate was closer to normal. The hospice care has been wonderful. He may yet linger for days. Or his departure from this broken world could come tonight.

God has his purpose in the timing of Darrell’s life and death. Yet I don’t recognize it in the lingering, unless it serves as an open door of invitation for those who remain.

God remains sovereign. Death remains an enemy, though a welcome enemy. When the angel of death finally arrives, it will sting. There will be genuine loss. We will feel pain. But death will accomplish only what God has decreed. Therefore I say to the hovering immanence of destruction, “Welcome, Enemy.”

Vigil

All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Psalm 139:16

Brenda arrived from Wyoming four hours ago. She is the one closest to Darrell in both age and relationship. Now all four siblings are together in the room. It may be the last time.

Brenda greeted Darrell warmly. No response. He has hung on five days since food and water stopped.

“You’re a fighter, you know?” she said to him.

Darrell is a fighter. But the game is fixed. God has determined every breath we take. It’s not fatalism. It’s ordained. Every moment has a divine purpose.

I can see grace abounding here. Darrell did not prepare well for eternity. He did not pursue God. But God has pursued him. The chase is nearly over. It’s out of our hands. I still don’t have assurance  of Darrell’s response to the Gospel. But I do have assurance in the One who created him and ordained every day of his life.

The doctor just examined Darrell. He said Darrell is a resilient guy. It could be hours to days until his death.

The time of Darrell’s death will not be an accident of nature or the exhaustion of his strength to fight for life. It will be the determination of his loving and wise Creator.