My Dad’s “parting shot”, taken at the National Cemetery
Ever have someone congratulate you for “holding it together”? I used to think of it as a compliment. It is, in some senses. I mean, they mean it as a compliment.Ever experience joy at a funeral? No, not schadenfreude, but honest, heartfelt joy? Just before Christmas, I got an incredible gift of true joy that came from a guy who’s discipled me for years, at a time when it made all the difference in the world:
It was a week before Christmas. Dad had died a couple days prior. Arrangements had been made. Now, I was on a plane from ATL to BOS, to a funeral I didn’t think I needed to be at (I was over it, remember?). I was leaving my wife to watch 4 kids, including two sick 8 month olds, by herself for 48 long hours. In the middle of the trip to Dad’s funeral, I got a text, one I didn’t think I needed, which sustained me and became a banner of hope I carried for the rest of my stay.
“Make sure to feel what you’re feeling. There’s no script for this.”
Suddenly, clarity. I thought for hours about how my family had made a name for itself by making it
through the tough times with humor. We could deflect from our issues with the best of them – just crack a joke at an uncomfortable moment, and we didn’t need to weep anymore. We’d also built a great reputation for “holding it together”. You know, keeping a stiff upper lip when the chips were down. We could “be strong” with the best of them.
And, yet, we were missing something.
There’s a point in the opening chapters of Matthew when Jesus gets up on a hill and starts teaching people some of the definitive points of what the kingdom of God is all about. It’s an upside down economy where the weak are made strong, the wise seem foolish, and something I needed to hear brought me tears of both pain and great joy. “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be…”
Holy $#!&. Are you serious? No magic words? No secret prayer that’ll make it all go away in one fell-swoop? I thought all I had to do was “keep it together” and everything would be alright. Be strong and you’ll be fine? Not in God’s economy. Jesus promised us something amazing would happen to us if we’d just let down our guard to Him: mourn and we’re candidates for comfort that we’ll never find anywhere else. Conversely, we’d all (my 8 brothers and sisters, our aunts and uncles, etc.) been carefully taught to ignore the pain and it would go away. But, in truth failing to mourn revokes our candidacy for true comfort. Don’t mourn = disqualified for the comfort tailor made for you by the God who made you.
Gathered around the sarcophagus (alright, it was just a coffin, but it sounds more Indiana Jones, doesn’t it?), getting ready to bring Dad’s body from the funeral home to the church, were my brothers, sisters, and I. My brother Jamie had power of attorney, so his past few days had been eaten up by the taskmaster of preparing the funeral and taking care of administrative details so sterile you could eat off them. Yet, here, aside a body vacant of life, he finally fell apart for just a moment.
I couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Guys. Before we go, can I tell you something that’s given peace to my soul in a way I can’t even describe to you? Jamie finally cried. And, we all need to follow that example.” I told them about the text I’d gotten – read it aloud, told them how the guy who sent it to me had lost his dad to Alzheimer’s just over a year prior, quoted Matthew 5.4, and preached for 12 seconds on not being strong:
“Please, fall apart soon.” I said, “fall all apart, teary and snotty and messy. Nobody wins by being strong and Paul even said God’s power was made ‘perfect in weakness’. Please, don’t be strong.”
I didn’t know if it would have an impact, really. I just knew I had to say it.
I also knew something else: I had experienced it right there, several times. From the wake to the funeral, I’d had about a half dozen or more opportunities to look my Dad’s body right in the eyelids and weep, sob, or just tear up for a moment as I realized the many losses that had piled up, confessed them to God, and knelt overcome by the comfort that rushed in, in its place. This wasn’t one of those things they just tell you in a ministry training, conference, or seminary. It was the truth. Straight from a guy who’d discipled me for three years and right out of the word. And, I’d experienced it to be true.
So, are you experiencing loss? Will you trust God like David did in Psalm 6, Psalm 51, etc., like I was told to by my mentor, like my mentor before me had, and mourn? You will be… comforted.
LINK CORRECTION: the February newsletter link to part 2 of this series was incorrect. To see part 2, click here. This being the inaugural post of our Seasons of Life blog, I thought I’d keep it light. But, then, I thought about how many of you have been so kind to ask how we’re doing since the loss of my Dad just before Christmas. Thus, our first post is about a new season in our life, one without the presence of someone who wasn’t really physically present in our lives, but gave us a great present when he left: joy and peace. Enjoy. -AP
“I’m so sorry for your loss… So sorry for your loss… I’m sorry for your loss…” It went on and on. Family members I had forgotten existed or didn’t even recognize me passed through the line shaking hands, hugging us 8 brothers and sisters, even shedding tears or telling riotous stories that got us all laughing. “I’m sorry for your loss…sorry for your loss… sorry for your loss.”
But, what had I lost?
The call came in late on Tuesday night, December 14th. “Dad’s taken a turn for the worse.” Translation: the end is near – very, very near. Bob Pina had suffered multiple heart attacks in his 40s and 50s, at least 7 strokes during his 50s, 60s, and 70s. Cumulatively, this meant at least two things: 1) if my dad could weather all that, I might be bulletproof. And, 2) vascular dementia for him. Vascular dementia is similar to Alzheimer’s in that the victim suffers a loss in cognitive function (reading/writing/word retrieval) and either periodic or gradual memory loss. Over the past 10 years Dad’s been in and out of nursing homes and most recently moved from a hospital in Florida to a nursing home back home in Massachusetts where he spent the rest of his days.
Replacement hat for Dad’s Korean War Vet hat.
Dad and I had a “lost and found” kind of relationship. I began losing him (to his job, an affair, and other extracurricular activities) around 6 or 7. He and mom divorced when I was about 10. I spun my wheels in my early teens trying to “find” a father/son relationship with him, gaining only inches overall. As an adult in college we’d find each other for a few hours here and there on the phone, but I was busy with school and he had already begun suffering health troubles. Sometimes, an open heart surgery would give us some forced conversation, but I never “found” what I was looking for. Again, I lost him, to “life as usual” and the busyness that was my 20s.
As his health began to decline, I discovered he was failing mentally and finding what I sought might be biologically impossible: he was no longer the same “Dad” and I was no longer a kid seeking to play some catch in the back yard. I was losing what little I thought was left of him and had better make the best of the time left.
In 2001, I came to salvation in Christ by faith alone. The list of debts Dad owed me had grown long: a “normal childhood”, a father/son picnic, scouting, self esteem, an apology I’d never get for him not “being there” at performances, games, and other events, an “I’m so proud of you, son”. But, now, saved by grace, I thought if Christ forgave me when I was yet His enemy, how could I not forgive the man who brought me into this world?
I carved out time and opportunity to have a handful of “I forgive you” conversations. Not only did it bring us together despite the hundreds of miles between us, I found great freedom and comfort knowing there was no longer a debt/debtor relationship between us. I had wiped that account clean. Deep breath. Exhale. “Found,” again, but slipping away mentally and showing physical signs of age. Lost, this time in stages.
Fast forward to the funeral I didn’t think I’d attend. My younger brother confirmed the news on December 15th, 2010 – after “winding down” for nearly a decade: “Dad died at 3:15 AM.” Our twins had been sick for several days, we were running on little sleep, funds were tight with Christmas ahead and I was busy manning our year end fundraising drive. A trip to Massachusetts just didn’t look feasible nor necessary. Having made peace with Dad and the loss that had been building over the years, I thought I’d buried my Dad a shovelful at a time with each fading neuron.
Somewhere in the midst of the long line of mourners and well-wishers, I caught a glimpse of my Uncle John, across the room. Just as I was about to give a sarcastic look to the next person shaking my hand and say “Lemme guess, ‘you’re sorry for my loss’? What do you know about my loss?!” I was hit with an epiphany – “I have no idea what it’s like to be in my 70s and lose a brother I’ve had for 70 years or more.”
Just when the cliché was becoming cliché, it dawned on me how specific this generalization really could be. I stepped out of the receiving line and went over to Uncle John, hugged him hard and said with more sincerity than I thought I had in me:
SORRY… for your loss… I’ve never lost a brother, just a dad. But, I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Suddenly, I saw everyone in the room with a new face: a brother, a dad, a grandfather, a dune-buggy racing buddy, a drinking buddy, a racing buddy, a cousin, an uncle – everyone lost someone in that room, it just happened he was my Dad. Lost… but peace and joy (at a funeral?!) I thought I’d already found was found anew, afresh, and in greater abundance.
Last year (2010), the truth of 2 Cor. 1.3-7 became a banner my wife and I carried around with grateful hearts as we followed our Lord and the calling He’d placed on our lives. The verse essentially talks about how God gives comfort to those who are afflicted not just so that they may receive comfort in and of itself. Rather, He comforts them so that they may have an inkling of understanding on how to comfort those experiencing the same affliction. My hope is that God consoled my Uncle John, Uncle Rufus, Uncle Kenny, Uncle Freddie, my Mom, Louise (Weezy) – Dad’s first wife, and the many others in that room through the overflow of comfort He poured out on me.
May you have an opportunity to minister to others not out of an empty cup of hypothesis, rather the overflow of a cup teeming with comfort akin to the suffering of those around you who need it. May your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. May you comfort those in any trouble with the comfort you yourself have received from Christ.