On April 25th the nursing home informed us that my father had died. He was 93 and failing, though slowly, and the end came much more quickly than any of us expected. His funeral was the following Saturday and he was buried with military honors, since he was a Navy vet who had served on PT-boats in the south Pacific in World War 2.
We had a very troubled relationship; even as a child I sensed I was a great disappointment to him. More than once he told me I was an apostate, led astray by a woman I should not have married, and by a mentor, Francis Schaeffer whose influence was “poisonous.” The last time we talked at any length he suddenly said that Barack Obama was a Muslim. I gave reasons why I believed that to be untrue, and said that Christian leaders must be careful not to assert things that could cause people to doubt the truth of the gospel. “You’ve never cared about the gospel one moment your entire life,” he said—and insisted the conversation was over.
I was glad to be able to support my mom in her confusion and grief at the funeral. It gave me something to concentrate on as people eulogized my father as being a faithful missionary and godly man. Some of them know what my father was like outside of the pulpit. It is difficult to understand willful blindness. I had no desire that my father’s dirty laundry be aired at his funeral, but the scriptures never indulge in idealized hagiography and neither should those who claim to love the truth.
But still, I experienced grace, and that very richly. Sometimes God’s grace is hidden so that only the eyes of faith can spot it, but sometimes it is so obvious it can’t be missed. I experienced the second, obvious variety around my father’s funeral.
My sister, mom and I waited in the foyer of the funeral home as everyone signed the book and found a seat. Just before the service began, the door opened and two dear friends—until that moment I didn’t realize how very dear they are—walked in with wide smiles. Cheryl and Gerard Wickham-Pierre came to my father’s funeral even though they had never met him. (Cheryl is pastor of formation at our church, Church of the Cross.) They attended simply because they knew the funeral would be hard for me and they wanted me to know there were people there who knew and cared and didn’t want me to feel alone. Now, who has that sort of time? They took part of their Saturday to attend my father’s funeral for me—and that is a grace that stuns me with its rich unselfishness. Does it seem like a small thing? It wasn’t to me.
And then a few days later I received a card from my sister-in-law. “We are praying for you,” she wrote, “and are sorry for your loss.” And than she let me know that she truly understood and in understanding, cared. “…are sorry for your loss.. your loss of never having a father who delighted in his small boy, your loss in never having a father who was proud of all your accomplishments or affirmed you in your decisions, or a father who never had a loving twinkle in his eye when he saw his grandchildren. We are so thankful in spite of these losses you have chosen… to push on through life.” Words that are carefully chosen and that speak truth in hard times bring a sense of healing even though they do not change the hard things.
Sometimes it is simple thoughtfulness that makes a huge difference in life. It’s called grace, and it is more precious than I can express in words.