Where There is Mourning, There is Love

We spent some of the waning hours of 2018 saying goodbye to one of my best friends’ 95-year-old father. In 2018, I was privileged to join in the celebration of home-going for the fathers of two of our dearest friends. I also said a final goodbye to my own dad.

My friend had the God-given strength to give the message at the funeral service himself.

He described his dad as a “giant of the faith,” and I could not more wholeheartedly agree. His father was a missionary to the African Congo for eight years, a Bible college professor, a pastor, and in later years, an assistant funeral director. He was always serving others.

And as God usually does, He chose to teach me at this funeral with just a single verse. This is not a verse for lightweights, so you won’t hear it at most funerals.

It was perfect for this one.

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. – Ecclesiastes 7:2

For many, this verse is a painful reminder of one of life’s certainties. But it also begs the question: Why is it better to mourn than to feast? The answer came quickly, as I set there in the pew:

Where there is mourning, there is love.

I’ll admit, most feasts I attend are with people who love each other. But it’s not a requirement. People can (and often do) feast with total strangers for all types of reasons. I just don’t get around enough to attend those feasts.

But you can’t truly mourn without a deep, abiding love.

Mourning a loss brings people together in a way nothing else can. Some, like his direct family or close friends, deeply loved my friend’s father. Others may not have known him, but deeply love his family and friends, and mourned their loss with them. My family is blessed to love both the man, and his family.

Still others were loved by this giant of the faith. Many at that funeral mourned simply because my friend’s father loved them. And countless others, many living in the remotest parts of Africa, would have also honored him at his funeral, had they known of his passing and had the means to get there.

I’m eternally grateful to say that my friend’s father also loved me.

These days, we have the Internet, the “world-wide web” as it is called, with Internet addresses even starting with the initials “www.” The funeral is available to be seen around the world using this modern communication tool.

But “world-wide webs” aren’t new. Jesus started one when he told his disciples, after his resurrection, that they would be witnesses of the Gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to “the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The life of my friend’s father is further proof. A life lived for others, through the love of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, will create a web of love around the world. Not everyone’s web will reach quite as far as my my friend’s father’s does, but you will be surprised how far your web of love will go.

Better to be in a house of mourning, indeed.

 

It Starts

You know that thing you knew would happen, you just didn’t know when?

That’s happening to me, right now.

And whenever this kind of thing happens, I hear the voice of the inimitable Nathan Lane, as Timon the meerkat in Disney’s The Lion King, in his best street-wise Brooklyn accent:

It starts.

For Timon and his rotund sidekick Pumbaa the warthog, the dreaded event was their buddy Simba the lion growing up, falling in love, and returning to his pride.

For me, it’s helping my parents synthesize 60 years of married life into a one- or two-bedroom assisted living apartment.

I’m an only child, I love my parents dearly, and I’m so happy they’re moving closer than the 400+ miles away where they currently live.  And I’m rejoicing that they may be able to actually attend our oldest daughter’s wedding this summer, as they missed our youngest daughter’s wedding this past March because they couldn’t travel.

But I didn’t count on the emotional toll this change would take. On them, or on me.

They live in the third house the’ve owned since I left home 38 years ago.  So for me, it’s not the place they are leaving that’s difficult. I never lived there. It’s their home for now, but it wasn’t my childhood home. (Thanks to the U.S. Marine Corps, my “childhood home” would be in about 15 different places.)

It’s what this change represents that hits the hardest.

These are the people who have given me everything. I never had to wait for them to deal with anyone else’s issues, as there never was anyone else.  I’ve lived my entire life up until now with a remarkable sense of security, because I could be certain of two things: One, they were always there for me. Not to bail me out of a jam, not to protect me from whatever bad might happen.  But just to talk and offer whatever wisdom they had. And two: They always, always accepted me for who I am. There was never even a hint of rejection.

So how do I now ask them to do something we all know needs to happen, but none of us want to happen? Is this how you “honor your father and mother” as God requires in the fifth commandment?

I don’t know. I just don’t know.

But I do know this: I will cherish their remaining years.

 

 

 

On a November Saturday

It was the late fall of 1982. The first semester of my junior year at the University of Kansas was almost finished, and my girlfriend’s sorority’s fall service project was to help with the Lawrence Special Olympics bowling competition. They were short on help, so my future wife asked me to tag along.

What follows was what I like to call “God’s audition to be parents of a disabled child.“ We had a wonderful time bowling, laughing, and eating with these young adults. Most of them had Down syndrome, but several others had different cognitive or physical disabilities. Regardless, my future wife and I left that event very happy that we had been involved, and wondering whether we should volunteer for future Special Olympics activities.

Little did we know what God had in store for us.

Helping with that bowling tournament was like being a grandparent. It was great fun while it lasted, but the kids weren’t really “yours.“

But once that disabled child comes home with you from the hospital, things begin to change. Slowly and imperceptibly at first. The first time we went to a Down Syndrome Guild meeting was just after our oldest son was born, seven years and a few months after that fateful Saturday in November 1982. I distinctly remember walking into the Guild meeting room, full of families who had also just entered the world of special-needs children, and experiencing a very familiar feeling.

I was instantly transported back to the 6th grade, when the class of disabled kids was in the self-contained classroom next door to my homeroom.  As they walked by our door, from lunch or the playground, I remember feeling an uneasy mixture of fear and pity. Fear, in not knowing what “those kids“ might do. And pity, at once thankful that I was not among them, and believing that their lives must be something less than mine.

Thankfully, over the years that all changed. It started with events like Special Olympics, where I could actually meet disabled kids, and grow to like them.

And then, I joined their dads.

Within a span of just a few short months, all those kids in the Down Syndrome Guild became my kids. It was impossible to know them all well, but 28 years later, I still know their names. William, Sean, Matthew, another Stephen, Kyle, Paul.

And their parents became some of our very best friends.

How appropriate it is, then, that our son’s favorite activity is….

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I’d love to hear from you about your experiences with a disabled person in your life.  Please take a few moments to leave a comment. It only takes a few seconds!

May I Have This Dance

Has the weight of just a thought ever taken your breath away?

Happened to me just this morning.

Maybe it’s the fact that my daughter’s wedding is now less than two months away, and she was in town this past weekend for her first bridal shower. Maybe it’s this fact that this afternoon, my wife and I are attending a funeral for a long-time family friend who lost her battle with cancer. Her two kids are the same age as my middle two kids.

No matter the reason, here’s the thought that left me struggling to breathe:

A husband and wife, in their 80s, dancing cheek-to-cheek in their kitchen.

It’s so easy to say, “Aren’t they cute? They still love each other, after all these years.” But have you thought about what that dance really represents?

  • Millions of miles together in the same car.
  • Tens of thousands of nights together in the same bed.
  • Depending on how many kids they had, thousands, or tens of thousands, of diaper changes.
  • Countless ER visits, late nights with sick kids, and broken hearts.
  • Graduations, weddings, births, and then round two of graduations, weddings, and births.
  • Deaths of their grandparents, their parents, their siblings, and occasionally, their children and even grandchildren.
  • Several major health scares, surgeries, and treatments.

Those of you who have lived it know that this list isn’t even close to exhaustive. And to top it all off, society has changed so extensively, and so rapidly, that the elderly couple can be left wondering if they’re even still relevant.

As my thoughts sunk in, a physical weight rested on my chest. The sheer magnitude of two lifetimes, lived together and for each other, was more than I could bear.

Anyone looking for miracles in the modern age need look no farther than the couple celebrating an anniversary of 50 years or more.  God’s design for marriage, and God himself, for those who choose Him, make it possible to complete the journey.

Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. – Isaiah 46.4

And for another post: What the elderly still have to give to their families and communities. Here’s a hint: They’re not only still relevant, they’re the missing link to sustaining our society.

I’ll never look at an elderly couple dancing the same way again.

Courage

What does real courage look like to you?

To me, right now, it looks like a sister-in-law who is going through cancer treatment for a second time in 10 years.

It’s knowing the suffering she’s sure to face during the treatments, and choosing to go through them anyway, because the desired result is the best for those she loves.

Even though she’s near the end of her chemo treatment, the suffering is still real.  And intense.

Where does courage like that come from? Knowing her deep, abiding faith in Jesus Christ, the easy Sunday-school answer is readily apparent.

But that’s only part of the story.

For faith to mean anything in our lives, we have to allow our faith to move us to a conviction to act.

Once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen. — Muhammad Ali

It’s on us to incorporate our faith into our lives. And the conviction that grows out of living out our faith — that we’re doing the right thing — leads to courage.

I can do all things through Jesus Christ, who strengthens me.  — Phillipians 4:13

My sister-in-law is living this out beautifully, today, right now.

By the way, haven’t we heard another story about someone who knew the suffering he would face, and yet chose to endure that suffering because the end result was the best for those he loves?

Yeah, I thought so.

 

Lunchtime Musings: Giftedness

I know I’ve written a lot about my daughter who had a traumatic brain injury (the youngest), and my son who has Down syndrome (the oldest). But God has blessed my wife and I with two other children as well, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t write about them, too.

Our two middle children, a 25-year old young man and a 23-year-old young lady, haven’t faced the types of challenges the other two have. That’s not to say their lives are without struggles, but theirs (to date, at least) don’t have weighty names like “Down syndrome” or “TBI.”

No, this post is to praise God and celebrate their giftedness. And to brag on them, just a little bit.

We’ll start with my world-travelling daughter, who studied abroad for six months a couple of years ago, and has already spent more time around the Mediterranean Sea than I will in my lifetime. One of God’s greatest gifts to her, like her mother and grandmother before her, is the ability to teach. While her Mom is probably the best teacher I’ve ever known, my daughter is a close second. Their ability to teach their curriculum to each and every student in their class, regardless of that student’s ability or disposition, sets them apart.  My daughter’s chosen to teach upper-level math in high school, another amazing gift from God.

My son is a “people magnet.” When taking care of the little kids at church, my son is the first one to become a human jungle gym, a walking piece of playground equipment. Their dads come to him for advice and support. He’s studying to be a pastor, and from where I’m sitting, he looks to be perfectly suited for that. He and his beautiful wife will have been married for three years this coming May.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. – James 1:17

My wife and I are thankful for all four of our children, and we are proud of them and love them for who they are, and who God made them to be.

The Day After Christmas

Twas the day after Christmas

And all through my brain

I can’t help but wonder

What happened yesterday?


Perhaps it’s the excess

Of food in my belly

That’s turned all my thoughts

Into bowls full of jelly.


Or maybe the fact

That just a moment ago

The floor was covered with presents –

Where did they all go?


 But my biggest concern –

Did Christ receive glory?

Was His father pleased?

Did we remember His story?


 And now, a day later

Are we different than before?

Do we praise ourselves less?

Do we love others more?


 So, my prayer for all of us

This late Christmas season –

We’ll use His birth as a springboard

His life as the reason


To take Him to the world

Like the drummer boy drumming

Be the light we’re called to be —

 ‘Cause it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.


Waiting for the Light

That’s exactly what it felt like.  Waiting for the light to break through.

So many strange words.

Trisomy 21.

“Chromosomal abnormalities.”

Down syndrome.

For the first two days of March 1990, our world felt very dark. Our first child had just been born with a life-altering, if not life-threatening, disability. In those weary 36 hours, long minutes of numb silence were followed with tear-filled phone calls to grandparents, family and a few close friends. A broader announcement would have to wait.

To wait for the light.

In the 22nd hour of our darkness, we reached the end of ourselves. At the tender age of 27, the young leader of a new family of three, I was no longer able to lead.

All I could do was follow.

After a late night of prayer with an unnamed and otherwise unremarkable hospital chaplain, I laid myself down on a narrow, hard, 1970s-era fold-out hospital room chair, and tried to sleep.

I’ve never slept so well in all of my life. Before or since.

Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Matt. 11:28

When does something so ordinary become a miracle? When the Creator of the Universe makes it so.

That wonderful night’s rest was just the light we needed to make the tough decisions ahead of us, as we faced a life raising a son with Down syndrome.

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The Ocean and Me

If you’ve ever been bodysurfing, you know what I’m talking about.

That moment when you’ve selected the right wave, timed your jump perfectly, and you’re carried by the crest of the wave as it breaks toward the shore. You sense the ocean’s raw power as the sea churns and curls under your chest. Then, towards the end, the wave starts to disorganize, and you’re either set down gently at the shore, or slammed to the rough sand by a secondary wave.

Two of the most formative summers of my life, when I was 12-14 years old and in the tumultuous mid-1970s, were spent perfecting the art of bodysurfing at the beach near my home in North Carolina. It’s by far my favorite thing to do at the beach. So of course, on our recent trip to Georgia’s fantastic Tybee Island, I had to bodysurf once more.

Bodysurfing can be fickle. A great wave may come along, but if you’re not standing in the right place, it will break behind you, or in front of you. Sometimes you think you’ve caught the wave at just the right time, and for whatever reason, it just doesn’t develop. Or, when you’ve caught and are riding that perfect wave, it goes away. Just…gone.

This past week at Tybee, I decided to brave the surf. The morning had been low tide, making the waves choppy and small. But as the tide turned, the waves became larger, and I ventured out. I selected one of the first waves to come in.

The first wave I tried was perfect. I didn’t catch a better one the rest of the day.

Maybe that’s why, when my daughter asked me to laugh while taking my picture at the local coffee shop, my face was so ready to show the joy in my heart. Because I wasn’t just happy that I had returned to the ocean. No, this was different.

It was if the ocean had found me, and was welcoming me back.

Perhaps this was a glimmer of what the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable (starting at Luke 15:11) felt when he returned to his father. Yes, coming home was great. But it wasn’t joy-filled until the person who made it home — his father — welcomed him back with open arms.

Yes indeed, home really is a Who.

Talking with My Dad

I would love to be able to sit down and really talk with my Dad.

You know, a real heart-to-heart. There are so many questions.  What did it feel like when you had me?  What was going through your mind when you didn’t get that promotion you so badly wanted and (in my opinion) so richly deserved? How does its feel to have a 30-foot Marlin on the line when you’re on a tiny boat in the middle of the Gulf Stream? Were you sad that you never had more than one child?

And how did it hit you when you learned that your first grandson had Down Syndrome?

In case you were wondering, I haven’t lost my father.  He’s still alive and relatively well. However, the effects of almost 20 years with Parkinsons Disease have taken their toll, and it’s often difficult to hold conversations with him that are longer than just a few sentences. Thanks to modern medicine, his body tremors are largely under control. But his hearing and his mind slip away a little more each day.

Dad was never much of a talker anyway, so some of my longing can be attributed to Dad just being himself. But much of it comes from the simple inability to understand each other.

Dad’s also never shared with me his relationship with Jesus Christ, even though I’ve tried several times to talk with him about it over the years. My kids have been more successful getting through to him, though his responses to them were cryptic and, for the most part, unenlightening. I’ve not asked lately, and I know I should. Thankfully, I think we can still have that conversation, but I wonder for how much longer.

Suddenly, I find the words of Isaiah ringing in my ear.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6)

Evangelists are quick to point out that none of us are guaranteed even one more minute on this Earth. But death is not the only way for someone’s time to find the Lord to run out.

If the mind of someone you know and love is slipping away, I hope you’ll take the time to help them find the Lord. He’s near to them, right now. You’re there, aren’t you?

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