Monday, July 25, 2005

A Mother's Passing--What Have We Learned

(The previous post is here.) “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2) I seem to recall, many years ago, watching a Charlie Brown TV special. It was about D-Day. Towards the end of the show, Charlie Brown and Linus get up early in the morning and wander down to the beach. Once there, Linus tells Charlie Brown what happened on June 6, 1944. As he speaks in that young-old way of his, we see the airplanes flying overhead, the soldiers, the gunfire. Then Charlie Brown and Linus come to one of the cemeteries in Normandy. Rows and rows of white crosses. And Linus turns to Charlie Brown and says, “What have we learned, Charlie Brown?” That is how I feel. As I look back over this record of ten days of pain, which holds a promise of more to come, I ask myself the same question. What have I learned? Much. I have learned much, and I will seek to share some of it with you. Submission to the Will of God “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.’ But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.”—James 4:15-16 Our lives are in the hands of God. I guess I always knew that, but I have come to believe this more in the weeks since my mother’s death. There is so much that is beyond our control. James is very clear that thinking otherwise is arrogant. Yet we can be so proud. So very, very proud. And why? Why do I desire to be the captain of my fate? Do I know the future? Am I really wiser than God? As I have been humbled under the hand of God, I have learned that there is peace in yielding to His will. His plan for me is good, and so I can say, “My future is in the hands of God.” Will I die tonight? Will I grow old? Will I get sick? Will I be hit by a car? Will I lose my job? Will I eat tomorrow? I do not know. But I do not need to know; it’s in the hands of God. It is not for me to know the future; it is for me to be faithful in the time and place where He has placed me. A Pilgrimage Ended
Swing low, sweet chariot, Coming for to carry me home. Swing low, sweet chariot, Coming for to carry me home. I looked over Jordan, And what did I see? Coming for to carry me home. A band of angels coming after me Coming for to carry me home.
We don’t know who wrote this song, and I’d bet that we rarely pay attention to what it is saying. The “sweet chariot” is death. “Look[ing] over Jordan” is preparing for the crossing of the Jordan, another image of death. Death is coming, coming to carry us home. The song is looking at the desert wanderings of Israel as a model to understand our experience of life. For those who are the chosen of God and heirs of the promises, this world can never be home. Instead, it is a passage through the desert, leaving behind the house of slavery in Egypt and looking ever forward to the crossing into the Promised Land, a land “flowing with milk and honey”, a land of prosperity beyond our wildest dreams. For now, we struggle in the wilderness, with the pain and the sorrow and the hurting. But one day, that sweet chariot will swing on down and carry us off to glory. That sweet chariot came for my mother. And it was peaceful, so peaceful. One moment she was with us, and the next moment, she was gone. She did not suffer. She was not ill. Her mind was sound, which was especially a blessing. She had always feared a long, slow descent in dementia. Instead, that chariot swung down next to her, and away they went. She’s not here anymore. She’s crossed into Jordan, where they can’t hurt her anymore. Adiel was cleaning Mom’s room a day or so after she died, trying to tidy things up a bit. Her nightstand was covered with medicine bottles. Mom was not ill, but she struggled with a body that was wearing out. And so she was on one medication to fix some of the problems and on another one to help with the side effects of the first one and maybe even a third to help with the side effects of the first two. And the medicine would make her tired, and the medicine would make her sick, and it was hard sometimes to decide which was worse: the ailment or the cure. And Adiel took all those bottles and she threw them away. My mommy doesn’t need any of that anymore. She’s all better now. Safe in the Promised Land. Makes me remember that, one day, I’ll be walking along, doing my work, when that chariot is going to come for me. And, if God is gracious, He will give me the peace to climb aboard that black chariot with the black horses, for the Charioteer is the One Whom I love. The Body of Christ “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.…And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.”—1 Corinthians 12:12-13,26a I have seen the love of the Church of God in these weeks. I was amazed to see all the love and support that was poured out to my family. The church is Erie rallied around my father, offering whatever help they could. We did not have to cook for a solid week, because of all the meals that were given. The pastors in the area offered wise counsel and help to all of us. Christians from across the country were lifting their voices in prayer for us, or sending words of encouragement, or offering counsel in grief. I have had strangers write to me, offering me precious words of life, bound only by our common bond in Christ. But that is more than enough. There was comfort and peace that was given because of the support of our brothers and sisters. Living Life in the Face of Death “Once it’s too late, you appreciate what a miracle life is. You realize that nature is ruthless and our existence is very fragile, temporary, and precious. But to go on with your daily affairs, you can’t really think about that, which is probably why everyone takes the world for granted and why we act so thoughtlessly. It’s very confusing.”—Calvin, Calvin and Hobbes Calvin is right. We live as though we were trying to forget about Death. We pretend that it doesn’t exist until it intrudes into our lives, forcing itself upon us. I was not ready for my mother to die. None of us really were. But I would like to be a little readier for the next death that God will visit upon me. I do not want to forget about Death. Memento Mori. Remember, you will die. And so, I try to remember to treasure my family while I have them. Every workday, I wake up and drive to work, leaving them behind. What guarantee do I have that I will return? What guarantee do I have that they will be alive if I do return? None. It’s in the hands of God. So I try to treasure the moments that God has given me. Tonight, I put the children to bed, but Arianna needed to come downstairs to get a drink and go to the bathroom. As she was going up the stairs, she paused and said, “I love my daddy very, very much.” And she came running back down and leaped into my outstretched arms. I held her very closely. And in that moment, I realized that, one day, more likely than not, she would stand by my graveside. She would be shedding tears as they lower me into the ground. And so I held her all the more tightly. We have no time except the present, which is a gift from the hands of God. And so I intend to enjoy it. “For he will not often consider the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart.” (Ecclesiastes 5:20) And who knows? Perhaps this journal that I am writing now will outlive me. Perhaps Arianna will read it when she is older and find encouragement and comfort from the struggles of my heart. I have not had the heart to ask my father what Mom’s last words were to him. I do know that he was running out to do a couple of errands, including buying a used set of golf clubs, and that she had asked him to buy her some Milky Way Dark chocolate bars. Could something that mundane have been her last words to her husband? It could very well be. It is more likely that Dad left the house, saying, “I’ll see you later, dear” and she rushed out, gave him a kiss, and said, “Bye!” before returning to her work in the garden. Just an average, everyday parting. But it was the last. But in my mind, another question rises. What if the last words that you said to someone were spoken in anger? What if I had a terrible fight with my wife and stormed out of the house, only to die in a car wreck? Would I want our last parting to be one of anger? And what of others who I may have hurt or alienated? We often think, “There’s always tomorrow” but that is arrogance. God has not promised to give us tomorrow, and for each of us, one day, there will be no tomorrow. And so I try to hold this before me as I live out my life among my family and friends. Our relationship could end tonight, so let it end without anger or malice between us. Rather, let there be peace, so that we can die quietly. Raising Children “Behold, children are a gift of Jehovah; the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; they shall not be ashamed, when they speak with their enemies in the gate.”—Psalm 127:3-5 I spoke to my mother on the Tuesday before she died. I had actually called home to talk to Dad, but he was out. So I ended up talking with Mom. In retrospect, it was a great blessing. After all, it was to be the last time that we would speak. I was frustrated. I had violated my first rule of Internet discussion groups and actually gotten into a debate about something important. Parenting, to be specific. I was laying out what seemed to me to be very obvious, specific principles from the Bible on a Christian email group, and there were actually those that were arguing against what I was saying. It went on and on, and I discovered that I had really put my foot in it. I was angry, upset, and discouraged. And so I called home, and I ranted in Mom’s direction for a while. It helped. And then, she offered me profound advice. She said, “Seth, it is much better to be spending that energy on your own family. You won’t be able to influence these other people, but you can influence your children. And when they grow up and get married, you will have affected four families. And that’s a lot.” She was right. Working on faithfully raising my children may not be glamorous or easy, but in the long run, it is more effective. As it turns out, those were the last words that we were to speak to each other in this vale of tears. So they have stuck with me more powerfully because of it. Of course, in an ultimate sense, it is my duty before God to raise my children in a way that is honoring to Him. Yet, in a secondary way, I also see it as my duty to her. I would be dishonoring her if I were not to raise them well. She often used to say to me, “Now, you take care of my grandchildren!” Each time, I assured her that I would. And I will. I will. I will teach them to love God more than life itself. I will teach them how to walk before His face. And I will also teach them to dance in the rain, and to love flowers, and to sing and dance and laugh. And I will tell them that they had a grandmother who loved them very much and that, one day, they will see her. Arianna will remember her, but the others will not. The littlest one is not yet born, and he will never see her. Yet, I hope that I can keep her memory alive for them, and that I can teach them to honor her memory and to live as befits the grandchildren of Grandma B. And so it seems fitting to end with these words from Mom’s journal. She was writing to her granddaughter, but these words will stick with me forever. “Unless something truly unforeseen happens, you will not receive much if any money when I die. But I have tried to leave you a legacy of love and I trust you will find it within your powers to continue this legacy.” I will, Mom. I will. Linda Gail Anderson Ben-Ezra Born March 9, 1952 Died July 19, 2003 Requiem In Pacem And on that day, we gathered on the shores of that terrible lake. We were all there, breathless and expectant, our faces bathed in the orange glow of the fiery sea. And suddenly there came the sound of horns and drums, and suddenly He was there, the Conquering King, riding on His white charger. And behind Him, half-dragged, was Death himself, his hands bound with a chain that the King held in His hand. He rode to the dais that was set up by the fire’s edge. At His command, the black-robed figure was loosed. At His command, Death surrendered up his scythe. Then, with a shout of triumph, He hurled the Grim Reaper into the lake. And we sang and we laughed and we wept, for the final enemy was defeated, and we were there to see his fall. And the memories of pain and doubt and horror and sorrow were swallowed up in victory. (The next post is here.)

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