Years ago, when I was revising a novel, Romey’s Place, I didn’t know how it should end. What I knew when I’d started the major revision was that I was off in a new direction, writing a different story really because I’d been reading Phillip Yancey and Kathleen Norris and came to realize that that story I was writing had more to do with grace than I’d ever imagined.
That manuscript was ten years old already, had made the rounds to publishers. In the early drafts, the narrator’s father had died while away in Europe, making it impossible for the two of them to talk about differences the narrator couldn’t help but feel. But in this revision I knew I wanted the two of them to have that talk. I didn’t know where it would take place, nor why or how it would turn out, only that something had to be said. Somehow, the protagonist and his father were going to talk to each other in a way they never had.
Right about then, my parents came to Iowa to visit. One Sunday morning we went to church, and that morning’s liturgy included the old hymn “Blessed Assurance.” There I stood, beside my dad, watching him–and hearing him–pour his heart out. I knew right then how the novel would end. The protagonist, now a father himself, understands that his pent-up antagonism doesn’t have to be spilled, doesn’t have to soil his father’s love. So he doesn’t tell his father the story he’d wanted to, doesn’t say it because he’s learned–after all those years–something abiding about grace, a lesson he’d learned from a kid from the other side of the tracks, a kid he hung around with in those turbulent years when they grew up together.
That Sunday morning, my father gave me the denouement of Romey’s Place at the moment we stood there singing “Blessed Assurance.” That moment is the novel’s final scene.
When, years later, Dad died, I told myself that at his funeral I wished we could sing “Blessed Assurance.” I didn’t push that wish on anyone because I couldn’t help feeling that some witches’ brew of motivations was at work: life and art and ego subtly and dangerously mixed. Had I told my sisters I wanted to sing that old hymn, I would have felt idolatrous, as if my story of my father’s singing was more important than his story, his life–or, for that matter, blessed assurance.
I had no part in planning his funeral. While their brother was on his way to Wisconsin, my sisters created the liturgy. They told me what they were planning once we arrived, and one of the hymns they’d determined to sing, they said, was “Blessed Assurance.”
My sisters said Mom had claimed her husband’s deep faith was something she’d always admired and even envied; he’d never really doubted God’s love, and she’d marveled at that, she told them, because there were times she did. My mother chose “Blessed Assurance” for reasons all her own.
“Would that choice be okay with you?” my sisters asked me.
Sure, I said. “Yeah, that’s just fine.” They didn’t need an explanation.
So we sang “Blessed Assurance” at my father’s funeral. Doubtless, I will never again sing that hymn without thinking of him. And Mom made sure the first line of that old hymn is right there on his gravestone.
Part of my inheritance, I think, lies in that same assurance. Like him, for some reason I don’t doubt my Father’s love. Never have–hopefully, never will.
My father never took me hunting, never took me to ball games, never did a whole lot with me really. By today’s standards, he didn’t work at building a relationship, just as in all likelihood his own father hadn’t, a preacher with ten kids mid-Depression. But my father taught me a great deal about this life and the next by his own humbling and blessed assurance.
That’s his story–and mine.
And it’s also our Father’s story, or so it seems to me. Even today, wherever we’re going with this madcap virus or however long it takes to get us to peace, there’s always sufficient blessed assurance to get us there.