My father died on August 13.
Although he’d been declining for the past several months, and although he had reached the grand old age of 91, he died suddenly, not giving our family the chance to say goodbye.
My spiritual father, Frederick Buechner, died two days later. The timing of these combined losses was overwhelming, too much to take in. Another two days later I was preaching in a funeral home with my father’s body lying in a casket behind me. The compressed timing of these events has made it impossible to honestly answer the question, “How are you doing?” I say fine or great or okay, but my heart’s not in it. In one of her grief poems, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer writes, “I want a word that means okay and not okay, a word that means devastated and stunned with joy. I want the word that says I feel it all at once.”
Life goes on, I go on, but the wound is real.
Even now, weeks later, I don’t feel ready to begin to write about the many twists and turns of my father’s long life or his influence on me. Nor can I synthesize the loss of my dad with the loss of Buechner, or say anything cogent about the timing of these losses other than to repeat what Rosemerry said: “I feel it all at once.”
There is one thing that sticks with me, though, a thought that’s been with me since my father’s funeral, which I want to share with you.
My dad went through Michigan State University in the late 1940s and early 1950s in ROTC. In exchange for a college education, he gave the U.S. Army two years of his life. As a result, he spent most of 1953 to 1955 living in a tent somewhere in Korea. The war had ended, but it was still volatile and snipers in the hills would take potshots at young lieutenants like my dad from time to time. Although not actively in combat, my father was, as the saying goes, in harm’s way.
My dad walked away from the army when his obligation was fulfilled. The army offered him a career but I imagine getting shot at and living in a tent had a lot to do with his decision to say no. He did not let the rest of his life be defined by the military. I did not grow up with the Great Santini. The biggest influence I could point to as a kid from my dad’s days in the army was that we were a Howard Johnson’s / Holiday Inn family. My father always said he’d done a lifetime’s worth of camping in Korea and didn’t see the need for more.
Yet a few years ago, when my dad expressed his wishes for his funeral, he opted to have military honors at the graveside. I know ministers have all sorts of feelings about military honors. I’ve been to funerals where the soldiers upstage the clergy. Other friends have told me they feel like there is something endearing and even cute about seeing the old American Legion guys suck in their beer bellies and do their best to stand at attention before firing a few blank rounds in the air. In our case, the military’s involvement was moving. My dad was taken in style from the funeral home to the cemetery in a black hearse with “U.S. Army” on its side. After the flag on his casket was folded and presented, there were very few dry eyes when a bugler followed “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” with the mournful notes of “Taps.” My dad left the army in 1955. Sixty-seven years later, the army showed up with dignity and honor to help us put him in the ground.
I can’t help but see parallels with the church.
There were two distinct parts of my father’s life. For the first 48 years of his life, he was very involved in church life. He was a deacon, an elder, helped run the Sunday School, helped run a capital campaign, and sang not only in the chancel choir but the men’s chorus. Then, save an occasional appearance at mass with my Roman Catholic stepmother or coming to hear me preach from time to time, he didn’t attend church the last 43 years of his life. In a similar way to how he walked away from the army in 1955, he walked away from the church in 1979. It wasn’t only because I was his son that I officiated at his funeral. He didn’t have a pastor. If I didn’t lead the service, some stranger would have.
I’m not going to air out the details of my father’s departure from the church. I’m simply going to note it, and say that his story isn’t unique. Ministers deal with people who have made similar moves all the time. What are loyal pew sitters supposed to make of this? How should the church deal with its prodigals who never find their way back? How should those of us who remain treat the deconstructors who deconstruct themselves right out the door? My hope is that the church is as faithful as the army. Once someone has been marked as Christ’s own, perhaps through the waters of baptism or simply their own confession, the church makes a cradle to grave commitment. And not to dive too much into theology, but isn’t this one of the beauties of Reformed theology’s emphasis on the sovereignty of God? Grace is all God.
Not surprisingly, Buechner has words for this. He calls grace something we can’t earn or deserve or bring about “any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.”
And then he says, “The grace of God is something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”
If you knew him, you’d agree the party wouldn’t have been complete without my dad.
Funerals serve lots of functions, not the least of which is for the church to show up, claim the deceased as one of theirs, and testify to the love and grace of God.
Meanwhile, how am I doing? It’s complicated. I feel it all at once.