Countless people have commented on what a wretched beast 2016 was. Here in East Tennessee, wildfires swept through the Smoky Mountains, taking lives and homes all too abruptly. This came near the end of a year fraught with so many deaths and other various types of loss. I stand with those who were glad to say goodbye to 2016. We lost my Daddy very suddenly to cancer at the end of September.
But 2017 has dawned with a Hope I can’t really explain except to tie it to the answer I’ve been struggling to find to a nagging question: How am I able to be okay?
How am I able to be okay?
My first guess was my busy schedule. Teaching keeps me on my toes and keeps my mind occupied. Whether it’s a good thing or not, I don’t really have that much time to grieve. When I do, it’s in my car on the way to work or during worship at church or home. And when I do, I’m grateful to say that the grieving feels deep — if only dosed out in brief spurts. This goes along with something my mom and sister and I read together: that it is natural to grieve in “small doses” because sometimes you just can’t handle it all at once.
Then something happened that really changed everything for me. It made all the answers to that question I could have come up with pointless. I was reading the story of when, just before Jesus died on the cross, one of the men being crucified next to Him asked Jesus to remember him in heaven: “‘We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.’ And Jesus replied, ‘I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise'” (Luke 23:40-43).
Paradise. I was reading this story several weeks after losing my dad, and that word struck my heart with a surge of strange joy. It conjures up images of palm trees and blue ocean stretching out to a giant horizon. In fact, Hilton Head Island came to mind because that is where my family always loved to take vacations. We would load up the van and drive there with our dear friends the Armisteads, strategically arranging both families into a condo we all rented for the week. Hilton Head will always be for us a place of peace and rest.
When my dad had his second stroke, it took away about half of his words. The medical term for it is aphasia. He struggled to recall basic everyday words, and even sometimes the names of his friends and loved ones. As he started to realize he was sick, my mom says he told her, “Let’s go to that place. I want to go that place, um, you know… That place with all the blue.”
We didn’t have time to take my dad back to Hilton Head. About six weeks after we found out he had cancer, he passed away. We are grateful that his suffering was minimized because of the swiftness of it all. But we are all still left reeling.
Before Dad took his last breath, he opened his eyes for the first time that week. They had been getting darker and darker as he lay there barely conscious. He had cracked his eyes open a few times that day to look at each of us surrounding him. We saw him mouth the word “Love” to us, especially to my mom. But in the last few seconds, he opened his eyes for real. They shone bright as he turned them heavenward, taking in the beauty of something none of us could see. I am convinced in my heart of hearts that he saw our Savior Jesus coming to get him. To take him to Paradise with Him.
How am I able to be okay? Because I didn’t see my dad die. I saw him go Home. I saw him get to go to Paradise, and I know he’s just waiting for us to catch up to him.
I didn’t see my dad die. I saw him go Home. I saw him get to go to Paradise, and I know he’s just waiting for us to catch up to him.
There are moments when it hurts like hell to wait. I just want for this broken, limping, hemorrhaging world to end and for all of us to go Home together. But then I remember the people who haven’t accepted God’s free gift of salvation yet. Some people have literally never even heard of Jesus and what He did for us. So I pray for them to hear. And while hours remain for me to live on this earth, I pray to be a part of the effort to get this Good News out to everyone. This is the single most powerful way I can find beauty when I search for it in all the ashes.
Loss messes with us in a way that nothing else can. I am in no means saying the pain will go away, but Hope emerges triumphant when we realize that loss is a relative term. If we belong to Christ, we can never be lost again.
“So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls.”
— Hebrews 6:18-19