This past Sunday, the day after Christmas, I more or less watched my grandfather die (he managed to go at the one moment when no one was actually looking, just like he had hoped). This is the first death I’ve ever experienced of someone very close to me. Sure, I’ve known regular customers at jobs of mine who had passed, several old high school friends who were in car accidents, and a few people I briefly became close to in college who later died. But this was the first person that had walked with me (and I with them) for my entire life; on whose knee I had sat, been tickled by, heard legends about, and around whom I walked in a general sense of awe and disbelief.
His name was (is?) Lester Travis Williamson, or as I knew him for most my life: Peep (the result of a mispronunciation of the original attempted nickname by the first grandchild of the family). He represented for me a tenacity and determinedness of love that great stories of tragedy and triumph are built upon. As their old pastor said today during the funeral, he was a man that if you asked for a crumb would give you the entire loaf. Further, he would chase you out the door to give you another loaf on your way out. But this is not to be confused with the contemporary pictures of the gratuitously giving man we have today–cheerful, talkative, jocular, and always-optimistic. To be sure, he was the quintessential man of his generation–a “real man”–quiet, determined, and strong. He spoke with passion and intentionality in every syllable, meaning what he said and saying what he meant; he wasted no words for trivial things (except for maybe sports).
But in the end, I don’t know why I’m writing this right now or what I’m trying to accomplish. I could try and paint as poetic, beautiful, and realistic a picture for you as possible of the man I loved so much and reached out to so little, just so you could share in my pain as you see the person I have been parted with. But in the end, this would only pull the attention to myself as I sought relief in trying to make others feel what I do. Not that anyone could actually know Peep and my loss from simply reading this, mind you. Anyone that would be affected by this would only have their own memories and shadowed reflections of their own past that could as act as analogies and metaphors for what I have undergone this past week and a half.
And perhaps I have only now arrived at what I would like to offer in these words–themselves mere analogies and metaphors of greater and shared meaning: hope.
I am an introvert (no matter what all of you say!), and this results in a near constant withdrawal of my meditations into myself to examine every little nuance of thoughts and feeling I undergo. I agonize over questions similar to that which I thought so deeply about this past week: what is the “healthy” or “right” way to respond to this moment? Perhaps you’ve asked yourself this same thing in times of death, sickness, sorrow, and loss. How do I process this? What’s the unhealthy (or unhelpful, at least) way to think through this? How do I gauge how I’m doing?
When I was younger, my youth group friends and I would occasionally hear about another older member of our large Southern Baptist Church passing–a member whom we did not know–and we would be confused as to how in one breath, men and woman of God could extol this person’s faithfulness, only in the next breath to express such sadness over their passing. We thought (and frequently said): when I die, I don’t want people to be sad! Heck, I don’t even want a funeral! I want everyone to have a party! Everyone will know where I am [presumably, heaven] and what I’ll be doing [presumably, singing with the angels, partying, dancing–whatever].
I now see how young, naive, and ignorant these sentiments were.
The one word that would come to my mind when asking myself those existential questions of how to respond? and how not to respond? was this: unnatural. And in this I found hope. We as humans have been caring enough about the abstract or spiritual state of our dead (enough to bury them) for at least the past 130,000 years*, and yet, we still have not found the “proper” response to this phenomenon known as death. No matter how long we have watched it, heard of it, and have received practice at dealing with it, it always seems unjust, wrong, and unnatural. And it was this sense that stayed with me and strangely gave me hope over these past couple of weeks. My feeling of offense and unknowing in light of Death’s presence–that sudden identification with the atheist that cries out against the goodness (and dare I say it? Even existence) of God–is the very thing that testifies to the “foreign” nature of Death. We were not made to die. We will never know how we “should” respond to Death because we never “should” have encountered it. The experience of Death hurts so badly because it is an outside invader that has woven itself so deeply within the fabric of our existence.
Scripture asks us: O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? And with one hand I point to my Peep, lying in a casket on an overcast Dallas day, and with the other snotted sleeve I point through tear stained eyes upward to the Apostle and the Prophets and cry Here, here it is! Here is death’s victory! Here is death’s sting! And God replies. But not simply in veiled words hiding the Beauty of Beauties for millennia until the appointed time, but in a man–The Man. That quintessential man of his generation–and of eternity; that man who lives life as it should be known and then tastes the bitter reply of a world woven with that which it should not know: Death. Our God comes and does not simply watch Death, or satisfy its legal demands upon us; but rather he tastes it. The Old Heavens and the Old Earth cry out along with me: Here, here it is! Here is death’s victory! Here is death’s sting!
And He conquers it.
Death surely has a victory. Death surely has a sting. But let it be known that it is but partial and short-lived. Our souls are raised in this life and our bodies the next. Death shall taste it’s own bitterness and feel its own sting. Our life will indeed be Life.
But until such appointed time, we wait. And endure*. With all the offense and pain and doubt and longing for a New Heaven and a New Earth, where Death has been unwoven from the fabric of our existence. A place where Hope–now seen only dimly within the reality of our tears and doubt–will prevail; where Death will not merely taste our final Victory, but absolutely be swallowed up within in it.
Here’s to you, Peep. I love you too.