read John 15. Two weeks ago, my mother called to say the doctor had said my father, who had Parkinson’s and stage 4 melanoma, wouldn’t last the week. My brothers and I all rushed to Dad’s bedside at home and watched his breathing slow and his pulse weaken. We read to him, prayed over him, and if we could have, we would have breathed for him. Every evening the nurse told us Dad wouldn’t make it through the night -and every night he made it. On the seventh night, I said to his prone weakened body that hadn’t responded to us in five days, “see you tomorrow, Dad.”
A murmur passed through the room. I could feel my family not wanting me to be disappointed.
That evening, a thunderstorm lingered over our houses, dark, heavy and humid. In the morning, my doctor brother called me at 6:15 a.m. ”Dad just stopped breathing.”
“I’ll be right there,” I said. I sprinted through the wet grass in my bare feet. Dad was lying on his bed, alone in his room with a nurse. He was still and his mouth was open. I asked the nurse to make her phone calls somewhere else. My doctor brother stood in the doorway. ”He may give a few more breaths,” my brother told me, “but it’s just a reflex.” My brother left me alone with him.
I stood over Dad’s bed, and the words poured out as if he could hear me – or perhaps, in case he could hear me.
“You can go now, Dad,” I told him.
It’s just a reflex, I told myself. ”You’ve done everything you needed to do,” I said.
Dad breathed again.
“You were a great father.” He breathed again. His intelligence, humor and drive glimmered in his face, as if his spirit were hovering there. I could see his spirit there in his face, in a way we hadn’t seen for the past five days.
“Everything is forgiven in Jesus. Everything.” Dad’s Adam’s apple raised and lowered. ”You can let go.”
One of Dad’s nurses came to the door and freaked out: ”HE’S BREATHING! I SAW HIM BREATHING,” she gasped. I glanced at her and returned to Dad. I knew Dad was breathing. I could see it. I wasn’t surprised. I still had things to say. It was as if Dad had been waiting for me, hanging on, perhaps needing help letting go. I told him the words God had once told me: “it’s going to be alright, Dad. God’s going to take care of you.”
Dad left. He stopped breathing, his face stilled again, and his mouth opened.
I joined the others in the living room, and we began the process of planning a funeral and grieving a man who’d loved us more than life itself.
Perhaps what I saw in Dad’s face as he passed was just a reflex, but it didn’t feel like it. Look at Lazarus. God can raise anyone from the dead, any time He wants, for His own purposes. We don’t know why or when He gives life, and we have no control over when He takes it. But it seems to me that Dad was still there, still hanging on, not quite ready to let go, needing to hear the reassurance that he could trust God.
Or maybe it was all just a reflex, and the one who didn’t want to let go was me.
We all have trouble letting go. In Dad’s case, who can blame him? Even though Parkinson’s had stolen his mobility and melanoma had stolen his health, leaving this world and all that is familiar is something most of us fight. Similarly, letting go of a father is also something most of us fight.
We all have trouble letting go of our desire for control. We have trouble yielding to God, surrendering to His will, and wanting what He wants for us. We have trouble trusting Him.
The good news is that God knows all this. He is gentle with us, and kind. He is a gardener. John 15:1. And like all good gardeners, He doesn’t let us run wild. Instead, He prunes us. He cuts off everything that doesn’t bear fruit. It hurts to be pruned, but it makes us lovely. When we’ve failed enough, and broken every resolution we ever made, and lost all the things we once thought we had to have, we discover we’re finally ready to try things God’s way.
In other words, we finally ask for His help. God’s way is an affront to our pride. Jesus explains here in John 15 that we can’t do anything without Jesus: “apart from me, you can do nothing.” John 15:5. The first time I read that, it shocked me. You mean I can’t do anything without Christ? Now I’m starting to understand that what God is asking of us is that we rest in His presence. It’s an invitation, not an insult. He asks that we accept that if Jesus is the vine and we’re just the branches, all we branches can do is hang on for dear life. We can only cling to the vine. We can just lie there. God asks that we go off by ourselves and spend time alone with Him. He asks, as He explains here in John 15, that we remain in His love.
I don’t know why we fight remaining in love, but we do.
My father has passed into the arms of Love. He’s asleep in Christ, and when the world is made new, he’ll be given a new body. But Jesus offers us that kind of transformative love even now. He longs to make us into beautiful gardens. He wants us to accept His love. He knows that love, and love alone, makes us blossom the way He intended.
God also knows that we resist love, so He offers us help accepting love. As John Stott explains in his memoir “Why I Am a Christian,” when David writes at the end of the 23rd psalm that surely God’s goodness and mercy shall “follow” us all the days of our lives, the original Hebrew word means “pursue.” We may run away from God, but His love keeps “pursuing” us. Just as God once wore a crown of thorns so He could transform the thorns in our lives into blessings – even though we didn’t ask for that – He keeps pursuing us, even when we don’t ask for it. Jesus was cut off in a far worse way than any of us could imagine, so that we can blossom. Our deathbeds can become, as it did for my father, thrones of life, if we ask to remain in God’s love even when we don’t want to – even when we don’t just walk through the valley of the shadow of death but make our beds there.
Grief is a strange emotion, full of contradictory feelings – peace and sorrow; joy and sadness; denial and shock. The emotion that has surprised me most, because it’s so irrational, is that I feel abandoned by my father’s death.
God knows all of our contradictory emotions, and He whispers to each of us that He will never leave us and never abandon us – not today, tomorrow, or on our deathbeds. We read to our father from Revelation 21 as his kidneys failed and his pulse weakened, because we had a feeling that he was already catching a glimpse of the city of gold and the river of life. We knew this, because we, too, catch glimpses of the gold. We feel the river of life streaming through our own hearts. God’s Spirit is alive. He offers us the love that never disappoints, never dies, never loses faith and always hopes. That’s the love in which we can remain, forever.
posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on June 30, 2012