A few days ago I wrote a blog called “Dancing Until the Song is Over.” It recounted my last visit with a dear friend, and I marveled at her commitment to finishing her life with style – in essence dancing until the song ended. Yesterday morning that song ended; however, I rather imagine that this wasn’t really the case at all. Here is how I picture her last moments on earth. As the last notes of this life’s dance were playing, she began to hear another song. In fact, I think she probably began to realize that she had been dancing out on the balcony outside the main ballroom where the band played. As the doors to the room swung open, the clear, full sound of the true dance replaced the muted, soft sounds of her previous song. I am sitting now imagining her walking into the grand ballroom and immediately being partnered in her first dance by Jesus, Himself. Imagine what must have been going through her mind as she looked into His eternal eyes for the first time and saw complete, perfect, never-ending love. I can only guess that this first dance was soon followed by a second dance with her husband of many years who had entered the ballroom almost exactly a year before. The picture of David and Clara waltzing around the room in perfect health and strength is breathtaking, to say the least.
You may think that I have an overly active imagination, or perhaps that I am overstating things a bit. I would counter that I am surely significantly understating the moment. This is the best picture I can draw, but the artist of this portrait is the One who draws sunsets and rainbows. The architect of her celebration is the designer of mountain ranges and oceans; and, while my thoughts are limited to a budget of my ability to understand things, His budget has room for stars and galaxies. In the final book of the Narnia series, CS Lewis tells of the children leaving Narnia through death’s door and entering Aslan’s land. As they travel, they begin to comment that the things that they saw in their world were just shadows and hints at this real world. The muted colors of Narnia were nothing in comparison to the vivid reality of Aslan’s world. That is what we will see one day… life in vivid color! Yesterday was that day for Clara Durgin. The Apostle Paul put it this way: “for now we see through a glass darkly, but then – face to face!”
Do you imagine that God spared any expense in creating the perfect moment for Sister Durgin’s homecoming? I know He didn’t leave out one minute detail. A lifetime of faithfulness was met by an eternity of reward Monday morning. If she could do it again, do you think she’d do it differently? I guarantee you she wouldn’t. Dance on, my dear friend!
I read an old Yiddish saying on Twitter today that said, “Old age, to the unlearned, is winter; to the learned, it’s harvest time.” That sounds really noble and I agree that is how it should be. The problem is, I just left a nursing home. I went to visit one of the most gentle, godly women I know; and I have known her for nearly my entire life. As a younger lady, she worked for the YMCA. My memories of her include retreats at Camp Ocoee and volleyball and softball games. She has raised 5 superb children who love her very much and are productive in their respective walks of life. Nobody would dispute the value of her well-lived life. The problem is today. Today, she was sitting in a chair, alone in her room. She lost her husband of many years just last year; her hearing left her a bit earlier. For the first 5 or 6 minutes I was there with her, she endured a coughing fit and couldn’t speak to me for choking. Even when that subsided, she couldn’t understand much of what I said back to her because of her hearing loss. She eats very little. In fact, when I placed my hand on her shoulder to pray with her, it felt like nothing but bones. Two or three times I choked back tears, for her, for her kids… for me. As you probably know, nursing homes bring us face to face with our futures. So how do we deal with that? My first reaction is to hate sin. Adam and Eve were created to live forever in perfect health. They were to never know what the pain of loss felt like, or the fear of aging and death. Angina and shortness of breath were terms they should have never encountered. Then sin entered their lives and with it came the unwelcome partners sickness, aging, and death. These morbid three stooges became the destinies of each of us. Our loving Father never wanted us to experience pain or death, but love can only be true when there is a freedom to choose not to return it. I began to think about how much it must make our Heavenly Father’s heart ache to see this child he loves so much have to live like this. Yet, in this winter of her life, I began to see the signs of the coming spring. First of all, she asked me to get her checkbook from her drawer so that she could pay her tithes. Then she began to smile as we talked about her kids, her sister, and our church… and I saw something in her eyes! Suddenly, this Yiddish proverb began to make sense to me. The harvest that it talked about was her harvest. The kernels of grain are ripe – and she knows it. The loving Farmer comes and checks them each day to make sure that the timing will be exactly right. In the meantime, after a lifetime of faithfulness, she is going to finish in style. In 2 Timothy 4, Paul put it this way, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” The music is reaching its climactic moments, but she won’t leave the dance floor until the last note is played. Lord, let me finish my dance with half as much style.
(This was written for Clara Durgin during her last few days on earth)
Just a few days ago I marked the one year anniversary of the passing of one of my best friends, Ken. Now when I say “one of my best friends,” understand what I mean: there are friends with which you share work spaces, classes, neighborhoods, or interests; and then there are friends that share in getting in trouble. You know the ones I’m talking about: the ones who sit in the principal’s office with you trading sheepish looks… or in our case, sit in the general manager or owner’s office cutting our eyes over at each other, wondering what we would do on our “next” job. Ken was one of those friends. You see, we had started working in the automobile business on the same day and had worked together the greater part of the thirteen years I spent in that noble profession. On the outside, we couldn’t have looked much more different. Ken was a tremendous athlete who had been an All-American running back in college; my athletic prowess had been measured by wins and losses on the outdoor basketball court at the East Ridge Town Hall. Ken was insanely strong, often stopping off at the train station on the way to work to lift box cars and locomotive engines; I was also insanely strong… often stopping off at the breakfast bar at Shoney’s or the drive-thru at Bojangles to lift plates of food that were piled inhumanly high; yet while we differed in many ways, even down to our ethnicities, the same heart beat within both of us – the heart of a rebel. Whether collectively or separately, we both generally ran afoul of every authority figure we encountered. It wasn’t that we were bad guys; we just followed the teachings of that role model, John Cougar Mellencamp, who said, “I fought the law and the law won.” This was the type of friendship I lost that day: one that was hardened in the kilns of adversity and resistance to authority, and one in which we had both proven we would stand by the other, come what may. I guess we were truly “birds of a feather” (which leads me to my point… there is a point here – really).
I was given the great honor of delivering the eulogy at Ken’s funeral, so, on the morning of his funeral I was sitting in my home office trying to process my own emotions and wondering how I could possibly do justice to one of the most respected and deserving men I had ever known. As I typed out a few thoughts, I kept hearing some sort of knocking sound out in the hallway. When I finally couldn’t take any more, I walked out into the hallway to bludgeon whatever was making that infernal racket. At the end of the hall are two glass doors which open onto the world’s smallest deck, which is on the second floor of our house. There, a bird pecked at the window. As I watched, he (or she – not really an expert on bird gender) would peck a few times at the glass and then would back up and fly full speed into it. The fearless fowl would then shake his head to clear the birdies singing in it (really?) and start to peck at the glass again. This had gone on for at least an hour at this point, and seemed destined to continue until bird or glass surrendered. My first thought was: this crazy bird doesn’t understand glass at all. He can tell that there is something beyond this window, but he isn’t sure exactly what it is and can’t seem to get to it to find out.
Then a verse Paul wrote came to my mind: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) I realized that I was just like that wacky bird. While I walk around in a world I can see, deep inside of me there exists the awareness that there is more; an inherent sense that life doesn’t end at the moment of death, it merely transitions. Solomon, possibly the wisest man who ever lived, felt this same conundrum. In Ecclesiastes 3, he wrote, “He (God) has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” There are some days that I peck at that “dark glass” that Paul mentions which separates me from what is beyond, and there are other days that I slam head-long into that window… like the day I lost my dear friend. Those are the days that I just keep knocking on it, attacking it, looking for any way to get beyond that barrier.
Thankfully, God doesn’t leave us totally in the dark on the subject. First Corinthians 15 sheds a great amount of light. In fact, verse 42 tells us, “That’s how it will be when our bodies are raised to life. These bodies will die, but the bodies that are raised will live forever. These ugly and weak bodies will become beautiful and strong. As surely as there are physical bodies, there are spiritual bodies. And our physical bodies will be changed into spiritual bodies.” The day of Ken’s funeral, I was on the other side of the window from the bird and knew what lay beyond the glass. I could understand what my feathered friend couldn’t; I had… perspective. One day we will pass beyond the barrier and have a correct perspective on the questions that confound us right now: infant mortality, HIV epidemics among innocents, wars and genocide, and yes… why the good seem to sometimes die young. In fact, from the eternal side of the window, we may very well see passing on as the greatest gift a loving God could give us. We may see that earthly healing just prolonged our exposure to sadness, sickness, and stress… three big S-words that don’t live on the other side of the glass. In the meantime, though, our perspective here could use a bit of adjusting. In verse 19 of that same chapter in Corinthians, Paul writes, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” What he is saying, in bird vernacular, is: begin to live for what lies beyond the glass. It’ll save a lot of headaches.
Dedicated to my dear friend and brother, Ken Adair (7/26/57 – 4/8/10)