This essay was written as part of the outreach program of The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington to continue to minister to our community in this time of uncertainty and “social distancing” that requires not meeting in person. For essays by my friends and colleagues go to “Calming the Storm.”
That Good Friday was a cool and overcast spring day in central Texas. It was appropriate for what was always a somber day in the church, but this family did not attend church and there was a more pressing concern. Evelyn was about to give birth and, like most women of the time, she was going to stay right there, in her home. He was not birthed, as his son had thought when he remembered the story, on the kitchen table. Nonetheless, on March 26th, 1937 the healthy, loud, and last boy Evelyn gave birth to emerged healthy and whole. Charles and his two older brothers would grow up running, riding, and helping out on the ranch and in the cotton gin and all three would become devout and devoted followers of Jesus. Last year, almost one month and eighty-two years after his birth, on a Maundy Thursday, my father gently rested and followed Jesus to the end.
Last year, as my mother and I sat by my father’s bed in the ICU, we began to talk about plans for his funeral—not immediately, but after a day or so, when it became clear that his perishable body was ready to yield to the imperishable. Mom said she knew Dad wanted a service like our son Mack’s. She said they both loved how it was focused not upon the deceased, but on the resurrection of Jesus. Ever since my father had given his life to Christ as a teenager, his devout wish was to share the Gospel with others so that they might know Jesus as he did, as their Lord and Savior. This was so much a part of his being that in an earlier hospital visit, while they thought he was asleep, Dad suddenly awoke, looked at the nurse checking his IV and croaked, “Do you know Jesus?” He was a gentle man in his witnessing. He wouldn’t tell you that you were going to Hell, but he did want you to know Jesus as he did, he wanted you to join him in eternal life. And that was what he wanted at his funeral service, not an encomium about his life, but the declaration of Christ crucified and risen from the dead.
I reflect upon all of this not simply because we are approaching the one-year anniversary of my father’s death, not simply because we are about to enter into Holy Week, but because in this year of two thousand twenty and COVID-19 we are all more aware than we have been for generations of the death that is always present, that will ultimately draw us all to itself. Yet there can also be no better time to enter into Holy Week. This week begins with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and all the city filled with joy and hope, like the healthy birth of a baby, and yet ends with the abusive death of an innocent man, sacrificing himself for the world. Jesus’ death was gruesome and awful and yet his death was not unique. Some death, sometimes many deaths, come to everyone. While the week ended on that Friday which we now call “Good,” the next dawned bright with the news that Jesus was risen. This changed everything. The death that Jesus experienced, while not unique it is suffering or horror, was the end of death because his promise that he would rise again on the third day was fulfilled. “Death has been swallowed up in victory!”
This is the hope of the resurrection, the hope my father knew, that my mother shares, and that they taught their children. It is the firm conviction and sure promise that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so too will we. Our son’s funeral service, that my parents liked so well, was simply “The Burial of the Dead” found in The Book of Common Prayer. It begins with the proclamation, “I am the Resurrection and I am the Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though they die. And everyone who has life, and has committed themselves to me in faith, shall not die for ever” (John 11:25-26). In the service, we also read Paul’s assurances that “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable… It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42, 44). This is the hope that my father believed fervently, it is at the heart of the Gospel, and it is the promise that God has made to all creation new through Jesus.
Shortly after Mack died, a colleague gave us two identical, small framed quotes from Sister Joan Chittister; one for me and one for my wife Elizabeth. The framed gift, given to us within weeks of Mack’s death, had a simple drawing of a heart, whole yet with lines through it like stained glass, and a short quote that was direct and to the point. “Hope is the ability to believe that good can happen out of anything.” Hope is the grace of God working in and through our lives in this world, assuring us that something good will emerge out of the darkness.
As we walk through the dark and winding valley of this time, we must remember that God walks with us, that Jesus has walked the path before us, and will bring us into the light of our Easter morning.