It was just a few years ago that I got a call from my father that I will never forget. It was, as he later told me, the hardest call he ever made. He spoke the word that no one wants to hear: cancer. We all know that this is a word that can be spoken to anyone of us at anytime, but it alway sneaks up on us; catches us off guard. It’s the worst kind of surprise. As terrible of a word as it is, there is a second word that sometimes attaches itself to that first word that is even worse: incurable. This word was spoken too.
I took my dog for a walk yesterday and prayed. I spoke very little, but noticed a lot. I took in the things around me. It’s an incredible thing to take in the world which took you in first. I tried to notice the landscape outside of me, but inside as well. I’m trying to learn to pay attention these days even to the small things. Perhaps especially to the small things. If there’s one lesson that being middle-aged has taught me, it’s that the small things are often the big things and paying attention to them is more important than we think. Anyway, I live in a land of strange weather. The last two years by this point we had snow. I assumed that fall was non-existent here and that we only had two seasons, winter and summer, but this year, oh wonder of wonders, we have fall and it’s glorious. It’s still in that in-between stage – some of the leaves are green and others have turned and are beautiful yellows or orange. Some are brittle, like the rest will soon be. It’s a strange thing to realize that the beauty of fall is but a whisper of death. In fall we realize that death is coming but isn’t here quite yet.
We tried to get help for my Dad. Perhaps, we thought, someone could speak a word of hope. Our last shot was with an oncologist. She was wise and devastating. She had no word of hope for us and when we took that long drive home very few words were spoken because there was nothing to say. Devastating. But she was wise, too. She reminded us that these days were a gift and a gift that not all are given. We had a chance, unlike many, to say goodbye. What a strange gift to have the leaves still on the trees but to know that they will be gone soon; to say goodbye – and, thanks – to a person still here, but not for long. It’s a strange kind of beauty, fall.
I’ll never forget trying to say goodbye to my father. I have kind of a thing for words and I’m musician so I thought this would be like an episode of that show my wife watches, This Is Us. It wasn’t. There weren’t any strings in the background and I stumbled to say anything meaningful amidst my sobbing. It was weird. I wished I hadn’t said anything at all. But a few days later while I was sitting with my Dad on the couch as he watched The Masters (somethings never change) – I began to sob. I tried to hold it in for his sake but I couldn’t. He looked at me, smiled, and then looked away. And then, he grabbed my hand. We sat there on the couch holding hands and my earlier moment was redeemed. In that moment everything that needed to be said between us was said without a word being uttered. There are, I’ve come to find, moments too deep for words and we were in one. Later I realized that this is why God often doesn’t speak to us the way we speak to each other. What God has to say is too profound, too holy, for words. But there is an intimacy to be found with God in these moments just like there is an intimacy to be found in those wordless moments with our dying loved one. Make no mistake, they are holy moments too, and God is with us as we take off our shoes in the living room just as he was with Moses as he took off his shoes before the burning bush.
I’m writing this not so much because I’m reflecting on my own experience today, but because I have some friends who are on my heart. I think about them everyday and pray for them just as often. I pray for them on my walks, sometimes without words. The truth is, those two words are devastating and it is hard to navigate through a season where the leaves haven’t fallen yet but you know that they will. Fall has a beauty, but it is strange and difficult beauty. But as devastating as those two words are, there is a third word and it’s not the one that we most dread. Death comes, of course, and will come for me as it came for my father. Death is almost as certain as the return of Christ, but not quite (Maranatha!). Christ will come and not all will “taste of death,” we’re told. But death, as painful as it is, is not the final word. Never the final word. Death is a great enemy, but it is a defeated enemy. The final word is resurrection. This word which is spoken over us has been spoken by God himself and “no word from God will ever fail” (Luke 1:37). The end is not the end. Death is neither the final word nor the destination. As Coleridge wrote, “Death itself will be only a Voyage – a Voyage not from but to our native country.” This is not to downplay the pain of loss. Rather, it’s to remind us that as Buechner said, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”
There are terrible words spoken in this life and there are valleys that we must walk through. But they are not final words and the valley is not the destination. Resurrection is the final word and we are truly headed for “a better country” (Hebrew 11:15), therefore we can confidently say with Julian of Norwich – and if you don’t have the strength to say it now that’s okay, we will say it for you as one day you will need to say it back to us – “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”