This is wrong.
Parents should not have to bury their children. Children should not have to bury their parents.
In the midst of personal tragedy, those affected begin to hear vague, spiritual platitudes from the lips of well-meaning comforters.
“God is in control,” they say. “God has a plan.”
And though the sentiment nestled within such expressions is charitable and good, a sinister inference swallows any kindness in its ominous shadow. As if God himself might tower over our misery as a terrible Grim Reaper, distributing calamity and injustice at his own dreadful whimsy.
This is, of course, untrue. Reasoning of this kind terrorizes Scripture, devastates the character and goodness of God, and levels any cheap, short-term comfort it affords with its abominable consequences.
Death is not God’s plan. It is not his will, not his intent, not his best. For followers of Jesus, death is an enemy. An enemy whose parade of affliction, misfortune and sorrow defy the God of love. Death happens against God’s will. In rebellion and defiance of God’s will.
But not for long. No, not for long.
Because the hope for followers of Jesus is not that evil and calamity are somehow grafted into God’s good plan for humanity, but that no matter what evil befalls us, God is at work to bring good out of that which violates his will.
What a far more glorious comfort to extol a good and gracious God who is at work in a fallen world to bring good out of evil, lest we warp his character into a monstrosity which orchestrates evil and death in order to meet his ends. As if these ends might only be met if God were pulling all the strings.
No, God did not kill my dad.
The lives of men are hopelessly entangled in the lives of their fathers. Ever since I was a small boy I was told that I looked like my dad. “Little Jerry,” they called me. And when I found disagreement between my father and myself it was most certainly our similarities that drove us to do battle, not our differences. Oh, how difficult it is to love one’s self. How difficult it is to see one’s own imperfection and sin personified in a smaller version of one’s self. A “little Jerry,” as it were.
My father was a flawed man. As deeply imperfect as myself or any other normal human being I have happened upon. Anyone who knew him or knows me can tell you as much. But I mention his shortcomings in passing. Innate. Secondary. What good is there in celebrating a man’s victories if we fail to recall that he achieved them by rising above his own acknowledged limitations?
In our many years together I certainly made mistakes. Said and did reprehensible things from which I had to repent of time and time again. Similarly, my dad would tell you that he, like anyone, found his own share of fault drifting in his wake. But what was it? I can’t recall. Not because I have forced the bad away, but because it withers and fades in light of the good.
I remember so many trips to the movies. Secret screenings of Gremlins and Terminator 2 that we weren’t supposed to tell our mom about. I remember dancing with my dad to Queen records and singing along to Aerosmith cassettes as I rode in the passenger side of his truck. I remember Sunday school and simple conversations about Jesus and his love for the whole world. So many of these wonderful, fragmented memories shaped my present reality: that I became a filmmaker and a musician, that I became a disciple of Jesus, that I would study and teach theology, that I would set out to tell the world about his Kingship. These things can be traced back to my dad, and my mom. I remember that my dad was my first and most unflinching advocate of the reckless pursuit of my unconventional dream. My advocate when others turned their backs. My advocate when we were the “weird” kids in town, with safety pins driven through their faces, blue mohawks and tattoos.
Yes, this was my father. In spite of our complete and utter disdain for convention and the leering eyes on a bunch of heavily tattooed kids in southeast Georgia, my dad was the one in the back of the venue with a camcorder. First to the record store to buy my album. First to wear the t-shirt. My dad: my biggest fan.
It is my dad who has inspired me to be a father myself. And now that I have a son of my own, I can only hope to emulate my dad’s patience, forbearance, kindness, compassion and grace. I hope that I might carry the burden of reluctant discipline as well as he has. I hope that, like my dad, I might become a father to many—not my children alone. For, as many here can attest, my dad’s home was one of open doors. Our friends were his friends. Convenient or inconvenient, rain or shine, ordinary afternoon or Thanksgiving dinner, my dad stood ready to warm the grill, to cook for dozens, to invite a team of hooligans out to Griffin’s lake, to serve and to sacrifice for others at his own expense.
Why? I suppose it made him happy.
Preacher and theologian John Wesley, on his deathbed, ended his life with these words: “Best of all, God is with us.”
A professor recently told me that he had puzzled over these closing remarks. Why not say, “best of all, Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and anyone who believes in him can be saved by faith not by works,” as is expected of a Christian? Why not say, “best of all, I have brought countless numbers to Jesus and founded a movement that will live on and win souls long after I have gone?”
Why say, “best of all, God is with us?”
Because Wesley could see the beauty that is Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. No, we are not alone. No, we are not without hope. Not without purpose. Not without affection or care or love. God is not aloof or distant or dead, no, God is with us.
And in the midst of my despair I am shaken by this wonderful truth: My dad is with God. Not in some vague, spiritual sense. Not as some empty expression puffed up around those who mourn. But as a present reality. Now. My dad is with God.
Oh, what a wideness in God’s mercy! The Father that my dad and I share in our Creator saw Jerry Porter as he really was. To his core. He saw each and every flaw. Every one of his imperfections. But rather than hold these shortcomings against him, God, in his endless, overflowing love for my dad has removed his sins as far as the east is from the west. My dad’s sin—his legal indebtedness—has been nailed to the cross of Jesus. He has made it no more.
What God sees in my dad is holiness. Blamelessness. And rather than look for God through a clouded glass as each of us must do, my dad now sees him face to face.
So often the hope of those who are in Jesus is pitifully reduced to little more than a change of address when we die. The hope of Jesus is so much more. Those who are disciples of Jesus of Nazareth declare with eager anticipation that, just as the tomb has been found empty, so to evil, Satan himself, and yes, indeed death, have been robbed of their authority and power. And look! He comes to set the world to right.
Not a nation of disembodied spirits exiled to live among the clouds, but an entire cosmos restored and made new. Heaven coming to earth. The resurrection of the dead: body, mind and soul.
That though my dad is now “absent in the body” and “present with god,” he too awaits a coming day when Jesus sets the entire world to rights. No more aching and crying, no more breaking and dying. No more diabetes or heart disease or sickness or suffering or injustice, for the old order of things will have passed away. When finally, once and for all, God’s will will always be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The absence or loss of a father and a husband and a friend is a dreadful state of affairs. Let us not pretend as though it were not. Let us grieve and mourn for having lost in our midst such a friend as my dad. But make no mistake: he has not been conquered by the enemy of death. No, he has not. And so we mourn, but not as those without hope.
Why, I sometimes wonder, do we say “pass away?” I suppose we hope that this kinder, gentler idiom might shield us from the horror of death. But death has already been robbed of its sting. Death has already been robbed of its victory. So say that my dad has died. He has. But say also that he lives, and that he will live again.
The Apostle Paul, with all his trademark confidence, proclaims that just as Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead, all who are in Christ as my father is, will also be raised. This very moment in the presence of God himself, and on the not-so-distant horizon a day when his very ashes will be restored from the dust.
And death will be put out forever. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
I leave this writing with the words of C.S. Lewis, and the closing remarks in his wonderful tales of Narnia. At the end of the story, Lucy Pevensie finds herself in a world made new and in the presence of Aslan. And so:
“Lucy said, ‘We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.’
‘No fear of that,’ said Aslan. ‘Have you not guessed?’
Their hearts leapt, and a wild hope rose within them.
‘There was a real railway accident,’ said Aslan softly. ‘Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
And so, good morning dad. As those who miss you await the sunrise, may you bathe in its glow.