Written and read by Josh Porter
Memorial of Dennis Martinez, November 11, 2017
One of the first dinner’s I shared with Denny, I remember the way his family gathered around him, inviting him to regale me with the story of his journey to Jesus. The dinner table his campfire, Denny sat back and spun his familiar tale.
He had been like an outlaw who had discovered something so precious that he had left the old life behind. Now it was just a story he kept slung over his shoulder. He brought it out only to celebrate this precious thing that had so changed him, to display the great contrast of lives, or perhaps to intimidate tattooed young men who were interested in his teenage daughter, now sitting at his dinner table.
Of course, those of us who follow Jesus realize, the old story—the one we exchange for something more precious—becomes a new story, but it is not voided of the old story altogether. For though the decisive victory against evil has been won, evil yet runs amok, at least for a season, and in our own lives and words and actions as well. Though the charge of our indebtedness has been cancelled, we often continue in an effort to add to that debt as if it were yet active and real.
Eventually, the old story becomes a new story. And again, there are little failures, and sometimes very big ones. Small victories and great ones. Day in and day out, year after year. A man becomes a new man, and though Jesus understands him to be blameless, his own life often tells a different story.
There is a terrible truth known to only those of us whose fathers have died. For as every dad knows well enough, fatherhood is a heavy mantle to carry for both the super dad and the deadbeat. And for reasons both valid and selfish, we sons and daughters insist that our dads carry this weight well. But they cannot. Not always. Even those of us with very good dads were raised by men who often failed.
But when a father dies, his children become capable of something extraordinary, should they choose to act on it: They are able to see their dad’s shortcomings swallowed up in beauty. It is neither a coping mechanism, nor denial, for we know that this man has sinned, but like Jesus, we remember his sin no more. Of him we will forever say: He was a good dad, and that is enough.
Of course those with fathers still present, still close, can learn to understand their good dads as flawed without holding it against them, but to close the book on our father’s sin is a terrible right reserved for sons like me, and now, sons like Zach. Daughters like Jasmine, Hannah, and Abi.
For when they look to the book of memory they will find their dad smiling. They will remember his kindness and compassion, his friendliness and infectious laugh. They will remember him at times delightfully crass, and at others full of wisdom, and affection. Over and against a world marred by absentee or uncaring fathers they will say, my dad loved me.
And the words will break their hearts.
Years from now, in different ways and in different seasons, we will find new ways to miss him, new occasions in which his absence will shout at us, and sting us, and we will say of his not being here: This isn’t right. Today, we recognize death as God’s enemy—indeed, the last to be destroyed.
But just as we recognize God’s enemy, we mock him.
You have taken from us a father, a husband, a brother, a son, a friend, and we will yet celebrate in our sorrow. You have broken our hearts, and we will yet sing in our grief. Satan, you come to steal and kill and destroy, and so you have: You have stolen our beloved, killed our friend, destroyed something most precious, and your work is yet a failure.
For though you bludgeon us with your horrible instrument of death, death itself has been swallowed up in victory. Though you have taken from us our friend, he has not been dragged from life to death, but from life to death and to glory—in the presence of God himself.
Yes, we recognize our pain and our profound sorrow. To dismiss them would mean to dismiss our profound love for the man who has died. And yes, we will weep, and we will mourn, and yes our hearts are breaking. But Death, you have not won. No, yours is a shallow and temporary victory, for though Denny is absent from the body, he is present with God. Though he was sick and frail, he is healed and whole. Though he once struggled against and battled with his own sin, he will struggle against and battle it no more.
In the days before Denny’s death, we agonized over his declining health. We wept when, swinging his legs awkwardly over the edge of his bed, his wife placed her hands on his shoulders to explain that he had become too weak to stand—but that he would be walking again very soon.
Because the Satanic evil of cancer ravages the body in such a way that our minds were filled with images of Denny freed from the claws of sickness and death. But one evening as I considered these things, God’s Spirit reminded me of something too wonderful for us to fully consider, but that Denny now knows full well.
I saw Denny, standing, walking, free of sickness. In my mind, the presence of Jesus was like a wild and beautiful land to which he had been given new and unique access. His cancer was gone, and yet Denny paused before stepping inside. And I noticed the old story slung over his shoulder, that weathered and worn collection of struggles and scars. The outlaw stories before Jesus, but also the failings and falling as a pastor, a husband, a dad—the lessons learned and the stories that they told for a lifetime.
And smiling, Denny said, “I won’t be needing this. Not anymore.” And he set it aside forever, the battle against sin not only won, but complete. This is, I think, one dimension of what it means for death to be “swallowed up in victory.”
With broken hearts we say, “Amen, Denny. Set it down forever. Amen.”