Sunday, March 31, 2013

Nine Inch Nails on the way to church

I was several miles from home when I realized I didn’t have any CD’s in my car and the playlists on all the local stations were bland. Fumbling about in my glove compartment for some music, I pulled out a defective tire gauge, a moldy map of Tennessee roads, a wad of drive-thru napkins, and a flashlight of which I had little confidence in its illuminability.  Finally I found a few cassette tapes from years gone by.

It was a solar soaked early April Sunday, and I had decided to drive around to west Nashville’s expansive Percy Warner Park for some natural perspective before church. I was pleased that the first tape case I lifted out of the trough was a collection of Brahms classics by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.  As I was about to slip it into my rarely used dashboard cassette player, I realized it wasn’t the symphony I had expected, but rather a Memorex tape that had accidentally been placed in the Brahms case.  The handwritten title was so faded I couldn’t read it.  Curious, I decided to pop it in anyway to see what surprise would greet my ears.

I am the voice inside your head
And I control you
I am the lover in your bed
And I control you
I am the sex that you provide
And I control you
I am the hate you try to hide
And I control you

This was hardly the soothing string swells of Germanic romance era melodiousness that I thought would augment my peaceful devotion before communal worship.  Within about half a minute I realized it was a dub of The Downward Spiral, the epic 1994 exploration into depravity that comes from unfettered depression (or is it the other way around?) by Nine Inch Nails.

I take you where you want to go
I give you all you need to know
I drag you down I use you up
Mr. Self-destruct

(“Mr. Self Destruct” from The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, 1994)

In many ways, it is one of the saddest exposes on mankind’s proclivity toward the dark side ever recorded.  It seemed incongruous with the sun-streamed spring foliage and dewy meadows I was passing between.

Help me, I broke apart my insides,
Help me, I’ve got no soul to sell
Help me, the only thing that works for me,
Help me get away from myself

(“Closer” from The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, 1994)

The stark, brutally honest lyrics were matched with distorted, oft-chaotic music arrangements beneath the tortured wailing confessions of bandleader, Trent Reznor.

I'm stuck in this dream it's changing me
I am becoming the me that you know
He had some second thoughts
He's covered with scabs and he is broken and sore
The me that you know doesn't come around much
That part of me isn't here anymore 
It won't give up, it wants me dead
Goddamn this noise inside my head

(“The Becoming” from The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, 1994)

After a few minutes, I ejected the tape, thinking it was not the proper accompaniment for my Sunday morning pastoral.  I drove in silence for a bit, but what I had heard reminded me of how often I don’t want to deal with the debauchery that lurks within, and would rather mask it with sunny platitudes and distractions.

Oh my beautiful liar
Oh my precious whore
My disease, my infection
I am so impure

(“Reptile” from The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, 1994)

As I passed by a dead collie on the curb lying stiff in a pool of hardened blood, I was slapped back into reality from my happy Sabbath bliss.  I decided to slide the tape back in and turn it up even louder.

I'm losing ground
You know how this world can beat you down
I'm made of clay
I fear I'm the only one who thinks this way
I'm always falling down the same hill

I was weaving through the winding passes of that large, hilly park and was reminded of how I so often try to navigate in and around the darkness within me.  Twisting to evade contact with the brokenness is one of my favorite exercises. It has almost become routine from muscle memory and repetition.

You extend your hand to those who suffer
To those who know what it really feels like
To those who've had a taste
Like that means something
And oh so sick I am
And maybe I don't have a choice
And maybe that is all I have
And maybe this is a cry for help
I do not want this
I do not want this
I do not want this
I do not want this

(“I Do Not Want This” from The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, 1994)

As I pulled into the parking lot of my church listening to the words of the closing song, “Hurt,” it dawned on me that this was the perfect soundtrack to prepare myself for this Easter Sunday:

What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end

You could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

I wear this crown of shit
Upon my liar's chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair

Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here

(“Hurt” from The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, 1994)

In more ways than one, those nine inch nails were meant for me.  Instead continually driving them in to myself, Someone else took the brunt of their sharp pain in my stead.

“Jesus did not refuse the society of the guilty.  He came to save the lost; and no person ever came to him so sure of finding a friend as those who came conscious that they were deeply depraved and mourning on account of their crimes.”  --Albert Barnes

“There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”  --Corrie TenBoom

“The most powerful sermon in the world consists of two words: Me too.” --Anne Lamott

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Palm Sunday perspective from an ass (like me)

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked   
   And figs grew upon thorn,   
Some moment when the moon was blood   
   Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
   And ears like errant wings,   
The devil’s walking parody   
   On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
   Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,   
   I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
   One far fierce hour and sweet:   
There was a shout about my ears,
   And palms before my feet.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

I Miss Rich Mullins

Being St. Patrick's Day,  I've been thinking of some of my favorite Irishmen.  Though Rich was not born there, his name and lifestyle certainly reflected much of the Irish flare.

I miss Rich’s beaming smile and furrowed brow.

I miss Rich’s pop sensibilities blended with eclectic instrumentation.

I miss Rich’s quick laugh and his barking anger.

I miss Rich drinking eight glasses of water a day to “counteract” his smoking habit.

I miss that Rich read the Bible not to understand God but to encounter Him.

I miss Rich singing the “Star Spangled Banner” acapella to open a show but being outraged at U.S. foreign policy.

I miss Rich’s contrite heart and his assertions to, like Martin Luther, “sin boldly.”

I miss our extended chats about the rebel Jesus and our arguments over theology.

I miss Rich’s focus on the needs of others and his recurring challenges with absentmindedness.

I miss Rich’s wrestling with fame and his willingness to confess openly his darkest problems.

I miss Rich’s love for the Church and his aversion towards westernized churchianity.

I miss Rich’s servant heart and his uncompromising stance with record label suits.

I miss Rich quoting lengthy passages of scripture and swearing like a longshoreman.

I miss Rich’s longing for purity and his struggles with celibacy.

I miss Rich’s attraction to “high church” and performing his concerts bare foot and in tattered clothes.

I miss Rich’s love for Amy Grant and his disdain for the majority of her fans.

I miss Rich’s zeal for what moved him (like seeing Dances with Wolves twenty-seven times while it was in theaters) and his equal frustration with pop culture trends (like obsessive dieting).

I miss Rich’s desire for meaningful friendships and his frustrations with loneliness.

I miss Rich’s clarity that realized taking pride in poverty was equally as wicked as taking pride in wealth.

I miss Rich’s blunt rebukes and gentle grace.

I miss Rich’s intense self-judgment and his recognition of Christ’s deep fondness for him.

Yep…Rich was a complicated character, and a friend. When I read Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing To Heaven by James Bryan Smith I guess my emotions about Rich’s untimely death in 1997 were still a bit raw. But many memories started flowing…

Like when I met Rich the first time at Blanton and Harrell Management while I was a consultant on Amy Grant’s Straight Ahead Tour.  Mike and Dan had recently signed Rich to their new Reunion Records label.  He was just as scruffy as you would expect wandering the hallways, and had some definite opinions about the $15,000 Turkish carpets on the floors.

Or the time a few years later when I was helping manage the artist department at Compassion, and had worked hard with Rich on a printed piece to go into his second album, Pictures in the Sky.  He was excited to use his platform to help needy children in the developing world.  Unfortunately, I had just come from the parent record company, and the president of the label had decided not to allow the flier to be inserted after all. We were sitting in the old Shoney’s restaurant on Demonbreum here in Nashville when I gave him the news.  In an instant, his eyes flashed, he pounded his fist so loudly on the table that it lifted all the silverware and tipped a glass of ice water. “That bastard!” he screamed.  The bustling joint grew eerily quiet as Rich fumed further while I tried to calm him down. With our mutual passion for the insert, we eventually got those in charge to change their minds, and hundreds of precious little ones ended up with better lives as a result.

Then there was the time I was on the road for Compassion with the modern rock band The Choir.  One show was in Wichita at a second floor night club.  A terrible load-in for the band and crew.  Rich had become a fan of their music, and showed up early to assist with all the equipment and stayed late do the same.  The Choir and their crew had no idea Rich was with them, and since he was just wearing a dirty baseball cap with his hair pulled back, they never recognized him.  Later, on the bus as we were headed to the next town I asked if they had enjoyed meeting Rich at all. “He was there?!” they exclaimed. They were pissed that they never got to actually meet him, even though he’d been helping all night. Rich never went out of his way to introduce himself, even though it was his home town, and he helped fund the club where they were playing.   He was just thrilled that they came to play and were making an impact on some kids he knew.

Another time I wanted to introduce Rich to some of my cohorts at Compassion.  I had warned my boss and the others that Rich could be a tad unpredictable, and that he was never shy about expressing whatever thought process his mind was churning.  “Be prepared….and take whatever he may spout-on about with a huge grain of salt,” I cautioned with a wink and a smile.

We drove up to Boulder, Colorado to see him open for Amy Grant on the Unguarded Tour. Rich was not in a particularly good mood after his sound check in the cavernous Univ. of Colorado Fieldhouse was completed.  Once he got permission from the road manager to go off site with us to eat, he was grousing in the van about the idiocy of Amy’s fandom that were waiting like cattle in long lines outside the hall.  Rich claimed that he would enjoy going up to those pre-teen wanna-be’s who were all wearing their leopard skin jackets and black spandex tights and “slap some sense into each and every one of them.”  My fellow Compassionates laughed nervously.

We drove to several area restaurants, but they were all over-run with said fan base, and the waits were over thirty minutes to be seated, so we kept moving.  This did not assist in changing Rich’s demeanor whatsoever.  Since we had limited time before Rich had to return backstage, we had to settle for a McDonald’s that was, once again, full of Amy-ites.  My chums were doing their best to make small talk with Rich, but he was sullen and somewhat withdrawn.  My boss, Dave, looked at me as if to say, “What is this guy’s deal?” 

As Rich was munching on his fillet-o-fish and slurping some orange drink, he suddenly plopped the cup on the table top and declared with intentionality that would make Idi Amin flinch, “Ya know, I could pull out a sub machine gun and mow down every single person in this restaurant, and not feel one moment of remorse.” 

Trying to lighten the mood I interjected, “Aw Rich, you’re so full of it sometimes…just relax and let the kids have their naïve fun.”  

He then took another bite and mumbled, “I am so very, very serious. Get me a gun and I’ll prove it.”  More uncomfortable acknowledgement and tittering ensued from our group.  Thankfully, his mood began to lighten, and he apologized for being such a jerk just as we dropped him off at the arena.  To this day, I’m amazed that my teammates at Compassion were willing to keep moving forward with Rich.  But it was a tremendous partnership that grew deep and more precious over the next eleven years.

The time that Phil Madeira and I put together the Mark Heard Memorial Tribute Concert at Belmont University also sticks out in my mind.  Rich had only recently come to be familiar with Mark’s artistry, and was moved by his sudden death the previous summer.  The concert was a rousing success as an artistic endeavor, the auditorium was packed, and we saw over $10,000 raised for Mark’s widow and daughter.  But we knew that another revenue stream that could not only help their financial straits, but also expand Heard’s heritage would be for artists to commit to covering Mark’s wonderful songs.  Rich was the first to pop up that night and promise to do just that.  His next album featured a powerful rendition of Mark’s “How To Grow Up Big and Strong,” and thousands more publishing dollars went to the foundation to assist the Heard family as a result.

I think my favorite story revolves around taking Rich on his very first overseas trek.  It was 1991, and I put together a Compassion Artist Vision Trip to Guatemala with Rich, Rick Elias, Geoff Moore, promoter Chuck Tilley, and my manager, Devlin Donaldson. None had ever really met each other before, and there was a great bond that formed during that week in Central America.  In fact, that is where the seeds of the Ragamuffin Band concept were sewn, with Rich and Rick became fast friends and collaborators from that introduction forward.

Whether we were trudging through Guatemala City’s massive dump, or clambering up Mayan pyramids at Iximche…whether we were sitting through an earthquake late one evening in our rattling little motel in Panajachel or skimming across the glass surface of the gorgeous Lake Atitlan… whether we were blowing bubbles with kindergartners in San Pedro La Laguna or Rich getting popped with a swinging stick from an overenthusiastic little piñata basher in Tecpan…whether we were watching naked kids splashing in a stream or he was leading a group of native teens in singing “Awesome God,”  Rich was radiant.  You could just see how this was impacting him from that point forward.

Before we had departed for the trip southward, Rich asked me if it would be OK to bring an instrument.  I assumed he meant an acoustic guitar, but he wanted to bring his large hammer dulcimer.  “Rich, that thing is worth a couple of grand and is pretty delicate,” I reasoned. “It may not survive the transport, and the kids at the projects are gonna want to bang on that thing relentlessly.”

“I won’t mind…I really want to bring it, and I certainly want the kids to try and play it,” he replied.  And sure enough, when we got there, once they saw the magic sounds Rich could bring out of it, they all wanted to try.  Most were none too dignified in their attempts to get notes out of it, but Rich was just beaming ear-to-ear with their efforts. I’ll never forget the images of kids crawling all over Rich trying to take turns pounding on one of his most prized possessions, and him being absolutely thrilled with joy. Before the end of the trip, a few strings were broken, and several chips were taken out of the fine wood finish.  But Rich simply didn’t care.  You could see his heart for wanting to teach children via music come to the fore during those moments…and that’s exactly what he committed himself to five years later when he moved to the Navaho reservation in New Mexico.

I like this summary of Rich from An Arrow Pointing Toward Heaven:

Growing into the person God created us to be, Rich thought, was the goal of the Christian life—not trying to sin less, but to be God’s more.  Mitch McVicker comments, “He would often say that the most holy thing he could do was to be completely human.  He was more interested in being genuine and real than being crisp and clean on the outside.  He said, ‘God created us human, and that means struggling, falling, admitting it, and being healed.’  A part of being holy means knowing that you are a struggling human and that you can be forgiven and healed by God.  He always focused on the hope on the other side of sin.”

Many of us are preparing to live rather than actually living.  Meditating on this may awaken us to the fact that we have one life to live, and the day—the moment—we are in will never be repeated.  In a sense, a well-lived life is the best way to cheat death.

“So go out and live real good,” Rich wrote late in his life, “and I promise you you’ll be beat up real bad.  But a little while after you’re dead, you’ll be rotted away anyway…it’s not gonna matter if you had a few scars.  It will matter if you didn’t live.”

Yeah, I still miss Rich Mullins and that thirst to drink in all God had to offer.  I still see Christ reflected in his sometimes awkward attempts to live fully.  With Jesus as my hope, may I humbly do likewise.   

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Through Your Hands (another free chapter from Embracing the Gray)

As a little tyke, I would sometimes crawl in my Dad’s lap while he would read the evening paper, or be watching television.  Fascinated with the size of his hands, I would play with the fingers and thumbs, comparing them to mine.  The grooves, wrinkles, and intricate detail of the rope-like bands of his fingerprints were so much more distinct than the smooth skin on my little mitts.  The patches of hair on his knuckles and the back of his fists were dark compared to the peach fuzz on mine.  I would press my miniature digits against his and wonder if mine would ever be as big.

I remember his paw wrapped around mine as he stood behind while teaching me how to grip a bat; his left on mine over the left handlebar and his right on my lower back as he ran alongside and steadied me while learning to balance a bicycle without training wheels; or the firm slap of his flattened right palm he gave me ten good whacks on my behind for being disobedient; or his hand patting gently on my the back of my neck as he leaned over my shoulder to help me with a tough bout of algebra homework; or his arm wrapped around my side and proudly embracing me upon my graduation from Wheaton.
The week that the final draft of this manuscript was edited and the graphic design for the cover was approved, Dad started slipping away.

A month earlier, he fell and broke his hip while walking to the dining hall at his retirement home.  His vertigo had become more pronounced in the past year, and he had also fractured his forearm from a spill while taking off his shoes, and cracked his lower right arm from a tumble while taking a shower.  The resultant physical therapy from these first two setbacks went well.  But he was not responding at all to the special hospital care he was receiving after his hip needed rebuilding.

Dad’s appetite was receding.  He was becoming borderline dehydrated.  We were doing all in our power to help him, but it was becoming obvious he was winding down. The morning his kidneys started failing, I called Joyce who was on business in Washington DC, and she was able to catch a flight that would arrive by late afternoon.

He was wavering in and out of consciousness, but in the moments where Dad seemed coherent I grabbed his hand and told him Joyce was on her way.  “Can you hold on long enough to see her?” I asked with a catch in my throat.  “She really wants to say goodbye.”  His eyes connected with mine, and he nodded slightly.  Then his lids closed and never reopened as he began descending into a more comatose state.

I eased my hand into his and waited.  That tactile intertwining brought back memories of my little hand in his from five decades ago.  For the first time, I realized how similar they now looked.  Sure, his were more weathered…a few liver spots here and there, and the hairs were now all gray…but still showing equal measures of strength, character, and gentleness that I can only hope to emulate.

In the last few years with all the time we had sharing meals and driving around, we had some conversations that I will always treasure.  These talks were washing over me now.  I remembered sharing with him some of my insecurities, and he confessed several episodes of his own.  Like in his college days when he woke up in a hung-over haze inside of his car in front of his apartment after driving home drunk—wondering how the hell he had navigated traffic in that state, and his hands trembled on the steering wheel as dawn burned his bloodshot eyes.  While he practically crawled up the stairs in nausea, he swore that he would not end up like his father.  That moment helped lead him to seriously searching for better reasons to live.

He told me of flipping through scriptures searching for answers, and clasping his hands tightly together in prayer asking Christ into his life.  And recalled his sweaty palms raking through his hair has he paced back and forth trying to make a decision about going into the ministry several years after that.

“I can still distinctly remember holding each one of you in my arms after you were born,” he had told me.  “I was feeling so unworthy of the honor.  I especially recollect with Joyce cupping the back of her tiny, perfect little head in the meat of my hand—her big blue eyes gazing up at me.  ‘Lord,’ I prayed, ‘how can I possibly provide for these three beautiful children you have given to Marilyn and me?’  My salary wasn’t even $10,000 a year back then, and there were so many responsibilities leading a church.”

Still you argue for an option
Still you angle for your case
Like you wouldn’t know a burning bush
If it blew up in your face
Yeah, we scheme about the future
And we dream about the past
When just a simple reaching out
Might build a bridge that lasts

Mulling these images over for several hours, I was simultaneously praying that God would allow my sister to travel without delay.  My friend Katy volunteered to pick Joyce up at the airport and they raced through early evening rush hour traffic.  Dad’s breathing had become very erratic, and he was wincing in agitation from the turmoil that was wreaking mayhem intestinally.

When she arrived, Sis swept into the room and spoke in her upbeat manner, “I’m here now, Dad.  So very happy to be with you.”  As she slipped her hand into his, he squeezed hard and would not let go for the next ninety minutes.

The doctor on duty, Heather, felt that Dad was very near the end. We wanted to make him as comfortable as possible and asked if they could administer morphine to help with the pain that was burning his stomach.  They started doses every few hours.

My home is just a few miles away, so I dashed over to get a CD player and some music I knew Dad enjoyed.  I also brought a Presbyterian hymnal, some clothes and toiletries so we could make ourselves comfortable for however long we would need to be by his side.  I also grabbed two lamps to give us respite from the stark glare of fluorescent lighting.

The gentleman who had been Dad’s roommate for the previous week was discharged earlier that day, and the staff told us we could use the extra bed.  We pulled it over next to my father’s and took turns lying next to him, holding his hand, patting his arm, and gently reassuring him that it was going to be OK.  “We’re here to help you step over to the other side, Dad.” 

One album we played was a collection of hymns sung by Lynda Poston-Smith entitled Steal Away Home: Songs of Hope and Comfort.   This had been a favorite of my Mother’s, not only for the eclectic selections, but also because their voices were nearly identical.  Mom had operatic skill in her beautiful soprano, and the blend of her singing along while she did housework would’ve caused anyone to think she was Lynda’s sister. 

“This sounds just like Mom, doesn’t it Dad?” I asked.  His eyebrows raised up and down as his lips moved silently, trying to sing along.  “She’s waiting for you, Dad.  Mom is calling you home.”  His grip grew strong around my hand.

You were dreaming on a park bench
‘Bout a broad highway somewhere
When the music from the carillon
Seemed to hurl your heart out there
Past the scientific darkness
Past the fireflies that float
To an angel bending down
To wrap you in her warmest coat

That night, the staff welcomed Joyce to sleep in the empty room next door.  I cozied-beside Dad, our shoulders touching, caressing his arm, putting my hand on his chest when his breathing became agitated. “You’re doing fine, Dad.  You can make this trip at your own pace,” I whispered. 

I had gotten him some of his beloved A&W Root Beer, and would dip swabs of the sweet brew to wet his lips every half hour or so.  Sometimes he would even swallow.  “Nothing like a cold root beer, huh, Dad?”  I would ask, and sometimes his eyebrows would rise in response.

As the hours melted one into another, a certain cadence took over his air intake: a large inhale, a slight moan, and then a sustained exhale. I began to wonder which one might be his last. I didn’t want to let him go, but he had been longing to for months.  At least a dozen times in that stretch he admitted that he wanted to go to heaven.  “I’ve had enough, Mark, and I don’t think I’ve got anything left to give anyway,” he lamented.

Why is it that so often as life winds down there is such a grayness to it?

When half-light started seeping through the window at sunup, the morphine must’ve been pretty well integrated into his system, and his breathing had become even-paced with no external signs of pain.  Vital signs were fairly stable.  So, once Joyce was alert and in the room, I drove home to eat and shower.

While I was gone, she pulled out the hymnal and began singing to Dad while sitting with him hand-in-hand.  On certain numbers he would twitch in recognition. She went cover to cover, singing every one that she remembered, like “Children of the Heavenly Father,”  “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “Be Thou My Vision ,” “Like A River Glorious,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “To God Be The Glory,” “Breathe On Me, Oh Breath of God,” “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” “Fairest Lord Jesus,” “For the Beauty of the Earth,” “Great Is They Faithfulness,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” “Open My Eyes That I May See,” “What a Friend We Have In Jesus,” “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” “Praise Ye The Lord,”  and “Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Jehovah” were the ones she noted he acknowledged the most. On some, tears even trickled down his cheeks.

Knowing my Sister’s ambivalence about much of evangelicalism over the past several decades, this was stirring a reconnection of memories growing up in a pastor’s home.  The ridiculous pressures, expectations of the fundamental lifestyle, and disappointments over decisions made (or not made) seemed to be of no consequence during this final bond between a daughter and father. These time-tested melodies and hope-filled psalms swept over the both of them.  “Blessed Assurance,” indeed.

Angels, descending, bring from above

Echoes of mercy, whispers of love
Watching and waiting, looking above
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love

(“Blessed Assurance,” Fanny Crosby, 1873)

Upon my return, Joyce took a break to have breakfast and shop for some clothes (she had only packed for a two day business trip).  In my next few hours with Dad, I read him some of the newspaper, prayed with him, and recited some portions of scripture. 

When Dad seemed to be in a rapt sleep, I pulled out Kathleen Norris’ Acedia and Me, which I had been working through for the past month.  This book is a telling of her discovery and contemplation of acedia, one of the original “Seven Deadly Sins” that over the past five hundred years has been referred to more as “sloth.” Even in the past century it has more often been looked at as “depression.”   Norris ties this in with the long struggle of her husband’s declining health over several decades.   The chapter I opened that afternoon was entitled “And to the End Arriving.” I knew that she was going to eventually talk of his passing, but had no idea it would be nearly a hundred pages before the close of the dissertation.  As I read of her tending to him on his deathbed, barely holding on to life, I found myself eminently encouraged.  I sensed the Spirit once again interlacing threads of circumstance to show me tender concern.  

Kathleen recounted her husband David’s favorite prayer, which was the final utterance of the compline (from the Latin “complete,” the service used to bring each day to a close): “May the Lord grant us a peaceful night, and a perfect end.”  I nodded in affirmation that, in God’s mercy, the same would be true for Dad in His timing.

Throughout that afternoon, we pondered moving him to my house for final hospice.  His breathing seemed measured and steady—as if he had found a comfortable pace that might sustain him for a while.  In and out went the rhythm of life.  The expansion of his chest welling with hope, to be followed—as is the nature of all things—with the subsequent sigh of resignation.  To be repeated over, and over, and over.

My sister and I took turns sitting with Dad, while the other would make calls to loved ones. We imparted courage to him and each other as he made each symbolic step.  His vital signs were beginning to fluctuate.  His lungs started to gather fluid, and we heard some occasional deep gurgling sounds in his throat.

In some ways it was eerily similar to six years before when Mom had a massive stroke during her recovery from stout stomach cancer treatments.  They were returning to Pittsburgh from a family reunion in Kentucky when she collapsed at a freeway exit convenience store in southeast Ohio.  As soon as Dad called us, Joyce and I raced to the hospital she had been taken to in Dayton; each of us covering the 300 miles from Indiana and Tennessee, respectively, in blazing times.

We had friends from Pennsylvania overnight Mom’s favorite CD’s, and bought a unit to play them for her while we took turns holding her hand and speaking with her.  After several tests, the doctors concluded that if she were ever to regain awareness that she would most likely have very limited quality of life.  Both Mom and Dad had drawn up extremely clear living wills that left no doubt regarding their choice in a situation like this: do not attempt to maintain.  We read it and re-read it carefully, met with the physicians, pondered with the hospital chaplain, prayed separately and communally. After two days, we unanimously decided, with the staff’s blessing and cooperation, that we would take Mom off life support.  She had been sending us cues, too: her blood pressure was wildly erratic, her body temperature was soaring to 104 degrees, her heart rate was all over the chart. 
She was telling us to let her go.

Even though it was a non-religious hospital, nearly every nurse and doctor who had been helping in those three days came into her room when the time arrived.  We all held hands and prayed around Mom.  Earlier that day, the resident chaplain, Rev. Robinson, had heard us playing Lynda Poston-Smith’s version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” After he and Dad prayed for God’s presence and blessing as all life-sustaining machinery and fluids were shut down, the clergyman asked that we play it again and sing in unison.

Our voices were quivering, but determined, as we sang…

Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin' for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin' for to carry me home
I think the three of us had the same image of Mom singing this in front of thousands at numerous church services where she would give her passionate rendition of her favorite spiritual.
I looked over Jordan
And what did I see?
Comin' for to carry me home
A band of angels comin' after me
Comin' for to carry me home
Dad, who we did not often see cry, was sobbing pretty hard, and I put my arm around him…
Sometimes I'm up, and sometimes I'm down
Coming for to carry me home

But still my soul feels heavenly bound
Coming for to carry me home

We had all figured with Dad’s prostate cancer surgery thirteen years before, and triple by-pass just six years later, that he would be the first to go.  Now it was beginning to sink in that Mom was crossing over first…
If you get to heaven before I do
Comin' for to carry me home
Tell all my friends I'm a-comin' too

Comin' for to carry me home

We watched the life signs slowly ebb, the color draining from her face.  Joyce, Dad, and I all got on our knees next to Mom as the heartbeat grew fainter and fainter.

And she was gone…in just four minutes. 

Everyone quietly left us by her body.  It was so somber, but about as holy as you could want.  We were humbled to be there.

So, here were the three of us again, but now Dad was in the reclining and declining position.  Joyce and I on either side of him late on a sun-drenched spring afternoon in Nashville.  Dad’s breathing was the only sound in the room…unless Joyce and I were quietly chatting as we pondered his life
I contemplated what he had imparted to me—imprinted into my life with his guiding hand of love, discipline, and direction.  Each sustained breath seemed to bring another lesson to mind, whether it was how to laugh, accepting those in need, striving for relevance to people’s lives, loyalty, standing up for what was right, and care for others above yourself.  One bit of wisdom that grew more precious with age was admitting we would never really know all the answers in this life. 

As a minister, Dad allowed people to ask hard questions about faith, or a lack thereof.  His permitting people to be open with their doubts made them more comfortable in hearing possible solutions through scripture and his personal experiences.  And he knew that these answers often did not come quickly, but needed patience for all involved.

I remember him saying sometimes “there are lots of good preachers out there…but there never seem to be enough pastors.”  Now Joyce and I were in that place where Dad had consoled so many with his amazing bedside manner for those in the hospital. He was a great listener to those who were grieving, knowing when to pray and when to be silent.   We were doing our best to reflect that back to him as he lay there.  Things had grown peaceful in the midst of the sadness and reflection as the afternoon progressed.  The intake and outflow had now become pretty unencumbered and even. 

In…out…pause.  In…out…pause.  And then, without any warning whatsoever, he stopped.  No trauma, no struggle, no difficulty.  He breathed his last and slipped away. 

Joyce and I looked at each other, tears welling.  “Good for you, Dad.  You did good,” she whispered.

There’s a healing touch to find you
On that broad highway somewhere
To lift you high
As music flying
Through the angel’s hair

It dawned on me that we had been given a very rare gift in this modern age: to be by the side of each of our parents when they passed, and to see them move so gently from one realm to the next.

My brother Jim was yanked away from us without warning.  I could never say goodbyes to Ernie, or John, or Mike back in my college days, nor many others who have departed subsequently.  But for the two people who gave me life in the first place--the two who loved me most—I was allowed the honor of seeing them through.

As I held his hand that final time, still warm but beginning to cool as his spirit left him—I remember doing the same with him five years after Mom had died when he was recovering from his broken arm. He was feeling quite low.

“Sometimes I wonder what all of my life meant,” he confessed.  “The toil of my hands…will there be any lasting impact?” staring out at a powdered dusk, he paused for a while. “It used to sadden Marilyn and me that none of you brought grandchildren into our lives.  But last night the Lord reminded me of what you and Joyce had done—a lot which wouldn’t have happened if you had families.  Look at the university Joyce is helping start in Africa.  That source of higher education is going to change Angola for generations to come.  And then there are those 150,000 sponsors you have found for needy kids through radio and concert events with Compassion in these decades you’ve worked with them.”

“You taught and modeled so well, Dad.” I reminded him. “In so many ways you showed us how to serve—not just in words, but also actions.”

“Yeah,” he replied, brightening up.  “When you put your hand to the plow, you don’t always realize what the harvest will look like until you go through too much rain, too much heat, locusts, beetles, fire ants, and long stretches of wondering if it will amount to much.”

We’ve been flooded with hundreds of testimonies of the impact of Mom and Dad since his passing.  At his memorial service in Pittsburgh as well as via cards, e-mails, and phone calls we have heard from some of the thousands that were touched over those sixty-plus years of service at eight congregations they served.

Don’t ask what you are not doing
Because your voice cannot command
In time we will move mountains
And it will come through your hands

(“Through Your Hands” by John Hiatt from Stolen Moments, 1990)