Crucifix on the altar of All Saints Episcopal Church in Norton, Virginia on Easter Sunday.
As I write, it is now the evening of Easter, 2016. I am holed up in my attic which also serves as my makeshift home office and writing space. It’s been quite awhile since I have written anything that I have felt that I needed to share publicly, and as such, this blog has mostly gone without being updated. It isn’t that there hasn’t been a lot on my mind. Far from it. In fact, the thoughts and emotions I have been dealing with for the past few months extend far deeper than anything I have ever faced in my twenty-nine years, and articulating much of what I’ve been feeling into coherent language has proven a challenge, though not for lack of trying.
Let me start off by saying that I have to make a confession. Although I am currently attending seminary, Easter has often been challenging for me. I want so badly for the message of Easter, on which the entirety of the Christian faith hinges, to be true. I want to believe in the empty tomb. I want to believe in angels in white, bearing witness. I want to believe in the reality of Eternal Life. I want to believe in the dead Jewish rabbi who has become the Risen Lord.
Most of the time, like many people, both religious and secular, I have a hard time believing in the literal truth of this claim. In my experience of dealing with death, no matter how much we mourn and grieve and cry out against the loss of those we love, the dead stay dead.
One of the last photos of taken of my Dad and I together, eight months before he died.
I lost my father unexpectedly in August of 2015. He died just six days after I turned twenty-nine. He was only fifty-seven. As much as I was grieving, and as much as I still am, in the days and weeks that followed my father’s death, I felt a peace beyond anything I had ever felt. It wasn’t an emotionless peace. Far from it, I felt love and joy and sorrow and pity for all of my fellow human beings beyond anything I have ever felt, and yet, at the same time, a serenity of mind overcome me, a feeling that, ultimately, all was well with everything. God’s presence was an ever-present reality that was not only undeniable but self-evident.
It may sound odd to say, but nothing brings out the beauty in life quite like death.
Dad’s death was the most intensely I had ever felt this state of mind, but this wasn’t my first rodeo with the Big Sleep. Death has been a constant, unwanted companion in my life and in my consciousness for the past eight years, ever since my younger cousin, Stephanie, was killed in a car crash. Her father, Dad’s younger brother, followed her in a separate car accident, just over a month after she died. My great-grandmother followed the two of them about a year later. The events of 2008 and 2009 had left me mindful of my own mortality and deeply anxious and fearful about my own impending demise and the eventuality of losing everyone I loved.
My emotions following my Dad’s death were different. I found that I no longer feared death at all. I had faced it at its bloody worst, having watched my own father die of an internal hemorrhage. The thing about hemorrhages is that, at least in my father’s case, the blood didn’t stay internal. Transfusion after transfusion was bled out from the inside, pouring from his mouth and into a tube that poured into a clear bucket behind the hospital bed. I must have watched the nurses carry at least a dozen buckets of blood that had passed through my father’s veins out of the intensive care ward at the veteran’s hospital.
In Dad’s final moments, I prayed over his dying body. In his medically induced comatose state, I don’t know if he heard my prayer, but it is my deepest hope that he did. I didn’t beg God to spare my father. I didn’t beg my Dad to stay with me. I prayed instead, to my own father’s Heavenly Father, that it was my will that His will be done, telling my Dad that if he needed to go, he could. That he had given me all the tools I needed to be my own man, with the most important one being faith.
In that moment, I can honestly state that I had no fear of death whatsoever. And as my dad went into cardiac arrest, I remember a still small voice within me saying, “the years between now and when you see your father again will fly by faster than you can imagine, and when you see him again, Rance, you’ll both be young again.”
My Dad (left) as a young man with his brothers, John (center), who died in 2008 and David.
In that moment, I was living into the promises of my faith, releasing my father’s soul to the care of God and trusting completely in the promise of resurrection and eternal life. Though my soul had never known such sorrow as it did in losing my kind and gentle and unconditionally loving father, the reality of Heaven and the presence of God had never seemed nearer. There are still occurrences that I think back on in the days that followed my Dad’s death that seem to me to be more than coincidence, as if I was receiving messages and winks every day that my Dad was fine and was happy.
Now, though, it is seven months out from that day in the ICU, where my entire world seemed to take on the quality of a Renaissance-era religious painting. Though I am enrolled in seminary studies, and while I pray and attend church regularly, the world doesn’t seem as meaningfully filled with the Spirit of God as it did in the days and weeks after my father’s death. Life is normal again, and I am once again just a normal man facing the same struggles and trials and temptations and doubts that many of us face every single day. Dare I say it, heaven no longer seems so near, and life is once again mundane and routine. Working, paying bills, saving money, keeping up with my studies and trying to balance those responsibilities with my responsibilities to my family and my community take up most of my time.
I can even say that over the past couple of months, I have slipped into a mild state of restless depression. Not a sadness, no, the sadness has mostly departed, but an emptiness remains.
When even our sadness in the wake of a death leaves us, it is hard to believe in resurrection. It is hard to believe in eternal life. It is hard to believe in hope.
But I wonder sometimes, what would happen if I started to live as if I did believe in those things? How would I live differently if I believed that a man had risen from death? How would I live differently if I believed in the same unconditionally loving God that my own Dad did? Would I think differently? Would I feel differently?
Since enrolling in seminary, my faith has been tested, many, many times. I often feel, in my heart, that I am “not good enough.” Not good enough to serve. Not good enough to teach. Not kind enough to reach people. Not strong enough to meet people in their darkest moments, to carry the weight of their baggage and my own.
I’m too angry. I’m too bitter. I’m too cynical. I’m too fat. I’m too lustful. I’m too poor. I’m too filled with darkness.
I’m too empty. I’m too much of a sinner.
But today, listening to the softly singing voices of older ladies in the choir and eating the Eucharist, drinking the blood of Christ, I decided that I am going to try, God help me, to live into the promise of my faith.
You see, my faith promises me that there is no darkness that is too dark for God to shine His light into, including the darkness of a tomb. There is no sin that is too egregious to cancel out God’s unconditional love. Even as Jesus was crucified, his words cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” There is no doubt that cannot be answered by faith and grace and there is no emptiness that cannot be filled by God’s love and no death that cannot and will not be ultimately overcome by Christ’s resurrection.
People often make the mistake, I think, of trying to “prove” or “disprove” an article of faith, as if faith is about a simple intellectual agreement with a propositional statement. But faith is about much more than that. Its true call reaches into the deepest and darkest corners of our being and unites us with the Being that is beyond all time and space.
Ultimately, faith is about trust. Faith is about hope. Faith is about moving forward when we don’t even know where the destination is, let alone have the route traced on a map. But above all this, faith is about love. It’s about loving the unlovable elements that you find in other people and maybe, most importantly, it’s about letting go of your guilt and your bitterness and your anger and your sadness and seeing and loving yourself and others as God sees you and as God sees them.
With unconditional love and acceptance.
That, to me, is grace. That, to me, is the promise of faith. And that is what Christ in his resurrection offers each of us. The possibility of a better and more compassionate world and the hope of eternal life, lived without fear.
An hour glass, which was going to be my father’s birthday to me. My step-mother gave it to me the day after he died. It is surrounded by smaller “egg-timers,” which my Dad bought me as a little boy. This gift was a great comfort to me in the days after Dad’s death and still serves me as a reminder of his love and the preciousness of life and time.