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Grief at a Wedding by Sarah Johnson

Just a couple of Saturdays ago, I was a bridesmaid in a dear friend’s wedding. Of course, we had the wedding rehearsal and the rehearsal dinner the night before so the whole weekend was wedding centric. In all the prep and celebration, my mind lingered on the many tender father daughter moments I witnessed: the bride’s father tearing up while practicing giving her away, his gently teasing speech at the rehearsal dinner, him walking her down the aisle during the ceremony, the two of them dancing at the reception. My mind focused on these moments in particular because they filled my heart with both joy and pain and a longing for something I will never experience.

My friend’s wedding made me remember my sister’s wedding almost two decades earlier, when my own daddy’s eyes filled with unspoken emotions from giving his daughter away. It’s an expected rite of passage for many fathers and daughters. After my sister’s wedding, I would often imagine my daddy’s reaction to my wedding day and what he would have to say about his baby girl getting married. I had the song for our father daughter dance picked out by the time I was twelve years old. But, these things will never come to pass. 

The cancer took my daddy fifteen days before my twentieth birthday. I didn’t even know who I was at that age and my daddy would never get to know the woman I would become. During the months that followed his death, the weight of all the moments that we would never share crushed me. No proud daddy at my college graduation. No concerned father to check in with during my solo trip overseas. No sage advice as I purchased my first car. No wedding dance. Any children I have will enter the world down one grandfather. I have long since healed from feeling crushed by my daddy’s absence but I still grieve these lost moments whenever I’m reminded of all the nevers. 

 

“The guilt and shame slid away when I realized that my pain didn’t fail Jesus. Grief becomes a blessing, as sadness and joy intertwine to remind me how passionately I am loved.”

In the years I spent processing and healing from the loss of my daddy, I encountered some churches and ministries that reacted to my grief as though my feelings were sinful. They told me that my grief failed to show the Savior’s redemptive work in my life. My sadness made Jesus-the-giver-of-unconditional-joy appear to be a liar. I should just choose to be happy. All this well-meaning advice only served to heap guilt and shame on top of my grief.
My need for healing brought me to a Restoring Your Heart group, which helped to undo the good intentioned but terrible advice about grief I had received. Through RYH, I learned that my feelings of grief weren’t sinful because God created all emotions, including the so-called negative ones, for our good and His glory. The guilt and shame slid away when I realized that my pain didn’t fail Jesus. Grief becomes a blessing, as sadness and joy intertwine to remind me how passionately I am loved. 
As I recently celebrated my friend’s wedding with all the father-daughter moments, I didn’t just mourn the loss of what I’ll never have; I also rejoiced that I am a precious daughter of the King of the universe. I may never have a father-daughter wedding dance or someone to walk me down the aisle but I do have a Heavenly Father who knows me intimately and loves me deeply. While father-daughter moments remind me of what I’ll never experience in this lifetime, they also reflect how my God loves me, which is a comfort that reaches to the foundation of my identity.

Eulogy for A Friend: Bill Watkins

April 1, 2014 • Mt. Carmel Presbyterian Church • 2048 Carmel Road, Charlotte, NC

Bill_w1

Bill Watkins and I have been friends for forty years. We met while he was on staff with Campus Crusade and then worked together with Worldwide Discipleship Association.  I was Best Man at his wedding.

We had a lot in common.  (Except he had an IQ of about 10,000, and I didn’t.)  We both collected stamps, baseball cards, and books.  We also rooted for the same SEC teams, except when they played each other. And we read (and re-read) the same English authors: Sayers, Tolkien, Stott, and Lewis (to mention a few).

There’s another thing that Bill and I have in common: We both love, and are loved by, wonderful women who will receive a star in heaven’s crown for hazardous duty on earth.

Bill never held public office, or ran a company, or made a lot of money, or did many of the things that many people think evidence greatness.  But he was an exceptionally great person: a loyal brother, a good son, a faithful friend.

He never wrote that book we all kept urging him to write.  But (as you may already realize) he did something far more significant: HE WROTE LETTERS, hundreds and hundreds of them.  And those letters, written by a man who loved God supremely, changed many lives.  Mine was one that was changed.

I suspect that many of his friends have a “Letters from Bill” file.  I want to remember him, and glorify God, by reading just a few snippets of his correspondence, samples of his trade and indicators of his heart.  Once he sent a letter just because he loved the stamp.

A stamp which looks this good deserves to be mailed, and on an envelope worth carrying it. (Now I have an empty page to fill up to justify the postage!)  I think we Christians ought to forget about trying to build an American culture that is seasoned with Christianity. It’s too late for that. We need to a build a distinctively Christian culture, proper to a holy nation and a royal priesthood, and let it shine against the darkening common culture, while we still have the freedom to be openly creative.

One of the last times I saw Bill, we went book-hunting together.  It was one of our favorite pastimes with one difference: I collected books, but Bill actually READ them.

Friday was a depressing day, so I went book-browsing.  (An alcoholic should not go into a bar.)  I bought a 1913 edition of Hilaire Belloc’s: “The Servile State”. It was worth buying for the binding, but the contents are excellent too!

A good browser never stops with just the item he came in for.  He looks around to see if there are any chance opportunities.  Two books were lying on a bench, either put there by a clerk for later re-shelving, or left there by a customer. One of the books had an appetizing look to it. Sniffing it, I began to drool over its savory aroma. But a scavenger must be careful. The customer who left it might be back to claim his own.  Just to make sure, I circled around, and the book was still lying there! I went back and looked it over again.  Still cautious – a hyena is always nervous about a lion returning to claim his kill – but I left with the prize in hand!

In addition to his love of books, Bill loved discipleship.  (I was not surprised to hear that he was launching a new men’s group at church this month.)

May our ministry produce knights and kings – men who know how to wield power and rule wisely. In paradise we were meant to be innocent kings, wielding authority and power incorruptibly. Now power corrupts. Can there be such a thing as an innocent king? Can a man conquer his enemies, subdue rebels, dispense justice, levy taxes, and command loyalty without so using force that he loses his purity? Do innocence and power go together? Of course they do in Jesus! He is the only innocent King – and we renounced His kingship and assassinated Him.  Jesus is our stories-come-true. Innocence does sit on the Throne!

And sometimes it wasn’t what he wrote but what he quoted that made an impact. In ministry I was often embroiled in petty religious infighting.  In response, Bill cited C.S. Lewis:

“Men who have gods, worship those gods; it is the spectators who describe this as religion! The moment a man seriously accepts a deity his interest in religion is at an end. He’s got something else to think about!”

It may be old news, but I hear you and WDA have been through another period of stress. When big celestial bodies change orbits, they emit a burst of gravity waves and space-time perturbations. You must have a Guardian Angel keeping you from colliding, crashing, or breaking apart into meteorites and moon dust. Astronomy and planets are not ready for ‘Comet Dukes’ just yet. WDA will not disintegrate until The Sovereign Lord speaks the word. God continues to polish your hide to a glowing sheen. He must have a special purpose for you. The way the times are going, righteousness and godliness will be rarer than ever. Keep sowing the seeds-of-revival, they’ll sprout someday!

Oddly enough, Bill and I rarely lived in the same city at the same time, but he loved to come for visits and we loved having him in our home. He told me once that “Ebenhearth”, our home in Fayetteville, reminded him of Tolkien’s Rivendell, calling it, “The Second to Last Homely House West of the Mountains”.  After one visit he wrote Linda:

Households full of grace and wisdom seem to be disappearing.  Without Ebenhearth Bob would have a lower platform, far less credibility, and a great deal less joy.  The “Lady of Ebenhearth” adds something irreplaceable to his work.

In flipping through “That Hideous Strength”, I saw a line which brought Ebenhearth to mind. Merlin has made his way out of the ground and to the Manor of St. Anne’s-on-the-Hill and reflects to Ransom: “In all the house there are warmth and softness and silence that might put a man in mind of paradise terrestrial.” 

I just reread the Descent of the Gods upon St. Anne’s in “That Hideous Strength”.  I like the idea that Jupiter follows Saturn: jovial majesty follows numbing antiquity. In the end we will be able to laugh, for it is as becoming to royalty as to children. There’s laughter in heaven, contrary to the notions of secular spoilsports.  It’s the atheist who’s a killjoy. 

Bill had a special connection with Elena our daughter with Down Syndrome.  I’d mentioned a baseball game where Elena executed a swinging-bunt and then ran to hug the pitcher.

What a dilemma Elena presented to the scorekeepers! Was the hugging-bunt a hit? fielders choice? error? That was a brilliant tactic – but she wasn’t thinking about tactics was she? She has a wonderful mind and it would be fascinating to know how she thought of baseball. Of course you hug the pitcher before you take your base!

Bill Watkins
Bill and Nate at WDA Staff Conference

Bill was brilliant, but he was also wise and a child-at-heart.  Once, after trading theological reading material he reminded me:  What you read to Elena is too important to give up for textbooks!

Knowing we read The Chronicles of Narnia to our children, Bill wrote:

In the magic before the dawn of time, the Father gave the Son incantations to sing to break the spell of sin and death over us. I hope the enchantments are bringing deeper holiness and life to you.  Once a King and Queen in Narnia, always a King and Queen!

Now I know why I love this job and why WDA staff are kinda’ weird: we’re teaching students to NOT fit into this world, to LAUGH at Caesar’s demands even as we give him what is his. God is making us into a race of kings and queens, and how CAN the world make sense of us?

But being made holy is not easy. Bill understood this. At times, he struggled with crippling clinical depression.

The ache is deep, but the depression is gradually lifting – the fog has burned off – thinning from a gray pea soup to a light veil. It feels like I’m coming out of a wilderness, heading for usefulness. Carrying the burden has been good training. I just hope I’ve learned the lessons well enough to graduate!

Unsettled times are an assignment from the Lord – by His grace, He does NOT let us get too comfortable in the desert between Eden and Heaven, does not let us mistake oases for the Promised Land. Fat, lazy pilgrims will have trouble making it home.

Sometimes endurance is hell-shattering victory. What can Satan say or do to a man who persists in clinging to Peter’s confession: “To whom shall we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.” Those who endure get to learn how to sing at midnight in prison. Is there a surer sign of heaven for the jailer to see?

When the veil did lift, Bill saw this world (and the next) with startling clarity:

Saturday night strolling on the midway, biting cotton candy, holding your sweetheart’s hand, watching the kids getting spun dizzy on the whirly rides. It really doesn’t get any better than that does it? (It sure beats what’s advertised by the world.) The secret is, and the good news is, that as good as such things are, it really does get a lot better!

Jesus said it’s what’s on the INSIDE that determines greatness.  Matters of the heart determine the real outcomes of life.

He said there’s no greater love, but that someone would be willing to lay down their life for others.  That was the pattern of Bill’s life.  He gave his life away for the people he loved.  Many fill their lives by pursuing fame, or riches.  But Bill chose love.

His ‘investment portfolio’ was his family and friends.  And we’re all the richer for it.

I’m absolutely confident, that if Bill were here today, he would be encouraging US, enriching US,  making US better people just by being with us and blessing US.

Bill had a chronic case of Homesickness. But it wasn’t Louisville he longed for: it was Heaven and the world to come. More specifically, it was God Himself that he wanted to see.

Sometimes this homesickness got on my nerves. I would be talking about ‘important stuff’ like “March Madness” brackets or The World Series, and he wouldn’t be paying attention.  And it wasn’t just the ADD, (though there WAS that).  He’d have this faraway look in these incredibly sad eyes but accompanied by this little grin that made me think I just missed a punch-line.  (Sometimes I think he heard angels.)  He realized there was much more to come.

After a grueling day of ministry we stopped to regroup and I launched into a bout of self-pity, lamenting about how little we got paid for the emotional buffeting we endured.  He politely indulged me, then quoted Jim Elliot: “A man is no fool to give up what he can’t keep, to gain what he can never lose.”

Bill laid aside everything else to follow Christ, because he knew that only a personal relationship with Jesus Christ would lead him home.  He understood clearly that religion couldn’t save him, and that sometimes even training for ordination actually hindered what mattered most.

My seminary classes have not once taught me to adore the greatness of God’s loving heart, but His glory shines through the footnotes. The majesty of God cannot be eclipsed by anything man-made, and the Bible still lives after two centuries of dissection. And God’s salvation extends even to the proud intellectual.

There are two kinds of “Good-Byes”

  1. ‘Final goodbye’  (Don’t expect to ever see someone again.)
  2. ‘See-you-later goodbye’

On learning of the approaching death of a mutual friend Bill wrote:

Today’s news about Don was grim. The Lord knows what He’s doing, but calling Don Home now will leave us with a mighty big hole in our ranks. God did not mean for us to have to say “good-bye” did He?

Bill’s death has left “a mighty big hole in our ranks”.  But even in our sadness, we can be glad for Bill, because he’s glad to be with the Lord.  He’s found his way back home!

It gives me great joy, old friend, to know that you are now experiencing the fullness of His joy!  This is not a final goodbye, just ‘see you later’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barren Tree

Barren TreeAugust 18, 1998. The day my younger sister Lizzie died.

I remember pretty much every detail of that day. I was driving with John, her 13 year old son, from Stone Mountain to Augusta so we could see her one last time before she died. John had been spending the weekend with me to try to get away from the sadness in his home. We never made that last visit. Halfway to Augusta, I got the call from her husband, Martin, telling me that Lizzie was gone. He did not want me to tell John. He wanted to tell all three children himself when they were together. Later that day I sat in their living room while he told John and John’s younger sisters, Emily 11 and Kathryn 5 that their mom was gone. It was surreal. It didn’t seem like it was really happening. Even though we had known for five months that she was dying, it still didn’t seem true. She was 42 and dead from breast cancer.

Yesterday was August 18, 2012. Fourteen years since my sister died. I didn’t notice the date until a friend of mine called to tell me that her younger brother had been found dead that morning. August 18. Suddenly all the sadness came rushing back. I felt such a weight for my friend as I remembered the early grief over my sister. The ache in my chest. The pain I felt for her children and her husband. The pain I felt for my parents. The endless crying until I just couldn’t breathe anymore. Nothing can compare to the pain of losing someone you love too soon.

I haven’t cried for my sister in a while. I am to the point of grief now where it is just a dull ache and random sadness over events and circumstances. But today, the pain was back, unexpected and unwanted. Hearing about my friend’s brother triggered all those old feelings. So I went for a grief walk and cried. I miss Lizzie. She was sarcastic and funny. She stood up for herself and for those she loved. She could be intimidating because she was so outspoken and no one on earth could annoy me more than she could. When we were growing up she was a pesky little brat but she and I became good friends in adulthood. I miss her every day, but the grief really hit me today.

As I walked and cried and missed Lizzie, I thought about some of the things I have learned from the people I counsel with. I call them my chickies because client sounds too clinical. My chickies think they are coming to me to be healed but it works both ways. I heal as much as they do. One of my chickies told me that as she gets older it seems like grief sticks to her more. I love this phrase because it fits my reality. I, too, have found that grief sticks to me more and knowing I am not alone in this is oddly comforting. Another of my chickies told me the profound way that God has given him hope through the verse “Joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)  Frequently, when he is at his lowest, God reminds him of the joy to come and I thought of that today as I walked. Both for me, with my old grief, and my friend, with her new grief. And again I felt the comfort of being connected to someone else in sadness.

God gives us to each other to help the healing. We all hurt. We all have sadness and grief. We all lose people we love.

August 18 will always be a sad day for me. There are some pains that just will never be totally healed. And yet, I am comforted by the people God has put around me to share that grief, even when they don’t know they are giving me comfort.

Read more about how WDA’s Restorative Ministry helps people find healing from pain and loss.