Sometime in the wee hours of this morning, while my kids were still sleeping, I made a choice. I made a choice to not grieve like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13) anymore. At least for a while. My family was going to need me to be strong for them today, and I was committed to expressing our appreciation — at the close of Angi’s funeral service — for the kindness shown us during this difficult time. So I tried to settle on what to say. This is what I remember saying:
“I wanted to be able to express my family’s gratitude for your presence here today, to honor Angi, and for the ways that so many of you have ministered to us for the past few weeks: For the cards, notes, letters, gifts, gift cards, flowers, favors, meals, Facebook messages, Twitter tweets, and CaringBridge comments … but especially for your prayers, which have sustained us in a way that I can’t explain or deny.
“From here in Little Rock to Sylva, North Carolina to Springfield, Missouri to Malibu, California to Abilene, Texas — really from all over the country and the world, we have received encouragements through your prayers. Even now, the people of the tiny church in Sylva where I sometimes preach are refurbishing the house we bought so that Angi wouldn’t have to climb the stairs to reach a master bedroom — and about two dozen volunteers from WCU are set to move us into it next weekend. That’s how they’ve put their prayers in motion.
“A lot of you know my family and me through Angi and a lot of you are here because you know Angi only through me and/or my family. If I could paint an accurate portrait of her with my words, I’m convinced that the only people who would leave this place sad are those who didn’t get the chance to really get to know her.
“Like so many of us, the diamond that was Angi’s life was multi-faceted: daughter, wife, mother, cousin, aunt, author, lecturer, conciliator, mediator, employer, employee, colleague, Rotarian, community servant, friend — the list would go on and on — but to me, the facet in which she reflected grace most brilliantly was that of educator.
“You would only have to read online Angi’s keynote address at the “Conference for Ethics and Praxis in Communications” at Azusa Pacific University last year – titled “Forgiveness: The Wound That Wants to Be Whole” — to understand that Angi’s gifts at preaching far exceed mine. But the ministry she chose for her life is higher education — because she believed in people — and the years spent at Christian universities, because she believed in God.
“As her husband, I too saw that facet shine, and I learned a lot from Angi.
“I learned that one of the secrets to loving people is that nothing about them — age, gender, height, weight, size, shape, race, ethnicity, color, faith, choice to not believe, sexual preference, wealth, position, station in life — none of those things about people really make a difference. You just love them. If they disagree with you, you just love them anyway.
“I learned that from Angi, because that’s what she did.
“I learned that one of the secrets to listening is that your eyes are often just as important as your ears. You make connection with people with your eyes when you listen, and your ears will follow. And if some self-disclosure is embarrassing or difficult for them, and they look away — you look away, too. Then you reconnect with your eyes and let them know that it doesn’t matter; that they are accepted.
“I learned that from Angi, because that’s what she did.
“I learned that one of the secrets to forgiveness is to forgive completely. When people hurt you or let you down or even betray you, you let go of it completely. No grudges. And it’s so incredibly freeing.
“I learned that from Angi, because that’s what she did.
“I learned one of the secrets to a perfect marriage — not that we were perfect; we just wanted to be perfect for each other — is really simple: Nothing that you want, no desire, no goal of your own, is more important than the needs and desires and goals of your mate.
“I learned that from Angi — and I had to learn it quickly and soon in our marriage! Because I was the other partner who had to hold up my end to make it perfect — and that’s what she did.
“And all of the things she did, or said, or was — all the things she taught us — were because she wanted more than anything else to be just like Jesus of Nazareth — and I don’t think there’s anything that anyone could say to refute that. All those things give life meaning, and purpose, and significance.
“Many universities have the custom of selecting a professor — often by their students — to deliver a ‘last lecture,’ a kind of capstone address for the school year. The things Angi taught us are her legacy, her ‘last lecture’ if you will. She didn’t write it. She didn’t deliver it to a gathered audience like this. She did better than that. She lived it.
“Now you and I, we have the opportunity to live it, too.
“I want to close by saying something that you won’t hear most husbands say:
” ‘Thank you for embracing my wife.’ “
It’s four in the morning and I’ve been awake for an hour.
I’ve committed to trying to express my family’s appreciation for the great kindnesses shown to us during the past almost-three months at the close of her funeral service later in the day.
But about all I can think of, over and ocer, is that single sobering sentence:
I will bury my wife today.
I will bury my wife today.
I will bury my wife today.
She suffered terribly these last couple of days, but that is now over.
Peggy Angela Laird Brenton departed this life, officially, at 8:30 a.m. EDT when the hospice nurse checked for heartbeat and called the time.
I slept poorly last night and am exhausted tonight, making all the decisions and trying to think of all the things one must think about when a death has occurred and you are buying a house and people who love you are begging to help while you dash off the next morning on a 600-mile trip to arrange for a funeral and mourn and bury your wife; help her mother in her choice of whether to stay in Little Rock, go on back to Texas to live near her nephew, or return home with you and your daughter.
Whose seventeenth birthday is today.
Laura is resilient. She is young.
Harriette is much older and so fragile.
I’m pushing the outer envelope of middle age and I’m just broken.
Angi was just a little older than me. In the prime of health and life. Careful about her habits. Far more faithful to check with her doctor than I have ever been. But nobody could have seen the cancer exploding within her.
It came on so fast. She was just diagnosed two and a half months ago. She just entered hospice home care a week ago today.
And all that beauty, loveliness, brilliance, compassion … you who know her, you fill in the blanks. You’ll fill up pages of them.
It’s all gone.
Gone, except in our hearts.
My wife. My love. My very heart.
When I can write again, I’ll write about borrowing wisdom. Because I don’t have any wisdom anymore. I don’t have wise words or answers or platitudes or a systematic theology that covers this subject.
Just an ache and an absence and an emptiness and a loss.
So many friends have reached out to say, “I have no words.” They’re so right. There are no words.
Right now, there can only be dust and ashes and sitting in silence.
Thank you for your prayers, and sitting with me in the ash heap, and for handing me a fresh potshard from time to time so that the wounds may be scraped clean.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
Because it was yesterday.
I awakened a little troubled, because I had picked up Laura early from school the day before due to her texted complaint of a sore throat. Sure enough, when I had gone to get her, she felt a little warm and had very little appetite for a teenage girl before lunchtime. Since her pediatrician had canceled Laura’s appointment for this Friday, we just planned to go in during open clinic hours yesterday morning and see whom we could see.
That worked okay. I brought her home. I took Angi to chemo for her regular three-Tuesdays-in-a-row-one-off appointment. I got Laura’s prescription.
That’s when things got weird.
I didn’t go on to work. I had intended to. I just didn’t. I went home (thankfully). I’m not sure I knew what day it was or that I should have gone to work. I’m not even sure I was aware that I was employed, or where, or doing what.
I went home. I think I checked on Laura. Asleep again, as I recall. I helped my 94-year-old mom-in-law Harriette with her TENS pain control unit; one of the wires to an electrode was loose. I went upstairs to the bedroom.
And, as nearly as I can tell, I stared for a couple of hours.
I may have posted some things on Facebook and Twitter. Looking at them later, I couldn’t remember writing them. Or at least, writing them the way they were written as I was reading them. (I’m not sure – I think Facebook may have had some sort of retro-server malfunction too, which confused me even more. I was seeing posts from several weeks or months before, but time-stamped just hours before.)
Things got weirder.
I started remembering dreams. Vividly. From months and years and even decades before.
And I could not tell the difference between the “reality” in the dreams and the reality of my waking life. One seemed just as valid as the other. Even when they contradicted each other. I would describe it further, but that is all I can remember. The specifics are gone now.
Somehow I became aware that Angi was texting me that it was time for me to come and pick her up.
I had no sense of the time that had passed. It seemed like only seconds since her previous message that it would be at least another half-hour.
Shaken, I got in the car and went to pick her up. Except that by the time I got to the turn for Route 23, I could not remember why I was in the car or where I was going. Within a couple of stoplights, I was able to remember that I was supposed to pick up Angi. But where? The doctor’s office? The hospital? The cancer center? They’re all on 23. It had to be the cancer center.
While the chemo drip finished, I tried to collect myself. But Angi could tell something was wrong, and once we were in the car, she asked me. I have no idea what I said in the conversation that followed, and I can usually recall fairly recent conversations almost word-for-word — conditioning from years of journalism. I’m sure it was disturbing. She told me later that I had told her about the waking dream-recollections, and being unable to connect with reality.
By the time I got home, my chest was hurting pretty badly. After getting Angi comfortable on the sofa on the main floor, I went upstairs to try to nap it all away. I slept for about an hour. In the meantime, Angi called our doctor. When Harriette called up the stairs for me, I woke up — had missed Angi’s texts about the doctor being willing to see me. I called his office to confirm the appointment. I was really confused by then, and still hurting. I can only imagine what I sounded like to the receptionist. She spoke to my doctor, who told me to get to the emergency room and under no conditions was I to drive.
I had to go downstairs to Laura’s room to wake her up and ask her to drive me. I hated that. She stuck with me as I checked in. I couldn’t remember simple things that I was asked. I couldn’t remember everything that had happened earlier. I just knew that I was confused and my chest hurt and that I couldn’t remember earlier in the day where I was supposed to pick up Angi.
And my teenage daughter — bravely battling severe depression herself — had to see me break down in tears.
The hospital staff ran me through all the tests you can imagine in short order – lots of attempts to draw blood from these redheaded slippery veins of mine for bloodwork; a CT scan of the brain; a chest X-ray for the heart and lungs.
All normal. Or at least, within normal parameters for a healthy 57-year-old male.
About three hours later, my mental fog was beginning to lift. I knew what had been going on, though I was committed to stay another hour or so for a second round of bloodwork to confirm.
My chest was congested, probably from chest cold or allergies. But more importantly, I had been experiencing a silent (painless) migraine. I’ve had them before. I lose about 30 or 40 points of I.Q. when they happen to me. I can’t think. I can’t remember clearly.
But this one was clearly the worst and longest one I’ve ever had, and with perceptual/cognitive symptoms I’ve never had before. Fortunately — I think — I have only vague impressions of the lost hours and bizarre connection with my subconscious dreamworld. In college, thirty-some years ago, I did a self-study in the library to learn about schizophrenia — and a lot of what I experienced feels very similar to what I read about all those years ago.
It is no fun to feel like you are developing schizophrenia.
Migraines can be triggered by many things — including stress — and I have been doing a lot of stress lately. Look up any “stress points” chart and you’ll see that my family and I have been racking them up like we’re trying to set a new record. Severe change in a family member’s health? Check, check. Major mortgage? Biggest we’ve ever had. Buying, selling a house? Check, check. Oh, and eight months later: Check, check. Change in residence? Moved two states over. Change to a different line of work? Check. Change in financial status? Oh, yes; many medical bills. Spouse starts or stops work? Angi can do a couple of mornings a week at best. Change in work responsibilities? Yup; whole different job. Change to a different line of work? Yes, I’m trying to move from part-time to full-time employment. Child leaving home? No, we moved away from our son and left him to finish his schooling. Change in church activities? Started preaching from time to time. Change in social activities? Yes, we don’t get out anymore. Revision of personal habits? Yes. I’ve been trying to pick up the things Angi has done for years, chauffeur family members who can’t or shouldn’t drive, keep up with the things I’ve always done.
I think I’ve pretty well popped the stress cork with the sum of those points.
I exceeded manufacturer’s recommendations.
And I broke.
I’m much better today. Still trying to clear out the chest with Mucinex. Still having a few disturbing flashbacks to the missing hours yesterday; little glimpses with greater clarity into the Great Unclear.
I happened across my family doctor in the local grocer’s this evening and caught him up. He seemed relieved. He’s just a couple of years younger than me. He’s seen a lot.
For no better reason than “I want to,” I’ve chosen to take comfort in that.
You can look at troubled life and say, “It could have been a lot worse.”
You can look at troubled life and say, “It could still get a lot worse.”
You’ll be right either way.
For the past few days, I’ve been reading blogs and sites and posts by people who have struggled with crisis and tragedy in their lives. I’ve posted honest comments. I’m struggling, too. I don’t yet have a Unified Field Theory for the problems of theodicy. I don’t know anyone who does.
I continue to believe God is good, even though He permits good and bad to happen to good and bad people. I don’t know why. I think bad things happen to people at the instigation of Satan, the accuser. He lives to hurt and torment because he hates people to the core. I don’t know why. I am convinced that it all somehow has to do with a greater good, a level playing field for the fair competition between good and evil in this world and each of us chooses the outcome of her/his own personal game.
I understand that you can quit, give up, give in, give out, stop giving, surrender. That’s how you lose. You lose faith. You lose hope. You lose love for God, for others, for self, for life.
I could do that. You could do that. Anyone could, given enough stress points and the will to choose.
But it’s a zero-sum choice. If I give up on faith … on life … on God, well, as the Zack Mayo character in An Officer and a Gentleman so eloquently paraphrases Simon Peter:
“I GOT NOWHERE ELSE TO GO!”
I hope I remember that.
Do you think it might be that the reason God is sometimes silent is that there are simply no words to say?
Is it possible that the Lord is silent for 36 chapters of the book of Job because He is so grieved over what has befallen His faithful servant that He can say nothing, do nothing, but mourn in silence?
God permitted what happened to Job. He instigated the conversation with the accuser and deliberately drew Job into it. Intervening in any way to relieve Job’s suffering would have broken the terms of agreement about what the accuser can do to Job and would have affected the outcome of Job’s faith — the faith of a servant in whom God has placed His own faith.
All that God can do is weep in silence at the undeserved suffering of His servant Job.
Until it is time to reveal His own justice and restore what has been unjustly ripped away.
Are there words for God to say when David — confessedly guilty of lust, murder and possibly rape — begs for the life of his unborn child even when God has told the king through Nathan that David’s sin will result in the child’s death? The words have been said. Of all people, the king of God’s people must understand the consequences of sin.
All that can be left is for God to mourn with His servant David, in hopes that the silence will bring peace to his soul.
Until the time when Nathan’s words “Your sin is forgiven” are confirmed through the birth of a son and heir.
And in the garden where Jesus prays the same prayer for His own life, three times, sweating blood in recognition of the injustices, beatings, scourgings and crucifixion to come — what could God say? Jesus had set His face resolutely toward Jerusalem. He had predicted many times what was to come. God had already spoken publicly, twice, to identify Jesus as His Son — with the instruction to those hearing that they should listen to the Son. And one more time to confirm that He had glorified the Name, and would glorify it again.
So God watches and listens to what Jesus had committed to suffer as it unfolds in utter sin, rebellion, self-will and hatefulness on behalf of mankind. To have sent twelve legions of angels to rescue this perfect, sinless Son would have undone all the good the Son had lived to accomplish.
There were no words. Not even darkness, earthquakes and the rending of a temple veil between what is holy and what is not could express the immeasurable depth of God’s broken heart.
Until the time when He restores all things to the way they should be in heaven and on earth.
Sometimes I believe there are no words.
And even God is silent.
My blogdaughter Lacey Mauk reminds me that it’s my ninth blogiversary today. So to celebrate, here’s “When Faith Becomes Fact”:
The topic my preaching minister chose for Easter Sunday was: “The Resurrection Changes Everything.”
My job was to call my fellow Christians to worship with the reading of Matthew 28:1-9, the story of the women who followed Jesus – following Him to the tomb, only to find it empty.
I had to wonder, while preparing to read: What makes the resurrection real today? At what point does faith become fact?
Maybe faith becomes fact when you act.
Two weeks ago this afternoon, I pulled up at the church’s parking lot to pick up my children after school – only to see my wife putting their backpacks into the trunk of her car … and also to see a big, scruffy-looking red-haired fellow asking her for a ride across town. I pulled closer, rolled down my window and offered to help him instead.
I admit, a part of me thought “What if he’s a murderer?” and then, “Well, better just me than Angi and the kids!”
But that other peculiar part of me thought “What if he’s an angel?”
As we rode together, he told me he felt weird asking for help at a church but he was tyring to get his truck fixed, needed a part from across town, and was out of money and out of options. I told him not to worry about it; he’d come to the right place.
I told him about how, 20-some years ago, a big black man named Bill Johnson ran out of gas and money and options on the highway near the church while on his way home to New York City. I told him how our elders helped Bill get home and even began supporting him as a full-time missionary there, and how that church in Springfield Gardens had touched so many lives since then.
About that time, my son Matthew called me on my cell phone to make sure I was all right. My rider said, in his rather scary-sounding, desperate way, “That’s a good kid. He’s making sure ol’ dad didn’t pick up a killer.”
I laughed and assured Matthew I was fine.
He wasn’t a killer. He wasn’t an angel, either, I’m pretty sure. He was just a guy who needed a ride.
Maybe it was a stupid thing to do, to offer a ride to this stranger. But I couldn’t regret it then, or now. It was a ride that made me a little nervous, to be sure; a little excited. But for the life of me, I can’t tell you that I was afraid.
Please don’t read this as a boast, but rather as a confession: I don’t think I have ever acted on faith like that before.
Shame on me for taking 48 years to discover first-hand that the perfect love of a resurrected Christ casts out all fear.
Because He stands near that tomb, talking to those women, as an absolutely irrefutable guarantee that life is His to give.
God works through us.
It’s not that He can’t work in other ways; obviously He can and does. But because He believes in us — that astounding fact of scripture which simply cannot be denied or dismissed — He wants to work through us.
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. ~ Philippians 1:3-6
Can you conclude anything from this that there is a partnership in the gospel? That “he who began a good work in you” can be anyone other than God? So is this partnership just between Paul and the folks at Philippi?
(for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), ~ Galatians 2:8
No! It’s God working through Peter to the circumcised and through Paul to the Gentiles! How does He do that?
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. ~ Ephesians 2:8-10
Is it just to Peter and Paul? Does He just makes work for us? No! It’s for all, and for every:
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. ~ 2 Corinthians 9:8
Does He just give us the grace to prepare ourselves for the work? Not by a long shot! There are gifts attached to those grace:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. ~ Romans 12:3-8
So He gives us specific gifts to prepare us for the work He has prepared for us to do. But prepared us in what way?
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. ~ 1 Corinthians 12:4-6
He empowers us. The Spirit, the Lord, God. How much power are we talking about?
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. ~ Ephesians 3:20-22
That’s a lot of power! Does He do it long-distance?
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. ~ Colossians 1:24-29
No; from within! Christ in us. It’s His energy working powerfully within us. That makes us partners in the gospel with God, through Christ!
Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. ~ 2 Corinthians 6:1
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. ~ 2 Corinthians 5:20
How does Christ dwell in us? Through His Holy Spirit:
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. ~ Romans 8:9-11
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. ~ 1 Corinthians 3:16-17
The Spirit of God! The Spirit of Christ! Without His Spirit within us, we have no hope of resurrection! We have no chance of escaping destruction! Without His Spirit, we have no way to partner with God in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ!
We can know scripture forward and backward and think we know everything it means, and if we do not have the Spirit dwelling within us, we are pointless and powerless in our attempts to minister. By the Spirit, God speaks through us:
Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. ~ 1 Corinthians 12:3
And the One who knows how best to prepare and empower each of us does so at His own discretion, not ours:
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. ~ 1 Corinthians 12:7-11
Therefore we work for the common good, Paul says, in partnership with God to build His building, sow and water and tend His field:
For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. ~ 1 Corinthians 3:9
So how do we respond to this offer of powerful, dwell-within partnership?
Do we say, “Well thanks, God, but I’ve got my Bible and I understand it completely and perfectly; that’s all I need and I don’t really want your help”?
Or, “I’m just not sure about all that miraculous stuff or being a part of that; it’s not that I believe You can’t do it, but it scares me a little bit and I’d rather just believe that You don’t work that way anymore because it’s too likely to be perceived as fake and I don’t want to have my credibility damaged”?
Perhaps just: “Oh, You don’t need me, Lord. Use my brother; he talks better than I do”?
Maybe: “I’m catching the next outbound boat for the other direction.”
Do any of those sound familiar?