The Dawn Has Come: A Son’s Reflection
I Samuel 12:19-23, Psalm 23
On Sunday afternoon, July 19, my mother died.
Wait. That is not altogether accurate. On Sunday afternoon, July 19, my mother stopped breathing. She “died” some seven years earlier. You see, she was a victim of that insidious killer known as Alzheimer’s Disease. Almost ten years ago now, the first symptoms of that disease began to invade her life. It was the beginning of a relentless and destructive process which ultimately would claim her mental powers, her skills of communication, even her capacity for physical movement. When at last she stopped breathing, she weighed less than 70 pounds and she was balled up in a knot in the bed, unmoving and unresponsive.
As strange as it may seem to say it, when she breathed her last, my prayers for her at last were answered. I have never believed in the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory—I still don’t—but there is a sense in which for nearly seven years my mother was in a kind of purgatory. She was not here on earth, but she was not there in heaven either. Now, thank God, at last I know where she is.
Back in July of 1985, my mother wrote the last letter of her life. Reading that letter plunged me into deep grief. The illness had so impaired her that she had difficulty writing and expressing herself. The letter ended with a question. We could not reply to the letter then, nor answer the question because within days she lost the ability to read or for that matter to even remember who we were. We have kept the letter ever since. This is what it says: “Dear Trish and Howard, I have tried so long to write you but nothing comes out but ‘I love you’. I hope that is sufficient because I hope it is enough. Is that enough? Love and kisses, Mom.”
So, you see, there is a real sense in which while my mother stopped breathing on July 19, 1992, she died in July of 1985. Consequently, my family and I have had a long, difficult journey through the valley of the shadow of death. Only now, have we begun to emerge from it. Today then, in your hearing, I’d like to reflect a bit upon that journey through the valley…
Across the years of my ministry I have learned many things and one of the things I have learned is this: The 23rd Psalm is the most beloved passage of Scripture of them all. I have been asked to read that Psalm more times and in more circumstances than I can begin to recall. I think that is true because there are perhaps no other verses of Scripture which speak with the confidence, the certainty, the hope, the assurance, and the faithfulness of these words of the old King David. When he came near the end of a life which had experienced victory and defeat, splendor and sin, glory and grief, conflict and sorrow, hope and despair—as he looked back over it all, he saw that God had been, and would always be his shepherd and that he would dwell in God’s house forevermore. So David sang the Psalm we number 23, and ten thousand times ten thousand have sung it since. It is the best song to sing in the valley of the shadow.
It is interesting that as you read the life of King David in Scripture, there are four times when you see him dealing with death. The first is with the death of Saul, his king. The second is with the death of Jonathan, his best friend. The third is with the death of his little child, unnamed for us in Scripture, and the last is with the death of his oldest son, Absalom.
Now I am particularly concerned today with David’s experience when his young child died, his baby boy. The story is found in II Samuel. In the midst of that story a very profound and beautiful truth is proclaimed by King David. When the child was stricken, David was plunged into an agony of prayer for his little one. His emotion and his grief are overflowing. But then when the child is taken in death, David rises, refreshes himself, goes into the temple to pray, then returns home for food and strengthening. His friends come to him and say to him: “How is it that now you no longer grieve? You are no longer in an agony of despair?” David responds: “I cannot bring him back again. I shall go to him but he will not return to me.”
When you hear that word of David in light of his expression of confidence in the 23rd Psalm, that all of God’s children who love Him and who are loved by Him , will dwell in his house forever and ever. When you hear that you realize that what David is saying is this: “This one I love has gone to be with the God who loves him. I , too, someday shall go to be with the God who loves me. Then my little one and I shall be together again in the midst of that love. And knowing that, I do not give myself to despair. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid for my God is with me.” My family and I have learned all over again how good it is to remember that when you are in the valley.
It has helped us to remember all over again the value of worship.
People sometimes say that after they have experienced a death in the family the most difficult thing for them to do is to go back to church. But notice, please, that the very first thing King David did after his child’s death was to go to church, to go into the house of the Lord to praise God.
Perhaps it would be appropriate for you to know how in our family we bury our dead. You see, in my family we believe in Jesus Christ—Oh, do we ever! And because we believe in Jesus Christ, we believe that we are to love life, yes, but never to love it so much that we would ever be afraid to leave it. Because we believe in Jesus Christ, we believe that death’s dark and dreadful sting has been drawn once and for all and forever. And therefore, when death strikes at our family we do what Presbyterians have done for generations. We first of all gather in the cemetery, just the family. There we lay to rest the body of the one we love and we pray our prayers and we shed our tears together. Then we go to the church. And when we go to the church we invite all of our friends and loved ones to join us there. And there we sing and we pray and we worship and we preach—all in celebration of a life lived, yes, but even more in celebration of death conquered. We know that we need to get to worship in the church where the songs will melt us and the prayers will heal us and the Word of God preached will strengthen us and the Spirit of Christ will lift us.
If you should visit Copenhagen, Denmark, you will find the great Protestant Cathedral—and in that cathedral you will find a statue of Christ carved a hundred years ago by the great Danish sculptor, Thorvaldsen. It was commissioned by the King of Denmark. Now Thorvaldsen’s idea was to create a statue of Christ which was regnant and powerful—a tall Christ with head held high, shoulders thrown back and arms extended—a commanding and conquering Christ. It was this statue that he modeled in clay. But then he was called out of town on business. The sea mist which permeates all of Denmark filtered its way into his studio and softened the clay. The head rolled forward, the arms dropped down, the shoulders stooped and drooped. When Thorvaldsen returned and saw what happened, he thought his work was ruined. But as he gazed at the figure, it dawned on him that the representation of Christ which he saw before him was in reality far more powerful than the one he had originally conceived. So he took a carving blade and he cut into the base of the statue these words: “Come unto me.” If you go into the Cathedral in Copenhagen you will see the finished marble sculpture: “Christos Consolator—the consoling Christ.” And you will stand before it and you will discover what my family and I have discovered in the valley—that the time when you discover the power of Christ most tenderly is not in your moments of victory or your hours of triumph but in the moments when you are broken and when you lose. And you will discover that the place where you encounter the Christ with His head bowed like yours and His shoulders so bent that you know He has carried the burdens of the whole world and His voice whispering “Come unto me and I will take your burden, too”—that place is the church. As my family and I have walked the valley of the shadow we have learned all over again the value of worship.
And we have learned all over again the value of friends.
It’s fascinating when you read of the experience of King David and the death of his
son that David’s friends were always with him. They were with him when he prayed. They were with him when he cried. They were with him when he worshipped. They fed him. They cared for him. They ministered to him. One of the things my family and I have learned in the valley is that the love of God is ofttimes made known to us through the presence of sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ. It is true that time heals the wounds, but it is the love of others that presents scar tissue from forming.
I learned that first early in my ministry when I was called to a home where the son had been killed in Viet Nam. I had never met the boy. I knew the parents only through a couple of brief encounters at the church. I was young and inexperienced and not at all certain what to say at such a time. I could not even come up with verses of Scripture which would be helpful. All I could do was sit with them and at one point put my arms around them and cry with them. I left their home feeling very inadequate. A few days later I received a wonderful letter from them—a letter I long treasured—a letter in which they expressed deep gratitude for what I had done for them. And all I did was to sit with them for a while.
And friends have done the same for me and mine in recent weeks. Some sent cards. Some sent flowers. Some wrote letters or called. Some gave to memorial funds. Some just sat with us a while. But I am deeply grateful for all of that for there is a love in that which strengthens and encourages. Yes, when you’re in the valley, one of the most precious blessings of God is the friend who comes and in one way or another says: “The Lord is our shepherd and we are His sheep. As we stay close to each other we stay close to Him. And as we stay close to Him, we stay close to each other.” It’s good to remember that in the valley.
Then we have remembered all over again the value of love.
I am so grateful that I knew my mother’s love for me and that she knew mine for her. You know it’s interesting that in the death experiences of King David—with Saul, with Jonathan, with his little son—there is a great power and strength we see in David. But when his son Absalom died, the story is altogether different. When David receives word of Absalom’s death, he is plunged into agony and he cries out in despair: “O Absalom, my son, my son, would God that I had died instead of you.” The reason for David’s despair is that he knew he had not been a good father to Absalom. He knew that Absalom had grown up apart from his father’s love. He knew that Absalom’s tragic end was in part David’s fault. Overcome by guilt, he carried a terrible burden in his grief. I was spared that. I knew my mother’s love and she knew mine.
You know, as you get older, you grow independent of your parents, but you never get to the place where you don’t look back over your shoulder to see if they are giving you a smile of encouragement and a wave that sends you on and a round of applause that finds its way into your heart and lifts you.
That day in July of 1985 when I received my mother’s last letter, I realized that never again would she hear me preach, never again would she share a meal at our table, never again would she relish the presence of her grandchildren—and I realized that from that time on whenever I looked back, she wouldn’t be there anymore—and all I could do was weep.
My friends, love while you have the chance. Don’t miss any moment which is yours for they are gone too soon. Memories are all that you will have at that point, so in the name of Jesus Christ, I plead with you: build good memories! Love while you can love. I did and I am glad.
Well, there is yet one more thing for me to do…
Of all the cards we have received these last weeks, there was one card in particular which, the moment I opened it, burned its message into my mind and heart. It came from Ginny Porter. This is what it said: “Death is not extinguishing the light, it is putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.” For my mother, at long, long last, the dawn has come. She has laid aside a mind destroyed and body wasted by disease to claim the new mind and the new body and the new light and the new life of the Kingdom of heaven. The dawn has come—thank God, the dawn has come.
Up to now, I could not answer that last letter my mother wrote to us. But since the dawn has come, my mother can now hear and understand again. Today, then, seven years later, I want to answer her letter. She wrote: “Dear Trish and Howard, I have tried so long to write you but nothing came out but ‘I love you.’ I hope that is sufficient because I hope it is enough. Is that enough? Love and kisses, Mom.”
Yes, Mom, it is enough. It is more than enough. And it will keep me strong in the Lord until we embrace again…