Christmas 2012 -- A Different Sort Of Christmas

As we settle back from our 2012 Christmas celebrations I want to reflect on death. Yes, death, on Christmas, well, sort of, but I am getting ahead of myself...

From the time I started looking forward to Christmas a few weeks back and thinking about what I would write on today somehow death was always somewhere in the picture. At first Dave Brubeck's passing was part of my thinking — maybe a revision of my reflection three years ago on his music. Also in the picture was Cindy Bolbach's passing and of course the Sandy Hook shootings a bit over a week ago. And then within the past couple of days we have the shooting of first responders to a fire in Webster, N.Y.

But what occupies my thoughts right now, and the thoughts of my whole family, is the death of my father-in-law Ted this past weekend. Yes, even as we celebrate the holiday we are planning and preparing for a remembering of his life and a celebration of the resurrection a couple of days from now.

Now Ted was a character - to put it mildly - and I could go on at great length about him but that is for another day. He was a member of the Greatest Generation and a Navy Veteran. He joined the service in WW II  and served in the V12 Program but firmly believed that if the war had gone on any longer he would have been a 2nd Lieutenant leading a squad in an invasion of the Japanese Islands. Both he and his older brother were physicists and his older brother worked on one part of the Manhattan Project during the war. Ted later served a second tour of duty with the Office of Naval Research and had many stories to tell about some of his research projects that are now declassified.

Pursuant to the regular topic of this blog he was a ruling elder in the PC(USA) but I would note that as I sometimes describe myself as a life-long Presbyterian who was called to the Methodist church for a few years, he was the opposite and was a Methodist at heart who spent some years with the Presbyterians. But he had a great understanding and appreciation of the priesthood of all believers and the shared and representative leadership of the Presbyterian system.

To be honest, we thought his earthly race would end a year and a half ago, but he miraculously pulled through and we count the last 18 months as very precious "bonus time." This time around it was not to be and he went into cardiac arrest during his most recent illness. We count it a blessing that he was a fighter and held on long enough for his whole family to be around him to tell him goodbye before joining the Church Triumphant.

While we will greatly miss him I can not tell you all the little bits of God's Grace that were part of his final days, from the last few hours he hung on to an absolutely wonderful ICU doctor that talked to the family in the most pastoral way possible.

In the piece for Cindy Bolbach I briefly mentioned one of my favorite quotes on death from the novel Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. At the end of the story the aging Archbishop's assistant warns him to be careful in the rain or he might catch his death of cold. The protagonist responds "I shall not die of a cold. I shall die of having lived." What I did not connect there was the similar thought from scripture about King David:
He [David] died at a good old age, full of days, riches, and honor; and his son Solomon succeeded him. [1 Chronicles 29:28]
Ted did indeed "die of having lived" and "at a good old age, full of days." Between that and an assurance of his firm saving faith in Jesus Christ I don't think we could ask for more.

So what does this have to do with Christmas? Well, several things but let me highlight two.

The first is that our family has now joined the group for which Christmas will have bittersweet memories mixed with the joyous celebration. A week ago I was talking with a wonderful spiritually and chronologically mature member of our congregation and while she was wishing us the best for the holidays and the joy of having so much family together she herself was not looking forward to the occasion. Having little family, and none on this continent, the usual festivities and the societal expectations of Christmas did not ring true to her. We must remember that this time is difficult for many for a variety of reasons.

The second has to do with putting Christmas in context. Yes, this is rightfully a joyous celebration of the incarnation, but regarding the story the other book end is the death and resurrection of Jesus. While it may not be what we want to focus on at this time of year, it is helpful to remember the context and that Jesus did come to die. For him we have more difficulty saying that he lived a life "full of days."

But the story does not end there and it is because of the resurrection that our story does not end with death either. As scripture says:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. [1 Thess 4:13-14]
Yes, we grieve - but we grieve as those who have hope because of what Christmas brought and began.

So in whatever state you find yourselves today and throughout this holiday season, may God's peace be with you, may you know the salvation of the Savior, and also know the comfort of the Holy Spirit.

Merry Christmas

Postscript: One of the great blessings and small graces in this journey has been the ministry and caring of so many who are, and have come, into our lives. So many have come along side to walk part of this journey with my wife's family. But only a few are the pastors at the churches — most are everyday people doing their jobs in very compassionate and ministering ways. They stand as a reminder that in whatever we do, we still belong to God and in whatever we do our jobs are our ministry and we do it to God's glory. Amen.
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