Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Though Fatherless and Widowed- God is Father and Husband

My cousin Mike and I have talked much over the years about the fatherless. He has visited us twice in Uganda, so he has not only heard me teach on the fatherless, but he has seen firsthand what it means to labor in the “fields of the fatherless.” He has come to understand God's Fatherhood to the fatherless as unfolded throughout the Old Testament. He has understood what Psalm 68:5 means when it says, “A Father to the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling.” And he has delighted in the culmination of all that these things point to in the Gospel and the doctrine of adoption, where God Himself adopts spiritual and physical orphans into His family and Himself becomes “Daddy.”

Last year Mike took all that I have written concerning God's heart for the fatherless and the widow and he taught it in a Sunday School class at his church. He has spoken on spiritual adoption to the church and he has been my constant encourager as I've labored to begin writing a book on these things. Yet these are not just things that Mike has “learned” like you would learn that 2 + 2 = 4. No, you don't become passionate about “facts” or “truth” for truth's sake. Mike has become passionate about these things because they have been “revealed” to him and they have affected and changed the way he relates to God.

I am convinced that Mike's ownership of these things, his longing to know God intimately, his realization that though he has had a father, spiritually he was fatherless, but in salvation, in the Gospel, he has been brought into the family of God where God IS his Father, all of these things were preparation for what was coming. When Mike was woken up at 4:30 in the morning to his mother's desperate cries, he knew what was happening. He ran out of his house to find his father, dead. In those desperate moments as shock and pain shot through his body, as he was helpless to do anything to bring his father back, the realization of what Mike had become sank in.

When I called him the first thing he said to me was, “I'm fatherless, my dad is dead.” He went on, “But my Papa's with me, he's the best father in the world, and it's good.” He went on to tell me the horrible story of what took place when he found his father, yet the peace and comfort he had in it all was the knowledge that His Father was with him. Suddenly, what Mike had been so passionate about was more of a reality than it ever had been.

That verse in Psalm 68 also says that God is the defender of the widow. Though Mike's mom, my Aunt Nancy, had become fatherless six months before, she now has to face life as widow, a young widow, and she has the daunting task of forming a new identity apart from the one who's life had also defined her own.

When Mike asked me to speak at the funeral I did not want to at first. How could I stand before my family, all of us full of emotion, and deliver the Word of God. But then God brought me to John 11 and the message I was to speak, so I agreed. I spoke out of John 11- the story of Lazarus. It's an amazing passage relating to death, the depth of pain and grief that we bear, the questions that naturally arise during grief, Jesus' response to these questions, and his entering into our own suffering, as he weeps right along side of us, though he knows the purposes and the results of such tragedy in our lives. What came out powerfully is the great hope of the Gospel for us both in resurrection and life to come, as well as the healing and comfort in life now.

I can not enter into the grief of another and feel exactly what they are feeling, even if I've been through something similar. But there is one who himself as suffered just as we have, and He alone is able to enter in and bring the healing and comfort that we so long for. He is the Father to the fatherless, and the defender, the husband, of the widow. I'm so thankful for those beautiful pictures found in Scripture! And I'm so thankful for His Spirit's help to deliver His message of hope in the midst of such grief.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Funeral and Family Revival

Act 2:39- “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself.”

I'm back in West Virginia right now, all alone and missing my family. It's never fun or easy to travel home for a funeral, thoughts and feelings come at you strangely since you are not “there” yet, though you feel the pain and hurt through the distance...but it's still not the same. My Uncle died a couple of days ago, suddenly and tragically, but not altogether unexpectedly, though we all thought he was doing well. He had triple bi-pass surgery and seemed to be improving well enough, though he was having a bit of trouble breathing the last couple of days he was at home.

My family buried my grandfather, my mom's dad, around six months ago. My Aunt Nancy (sister to my mom) was left with a mess to sort through after that death, including baggage from a father who wounded more than he loved, though he did love. In fact, all four of the daughters have been forced to deal with the wounds of a father longed for and lost. When Aunt Nancy found out that Uncle Rick (her husband) needed heart surgery, it was about enough to toss a goat off a hillside. Overall, we were all positive about the surgery, all of us but Uncle Rick himself. His last few weeks were extra hard on Nancy, as she was still grieving her father while her husband was retreating into himself, coming face to face with the reality of death.

But before the surgery came, he gained renewed hope through a meeting with an old buddy who had successfully had the same surgery. The surgery came and went on the day after my birthday. I visited him in the hospital the day after and was stunned by how good he was doing after just one day. After he was brought home he began struggling to breath. My cousin Mike (his son), who is like a brother to me, was not able to visit his dad until the day before he died, because Mike had the ol' stomach flu that was passing around our family. Their time together was sweet- and as Mike prayed for his Dad, praising and worshiping God in the midst of the pain and struggle his father was facing, his Dad was “amen”ing.

That may not sound significant to most people, but I've sat with Mike on many occasions and listened to his own pain and grief for his father, his longing to see a spiritual thirst in his dad. I had never heard of Uncle Rick even uttering an “amen” in the midst of prayer. Mike left after that and the night came. He had been struggling to breath enough that they almost called an ambulance a couple of times, but he did not want to go back to the hospital. At one in the morning, my Aunt Nancy woke up, changed his towels and checked on him. Surprisingly, he said, “Nancy, come and pray with me.” And the words of the prayer, though I'm passing on now third-hand (paraphrased), still cause me to cry- “Dear Lord, I know that you are a Sovereign God, and I know that you are with me, but I'm hurting, and I don't like it. I know that I haven't lived my life for you, and I'm sorry. Please forgive me for the things I've done wrong. Amen.” I'll try to update the exact words when I can get them from Aunt Nancy. Sometime in the next two hours he likely had a blood clot go to his heart or lungs, and he died. I won't go into the details here, but the trauma that both Nancy and Mike faced over the next two hours is somethign I pray I will never have to face with my own father.

As I told this to my own father as we drove to the airport to pick up my sister, he cried and cried. It's what we've all longed for, prayed for, hoped for, for Uncle Rick- that his heart would be turned TOWARD God, and it was. The hardest part for our family was the disappointment for the hope of the next phase of Rick's life, a life lived for something greater than himself, life lived outside of himself, the continued fathering role he would have with his grandkids Austin and Abbey, and a chance for those of us outside the immediate Ervin family to truly KNOW the man. Yet, he has gained new life, a life that non of us would want to pull him away from, where he is free and where death has been swallowed up in victory. Our hope for him is far “less” than the true hope he has gained in new life. We prayed that his physical heart problems would lead to the healing of his spiritual heart, and truly it did. And that was the greatest healing of all.

The first time I spoke with Mike on the phone, I was at a loss as to even what to say. I was stunned too. The first thing he said to me was, "I'm fatherless, my father died. But I have my Papa, and He's the best Father." He is the Father of the fatherless, and in Mike's initial grief, the Father's comfort was with him in a way that truly amazed me. That comfort continues to be with him, even as he cares for his mom who in six months has become both fatherless and widowed. We are praying that she comes to truly know the One who is both Father and Husband, the father of the fatherless and defender of the widow. Onl He can bring that depth of healing.

As I look back over my family during the past 30 years, one thing becomes OBVIOUS- God is redeeming our family. Though we have our issues and struggles and just down right weird aspects of our family, the Gospel is penetrating into heart and lives and changing them. We are being redeemed. In my own family there is a maturity and love for God, for Jesus, that I couldn't have imagined 15 years ago. In Mike's family (the Ervin family) the same work is being done. In cousins, aunts and uncles, hearts are turning toward Him and lives are being lived for him. None of this has been in our time or our way, but in God's timing, the fruit of His consistent and steady work in our lives...much through pain and struggle, just like we are facing now.

I sit here amazed at God's grace in our family, at the redemption He has brought to torn families and the healing He is bringing to deep wounds, and I can only smile. How fun it is to be a part of His work in our family, in our community, and in our world. “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father from whom every family in heaven and earth is named...” We do bear His name, and the promise is for us and our children and all who are far off- as many as the Lord our God calls to himself. I love being a part of family revival...where will we be in 30 more years?