Dad’s witness was such that we had to accept God in spite of his death, or reject both God and Dad.

On maundy thursday we partook of the sacrament. It was very much, I fancy, like the first Maundy Thursday when our Lord saw ahead to his death on the following day. On this Thursday, 1982, my father, bones spearing at his skin and stomach distended, looked ahead to his death. My mother stood on one side of the bed; I stood on the other. The pastor opened his portable Communion kit. He handed around the broken wafers, then said: “On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat.…’ ”

It was less than a week later, on April 14, that the cancer had its say. After a year of waiting and watching, a year of fighting, death’s moment came. Dickinson’s paralyzing “hour of lead” was upon us.

“When someone has cancer or another fatal disease, there is nothing you can do.” Too many people say this. Sadder yet, too many Christians believe it. The phrase is a telling one, and it discloses how much of our faith we have given up. “Ah,” you think, “faith healing. We are going to be chastised for not believing in faith healing.” But no; and again the reaction is a telling one. It too betrays depths of the faith naturalized, secularized, surrendered, and forgotten.

My father’s battle began in April 1981 when the tumor was found crouching in his colon. It had given him months of intermittent nausea and weakness. He and his doctor thought it a lingering flu. But it was cancer, hidden in his bowels like a wolf in a cave.

Surgery was scheduled to follow a week of tests. There were humiliating tests: proctoscopes and barium enemas. There were tests that caused him to vomit, then more tests. The orderlies came for Dad, and once, after he left, Mother collapsed on his bed and wept. She said she knew the cancer was all through his chest, she just knew it. No, no, I reassured her. We didn’t know that—why, tests had already proved no cancer in the lymph nodes, none in the kidneys. We must hope.

We waited. The doctor came the next morning and announced there was no cancer in the lungs. One problem: a spot on the liver, a shadow. But the healer was hopeful. Oftentimes these spots were mistakes of film, or some harmless blemish on the organ. I buoyed my parents’ spirits (and mine); I urged hope on them; yes, surely yes, a mistake or a deceitful shadow. I was wrong. The wolf had already ventured from its cavern.

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My father was an extraordinary fighter. Quite simply, he put on the shield of faith, and withstood. We have all heard sermons on the Ephesians passage. All the armament Paul mentions was defensive, not offensive. There was the belt, shield, armor, short sword—all to help the believer “stand your ground when things are at their worst, to complete every task and still to stand” (Eph. 6:13, NEB). This my father did. He strapped on the armor, he picked up the shield, and cancer let fly all its horrible weapons: aches, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, and weakness.

But Dad’s faith was unshaken to the end. It completed every task to the last, the confrontation of death, and still it stood. Sometimes, on the way to the city for chemotherapy, Mom and Dad would stay a night at our little apartment. Before sleep Dad would have Mom, my wife Sandy, and me kneel at the bed with him. We wrapped our arms around one another and prayed one at a time. These prayers were never said without tears, but Dad began them all, and he opened every one with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, of all things: “Thank you, Lord, for all my blessings.” Mother once confessed to me that she dreaded those nightly prayers, a custom Dad desired to keep even if the two were alone. “I know we have blessings, but I just don’t see what we have to be thankful for now,” she said.

I was a pitiful fighter from the beginning. One night during the long week before surgery I resolved to pray the night through to dawn. I lay prostrate, belly down, on the floor and initiated prayer—to bang on God’s door all night like the old woman in Christ’s parable. The next I remembered was awakening and looking at the clock. It was two or three in the morning. Disgusted, I climbed into bed beside my wife and went back to sleep.

On some night of that week, Dad lay alone in the hospital and wrote three sentences on the last page of his Bible; we did not find them until after his death. Perhaps it was during a particularly appalling darkness when a man down the hall moaned on and on, “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.” Eventually silence fell. And a draped figure was wheeled past Dad’s door. Whenever it was, Dad took up pen and put words in his Bible.

“Jeasus,” he wrote, probably misspelling due to fearful preoccupation, “lived to 33. I’ve had 44 so how can I complain with the easy, very blessed life I’ve had? The very best family on this earth, with friends that love me so much all over this land.” He underlined the last two verses of Revelation, including this statement: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (NIV).

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As I say, a wolf had ventured from its cave. The surgery was done, and the doctor emerged into the waiting room. We knew it before he spoke, by the slow and forced way he walked, and not by grimness in his face so much as absence of joy. Tumor in the liver. Inoperable. Well, maybe some hope, but … but. Of all the elegance and tact and diplomacy in the world, physicians finally concede impending death with that tiny, clumsy bludgeon of a word: But.

When the struggle ended, Dad had gotten one more year, give or take a few days. He did not run around shouting inane and mocking imitations of true praise. There is a genre of Christian literature, a bent of Christian thought, that insists on “praising” God for everything. The car motor exploded: praise God. The dog’s got distemper: praise God. Cancer is killing me: praise God. This abuse of Paul’s words (1 Thess. 5:18) purports to be ultimately biblical, but in the process it makes light of David’s anguished psalms and even Christ’s woe at Gethsemane.

I tell you that Dad was sad. He was somber, dejected, and gloomy. Before the illness he was a man of humor and pranks and stories. After, he was spare with words and played no pranks. For him, it was wartime. There is no idle chatter under enemy fire. For Christians who suggest there ought to be, it is the same as proposing jokes at the foot of the cross.

Dad got on with the business of living while he could. He continued to work on his farm and ranch. Church was exceedingly important to him, and he attended several times when my mother feared it was too cold or stormy for him to be out. He liked a country song then popular, “One Day at a Time,” by Marijohn Wilkin and Kris Kristofferson. My brother and sister, in a special at church for Dad, somehow managed the entire song, including the chorus:

One day at a time, Sweet Jesus, that’s all I’m asking from You,

Just give me the strength to do ev’ry day what I have to do;

Yesterday’s gone, Sweet Jesus, and tomorrow may never be mine,

Lord, help me today, show me the way one day at a time.Copyright 1973 by Buckhom Music Publishers, Inc. Used by permission of copyright owners.

Dad prayed for healing and asked for a quiet anointing of oil by his Methodist pastor and a few close friends. He was reluctant about some of the prescribed therapy, a painful ordeal that confined a normally active man to bed for an entire week at a time. With a needle and tube driven into his thigh so chemicals could more directly assault the corrupted liver, Dad could not even turn on his side, much less leave the bed. He accepted all this, and more, to pursue the minute medical hope that the cancer might be arrested.

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Mother had no easy role, yet embraced it whole. She fiercely held hope when Dad was most oppressed. She sat with him hour after hour in the hospital. She nursed him through countless sick spells. “In sickness or health” is a line many would now strike from the wedding vows, but Mother never questioned it.

Just the same, what could she really do? What could any of us do except watch and wait, and surely waiting is nothing?

Milton knew better. The Puritan poet went blind at the same age my father was stricken with cancer. It was then that he wrote what Leland Ryken calls possibly “the greatest sonnet in the world.” Milton wondered how he, blind and apparently useless, could serve God. Then he recognized, with sight far more significant than the physical, that “God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts.” The one who serves God best is he who bears his “mild yoke.” There are thousands of servants rushing about busily, and too few still before the Lord: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Passive service, in fact, is probably harder than active service, else we might ask, Why are so few Christians devoted to it? In active service it remains more feasible to assert our necessity to God: “Well, somebody’s got to do the work.” We are valued, we are depended upon. In passive service we have no glittering works to display. We have only the assurance that God made us and Christ redeemed us, and that is the one, the only, reason we are of any good. It must be enough. There can be no illusions of our indispensability to the world.

Dad would never have used the word, but he was a martyr. The word derives from the Greek word meaning “witness.” They who “only stand and wait” present a witness the world does not want to admit. They witness, indisputably, that all our necessary busy-ness is not at all necessary.

Paul tells us that Christ is made manifest in our weakness. His indispensability is made obvious in our dispensability; his necessity made clear in our unnecessariness. The apostle had everything, absolutely everything—at every second and every place—hinge on Christ. Christ “exists before everything, and all things are held together in him” (Col. 1:17, NEB).

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My father would not have articulated this. He did not have the words. What he did was far more important. He lived it. Each of us must and will die. It is at this point that I fear that Christianity, even that which declares itself most orthodox, has abdicated its riches—indeed, its very end and purpose.

We have quietly given up the transcendence of Christianity. When is the last time you heard a sermon preached on heaven? How is it that a prominent evangelical speaker can declare at a conference, “Don’t give me that pie in the sky about heaven; that bores me”? If, finally, Christianity will not proclaim and witness to something transcending earth, what does it have to proclaim?

In this age it proclaims a promise of wealth, health, and power. Churches are counseling agencies, social action centers, and adjuncts to political lobbies. The gospel, as currently preached, offers self-esteem, and Christ’s sacrifice was an assault on poor self-image.

We must be careful here. Christianity has suffered from an unchristian disdain of the physical and material. On the other hand, as is now widely recognized, Christianity was basic to secularization exactly because it asserted the goodness and potential fullness of life. Some religions affirm death. Christianity affirms life and holds that its Lord has destroyed death. The Bible, furthermore, speaks not only of a new heaven but a new earth, and it is this earth that will be transformed.

Death is a colossus secularism cannot defeat, so secularism counsels acceptance of death. It suggests that we mortals reconcile ourselves to it. I believed this now-conventional wisdom enough to urge Dad to attend a psychotherapeutic meeting of hospitalized cancer patients. Dad was not admitting any anger, at God or anything else, and my smatterings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross taught me admission of anger was an essential step to the all-important acceptance of death.

He went. Most in the group did as the social worker unobtrusively urged them. They expressed rage and chagrin. But when Dad’s turn came he knew nothing more appropriate of which to speak than his faith. He testified of Christ, and how he could only face whatever lay ahead in Christ. A chill came over the meeting. Didn’t this man know that before any dying person should even mention God—if he should at all—he must first get mad at God? The social worker awkwardly but rapidly shifted the discussion back to the familiar ground of “feelings.”

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Christianity does not counsel acceptance of death. I do not know how I could have read Paul shouting “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” so many times and come to believe that it did. Alexander Schmemann, in his truly wonderful For the Life of the World, writes, “Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a ‘mystery’ to be explained.”

It is not that Christianity denies death. Secularism ironically counsels acceptance yet attempts to ignore death, or to domesticate it (thus we have funeral homes) and make it less horrible than it is. Again, Schmemann: “It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.” Secularism has no weapon against death. Christianity transforms it; it permutates death into life.

When Dad spoke before the cancer patients, he did not pretend that he was happy with cancer, or that he would not rather be healed of it. But he knew, at least on an intuitive level, that faith does not “simply replace medicine when medicine has exhausted its own possibilities.” Instead, explains Schmemann, it comes to “take this [sick and suffering] man into the Love, the Light and Life of Christ. It comes not merely to ‘comfort’ him in his sufferings, not to ‘help’ him, but to make of him a martyr, a witness to Christ in his very sufferings.… A martyr is one for whom God is not another—and the last—chance to stop the awful pain; God is his very life, and thus everything in his life comes to God, and ascends to the fullness of Love.”

What is hard for us mortals to understand is that although God has “rescued us from the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13, NIV), considerable darkness remains. Christ, at Easter, rose from the dead. He defeated death, but death continues to cast its shadow. Now, however, it is exactly that, a shadow. It is, if we may say so without trivializing it, the world and the flesh and the devil playing finger shadow games with us. The fingers held just so cast a shadow like a lion, or like a snake. But there is no real lion or snake; indeed, just as our fingers belong to us, death now belongs to us in Christ (1 Cor. 1:22–23). Who should be afraid of his own shadow?

Yet of course we are. The darkness remains greatly, if not ultimately, fearsome. Even here, however, we have solace and hope. Christ Jesus follows us into the dark night of the soul, and when darkness engulfs us it only means he has encompassed the darkness.

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Do I believe all this because my faith is so strong and wonderful? No. I believe it because my father was a martyr. Christ mattered ultimately to him, and he was concerned that all around continue to trust his Lord.

Only a few nights before his death, I helped Dad to bed. He was in a particularly painful state, and said his legs were shaking. I could see that they were not, but when I touched them, I felt the muscles drumming beneath the skin.

I was shocked, and momentarily overwhelmed. I cursed and complained of the unfairness and injustice of it all. Immediately Dad rolled toward me and grasped my neck. “Now son,” he implored, “don’t you go losing your faith.” I assured him I was not (and meant it), then went to the kitchen to swallow antacids and contemplate smashing a glass against the kitchen wall.

There were family and friends watching Dad, and at least one who promised that, if Dad turned away from God, so would he. This is the awesome responsibility of one who “only” stands and waits. One of Dad’s closest friends understood the martyrdom. Driving back from the cemetery on the day of the funeral, he told us, “There were many nights when I lay awake and wondered how God could allow this to happen to Everett. But to reject God would have been to destroy everything Everett stood for.” He may have been tempted, mired in ignorance and sin as we all are, to turn from God; but this true friend could never imagine turning from Dad. And Dad’s witness, his martyrdom, was such that we had to accept God in spite of his death, or reject both God and Dad.

Peter De Vries attests to the truth of this dynamic in his novel, The Blood of the Lamb. The protagonist’s daughter develops cancer. He, reared in a devout home, sways between faith and disbelief. He finds himself at a church, with a cake for the daughter, on the day she dies. In an explosion of anger he throws the cake into the Christ figure’s face on the life-size crucifix. “Then through scalded eyes I seemed to see the hands free themselves of the nails and move slowly toward the soiled face. Very slowly, very deliberately, with infinite patience, the icing was wiped down with the same sense of grave and gentle ritual, with all the kind sobriety of one whose voice could be heard saying, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me … for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’ ”

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Sadly, De Vries’s moving book ends not with such a note of faith, but with skepticism. Several months later the father rummages through some of the girl’s belongings and finds a tape recording she had made, addressed to him. He listens, and the girl’s voice tells him not to leave a brave disbelief because of her. Here is a witness in an opposite and disastrous direction. Now the gate to faith is barred. “One angel [the girl] guards it, whose sword is a gold head smiling into the sun in a hundred snapshots. The child on the brink of whose grave I tried to recover the faith lost on the edge of my brother’s is the goalkeeper past whom I can now never get. In the smile are sealed my orders for the day.” The father throws over his unsteady faith.

I do not say that Dad was or is the focus or the proof of my belief. I say that Christ moved specially and powerfully in him to solidify and enrich my faith. I think Christ will do so in all people, whether they are dying or not, but he never forces himself. He stands at the door and knocks. It remains for each of us to open, or leave closed, the door.

We celebrated last Easter knowing Dad’s death was only days away. It was difficult to look past Good Friday. For a while after the end it was impossible to imagine Dad in any shape except that in which he was during those last wretched months: haggard, emaciated, looking wearily at the world with an old man’s eyes. But with the passage of time I began to remember him as he was for a much longer period: full, strong, and with eyes undimmed since childhood. I could see him ready for work, in boots and cowboy hat. I dreamed of sleeping at my parents’ home and the air conditioner quitting. I went outside to repair it and found Dad—pliers drawn, hat tipped back—already at work.

This Easter it will be easier to see past Good Friday. I get glimpses of Dad in my grandparents and siblings. These are seen only momentarily, but beautifully and sweetly, like a fish thrusting forward silently in still water. It is true that I will not have to be content with these glimpses. My Lord—Dad’s Lord—has stepped into the jaws of the dragon we know as death. And danced.

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