When we got word, my daughter and I were trying to make Christmas trees out of Cheerios. She had made a large pan of green, gooey muck, which (the directions said) we could pour on Cheerios and easily assemble them into little green trees. Soon our hands were so sticky that every time we pulled our fingers away from the tiny trees, the whole tree would collapse or pull apart. Buttering our fingers, we later learned, would have solved the whole problem.

It was in that context that the call came from home that my 85-year-old father had died a peaceful death after a severe illness of about a month.

On the phone were my lawyer brother Tal and my silver-haired, eternally nurturing, inwardly tough 75-year-old mother who had just returned from the hospital. I told them I would be on the first plane home. Within three hours, my wife and I were headed to the airport. As we made our way through the Christmas-clad towns toward the airport, I was filled with a flood of emotions ranging from a deep sense of irretrievable loss, to gratitude and relief that Dad’s suffering had not been extended longer.

Above all, I was feeling a deep sense of incongruity between death and Christmas. All about us were signs of Christmas, this most joyous season of birth and celebration, of sparkling decorations and happy carols. Internally I was feeling loss, grief, dissonance, brokenness. This incongruity became a kind of theme that would run all through the week ahead. It is the main reason I am sharing this personal recollection.

Each moment, every sound, smell, and touch, came in an intense relation to the loss I felt. Everything was reflected as if seen through an enormous lens—the lens of my relationship with my dad. A barking dog, a shiny doorknob, the white cloud high in the grey sky, the posture of a middle-aged man, the distant glance of a passerby—all of these fleeting things became magnified in relation to the ache, the memory, the admiration, the trust, the closeness I felt toward my father. I sensed somehow that I would learn something important about myself, about others close to me, about relationships and their meaning, and, perhaps, even of the mysterious movement of providence quietly rearranging the furniture of our lives.

Coming from Newark, New Jersey, to Altus, Oklahoma, from coughing urban sprawl to a small, quiet, southwestern rural town is like moving from one world to another. Instantly I felt the warmth and caring environment of an extended family. The whole town was like an extended family. The marvelous women Mom had known for 40 or 50 years are incredibly resourceful, intelligent, and supportive. I knew I was in a place with a lot of love and determination to do what was necessary for a broken family. It didn’t take long for me to realize the importance of visits from old friends, bringing personal affirmation, and displaying social maintenance efforts that would continue long afterward.

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Notes came. And not only individuals, but often whole families dropped in briefly, usually bringing food or flowers. These two symbols were outward means of saying, “We’re with you, we support you, we love you, we remember your loved one.” Sometimes the message was clearer than at others. Often it was simply someone’s presence that communicated that he or she cared from the heart.

Another incongruity I began to experience was that when I got home I wanted to be of help to my family. Yet I knew that I myself was so susceptible to instant grief, and wondered if my vulnerability would disturb others.

I reasoned that I must simply be myself, and that if they said, “Tom’s having a rough time,” it was true, and more likely to elicit the kind of caring response that expresses the deeper solidarity of our family than if I tried to repress my inner pain.

One of the first things I did was to opt out of any officiating function in the funeral. My primary relationship with my father was as a son, not as a minister; I wanted to be with my family. So we talked about how best to pray so as to commend my father to God.

An attorney for over 50 years in the same town, Dad had helped many thousands of people over a long career. But his deepest circle of friendship was among the people of his local church, and among those who shared a broader ministry, concretely expressed in his own small world of Jackson County. His several lifelong interests, which fall roughly into four areas, reveal this: (1) his long-term friendship with blacks, dating from the hazardous days of the Ku Klux Klan to the social problems of the sixties; (2) his work in initiating a ministry to the migrant Mexican-American community; (3) his Indian mission interest as a founding member of a group supportive of the Oklahoma Indian Mission Conference; and (4) his legal efforts to help write legislation and draw up papers for the development of Western Oklahoma State College, a small institution for low-income people who could not go away to expensive residential schools.

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All four interests were deeply rooted in a realistic evangelical faith that manifested itself in regular Bible study, daily family prayers at breakfast, teaching Bible classes for over 50 years. This was the combination, the dialectical energy, that shaped the real interest of his life—evangelical faith and social commitment to the poor. His was a practical, inconspicuous effort to help the needy, such as paying for winter heating bills in the black Methodist church, and trying to get indoor toilets for migrant workers. The same interest was expressed in the religious and temporal life of the Oklahoma Indian, especially in a concern to provide native pastoral leadership for the Oklahoma Indian tribes, and then helping with support. Finally, there was his political action toward developing a small college in our hometown, one anyone could attend.

When friends came by, however, they did not talk about those things. They talked about how Dad had helped them with something at a particular time, how he had shown the love of God in his personal lifestyle. It was on that small, highly personal scale that his life was remembered by each one.

A central vexation emerged in planning the service: the clash of the Christmas symbols and the reality of the funeral, which was planned for December 22. Green armfuls of Christmas hangings were already in place in the sanctuary, and a decorated Christmas tree was in place. Dad had loved Christmas, experienced it as a moment of liturgical fulfillment, of song, of giving, of being together. But I could not quite get my mind around the idea of combining the symbols of the funeral with the symbols of Christmas: they seemed so irreconcilable. I was on the side of keeping the two separated, while others intuitively felt they could somehow go together. Not until we decided on music did some light begin to dawn, for as we selected hymns, it became clear that the hymns Dad most loved were those great ones of the evangelical Protestant tradition. We selected Charles Wesley’s “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” and John Newton’s “Amazing Grace,” with its bagpipe chords and simple, powerful words. For the final selection, Mom suggested “Joy to the World,” with music by Handel and words by Isaac Watts. Then the light dawned: I knew instantly that was the thing to do, for “Joy to the World,” if it were sung as the final act of the congregational praise, would bring integrity and deep meaning to the entire service. So we agreed to leave the Christmas decorations up; we would sing “Joy to the World” at the conclusion of the service of Christian burial. It all seemed right, but at the back of my mind I was still somewhat uneasy about the potential clash of symbolism.

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On december 22 I was the first one awake in a house crammed with sleeping guests. I got up as quietly as I could and tried to move about without making a sound, and left as quietly as I could. I had very clearly in my mind what I intended to do: I wanted to walk the eight blocks Dad had walked to work for over 50 years.

My senses seemed extraordinarily sharp on that cool, still, bright December morning. Everything seemed awesomely quiet except for a large number of starlings staking out their territory. I saw a flock of maybe 200 blackbirds against the brightening sky fly from a white picket fence to a long pencil mark of a telephone line. In the distance I could hear some cats fussing, and at a greater distance, sounds of people starting their cars, and the meshing gears of a truck out on the highway.

I was keenly aware of the value of my roots, of my town, my family, my identity. I gave thanks for these unusual gifts in a highly mobile society, and for being able to sustain them even through changes in both my society and me.

It was eight o’clock when I arrived at Lowell’s Funeral Home. The door was locked. No one seemed to be stirring. As I turned around, I was surprised to find someone else already waiting: a husky farmer named Ray Ewing, in a Dodge pickup. He greeted me warmly, and spoke openly of his love for Dad and for our whole family. He said, “The world is better for your dad.” He left saying he would come back later, and I went back a half-block to the church, where I found the chapel door open. I went in and took the welcome opportunity to meditate and read some Scripture and pray.

In my coat pocket I had an old, leather-bound 1934 Order of Worship. I decided to go through the service of Christian burial and committal by myself, alone and aloud. I was profoundly instructed by each of the prayers. I could not believe how pointed and relevant they could be to me. Step by step I went through that service, realizing this was the best way I could prepare myself. When I finally said aloud, “into thy hands I commend my spirit” (quoting Jesus, an analogy to the committal of the body), I felt a deep sense of completion, of gratitude, and absolute confidence in God’s providence, and a personal reassurance that I could move through the day with a sense of affirmation, doing what had to be done.

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Returning to the funeral home, I met several friends who had come by to pay their respects to Dad. Each encounter became etched in my memory. Not that what they said was so profound, but that they were there, that they cared.

Many in old age die in nursing homes, more or less alone, with only a handful of people remembering them because they have outlived their contemporaries. Though Dad outlived almost all his contemporaries, he lived his elder years in vital dialogue with young, growing families, and always had supportive, lively relationships with young people. That is one of the reasons we wanted his pallbearers to come from the family’s emerging generation. One of them was my son, whose hair was the longest, and who is deeply immersed in the values of his generation. Yet I can think of no one who had greater affection for Dad. The generations were quietly bridged by his long life, and I sensed in him a sense of futurity as well as history.

I was astonished later when I looked at the list of people who had come to see him. At first I had not paid any attention to the little red-covered record the funeral home keeps of visits, and was not particularly warmed up to the idea of “signing in.” Yet by noon on the day of the funeral when I glanced through it, I was amazed to find that the entire book was literally covered with names. There was no more room left! To me, that had a quiet significance: Dad’s life was recalled meaningfully by not just his own generation, but by the second and third generations following him in whose growth he delighted.

I had taken along an apple and an orange since I had skipped breakfast, and I ate the apple as I turned from the funeral home and headed back down the street. I had a deep sense of fulfillment; I felt spiritually prepared for the funeral service. But it was not until I had almost reached home that I was hit by the most amazing realization—for me the central spiritual lesson of the entire sequence of events. A very simple thought struck me: I am the recipient of someone else’s goodness.

I had fantasized: “Suppose I should come back to Altus to live?” Without any merit of my own, I would be an indirect recipient of all the goodness Dad had bestowed upon others.

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I suddenly felt I had stumbled upon the center of Christian faith, and with it, the meaning of this entire event.

I wanted to tell somebody, and I hurried home. But it was a busy house that I entered, now only two hours before the funeral. I wanted to greet the many guests arriving from long distances, but I also wanted to find someone with whom I could talk through this insight, which seemed to be the most important thing I had learned for a long time. But I could not find the right moment; the living room became louder and busier. I had to wait for the proper moment to sort out this powerful learning that coalesced all my theological education in a simple awareness: I am the recipient of another’s goodness.

In the final moments of the service it all came together, making fitting impact upon my consciousness, and wrapping up the event of my father’s passing with great clarity and meaning. It occurred as we stood to sing the last hymn. My eyes were so full of tears I could scarcely read the words, and my voice was quavering so much that I could hardly sing. But we did sing together Isaac Watts’s great hymn to Handel’s music, “Joy to the World.” It, more than anything else, brought together what had seemed to me to be the basic incongruence of the whole week—the tension between Christmas and death, the birth of the Messiah and the death of my father. All of those clashing symbols were unresolved until that moment when we sang, “Joy to the world! the Lord is come; let earth receive her King.”

In the last stanza, the meaning of one archaic line—that curious phrase, “far as the curse is found”—finally came through clearly to me. I had sung it many times thinking it was an incomplete sentence, reading “for” for “far.” It had seemed so odd and antiquated. But in context, it came through to me that God comes in the Incarnation to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found, as far as our despair over our own freedom persists, as far as his blessings go. And that is made known in the Incarnation event celebrated at Christmas. That is why “Joy to the World” brought this funeral service to a sense of completion and appropriate fulfillment. I was ready to say, as we did say in the service of Christian burial, “we therefore commit his body to its resting place, but his spirit we commend to God.”

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