Christmas in the Rear-view Mirror

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The family described in this blog have given permission to tell this story; their names have been changed.

The week before Christmas was supposed to be easy. On my Monday off I took a pick-up load of scrap metal to Adelstein’s Recycling and pocketed $129.60; more than paid for stocking stuffers for the children and grandchildren who would start trickling in on Wednesday. They’d stay till December 27. Menus were planned, groceries bought.

I returned from Adelstein’s around noon that Monday, planning to put the last coat of varnish on the canoe paddles I’d made for the three oldest grandchildren. About 12:45 the phone rang. Call display showed a church family who would never call on my day off. Edith was crying when she said, “Pastor Jim, our oldest son Tom died suddenly last night and we just found him in his home.” Light-hearted Christmas plans changed for everyone that moment.

Thirty-eight years old; healthy, going to marry in June, Tom had not felt well Sunday evening. He stayed home while his fiancée visited friends. She called him at 9 PM. His brother found him at noon Monday. The TV was still on; Tom looked like he had fallen asleep.

Police were finishing their obligatory investigation when I accompanied Tom’s parents, two brothers and fiancée Juanita to see his body before removal. I noticed a book lying next to the couch where Tom lay; it was his Bible—bookmarked to Ecclesiastes 11 and 12, two of the most haunting, mysterious chapters in Scripture. Juanita knew that was not there when she left Tom at 7 PM Sunday.

Did Tom know? Was he reading, thinking about himself as the man that the Preacher describes in those two chapters—the man who had to find meaning after futility and vanity, fear of God after patient, deliberate striving. That actually had been the journey that Tom’s gentle, yet restless soul had followed for half his life until the last year or so. Was Tom leaving us a final message?

At that moment I knew that I could preach only on Ecclesiastes 11 and 12. Tom’s sister-in-law read those chapters three days later at one of the hardest, saddest, yet hopeful, funerals I have ever led. It was a Christmas message two days before Christmas—thanking God for hard comfort from the message left by an oldest son who died too soon. It was a Christmas message—imploring God for comfort from his own and only Son who was born to die so we can suffer, die and live forever—starting now.

Then our children and grandchildren came. We celebrated, we played. We thanked God for Jesus’ birth. We prayed that Jesus would return and that Tom’s family would find the beginnings of hope in their terrible grief. No blog that week—not until now. Sorry for the silence, but pray to find hints of our mysterious God in all our silences, intentional, awestruck or grief-stricken.

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