I could tell it had not been a good day. I could hear it in his voice on the other end of the phone. “Hello,” he forced out a whisper.
“Hi, Garrett,” I said. “It’s Pastor Brian. I was just thinking of you, and thought I would call to check in.” Several years earlier, Garrett Knoth had been diagnosed with a stubborn and deadly strain of cancer. He and his wife, Donna, had fought valiantly. But the last year had seen things take an unfortunate turn for the worse. It was apparent that Garrett’s health was declining rapidly and our time with him was nearing an end.
While Garrett had a deep and robust faith, he struggled the most at night. The days were packed with visitors and plenty of cards and emails. It was night time, when the house was still and he was kept awake by a mind humming with a thousand thoughts, that fear and loneliness haunted him. When I picked up the phone to call Garrett, it was only a couple hours before bed.
We exchanged some small talk, and then there was a long pause. Finally, Garrett broke the silence with a question that caught me off guard. “Brian, do you think you could sing me a song—a hymn or something—that would help me settle into a place of peace?”
“A song?” I stammered. “You want me to sing to you…right now?” I suddenly felt self-conscious.
“Yeah,” he said. “You have a nice voice, and I’m just thinking of a hymn or something that might help put me at ease. Would you sing to me, please?”
I like to sing, but no one had ever asked me to sing to them over the phone like this, especially no one in Garrett’s condition. But when a man with cancer whom you love deeply asks you to sing for him, it doesn’t matter how self-conscious you feel. You just do it. So I did.
That cold December evening, while sitting in my living room, I sang to Garrett. I sang the first song that came to mind—a song written by the Taize community:
In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful
In the Lord I will rejoice
Look to God, do not be afraid
Lift up your voices the Lord is near
Lift up your voices the Lord is near
It’s the song we were using to open the worship service every Sunday during Advent that year. The song that began our liturgy in the sanctuary now carried our liturgy in my living room, ushering Garrett and me into the presence of God. Part way through singing it, I suddenly realized the gift Garrett was giving me by asking me to sing to him. I realized that I wasn’t just singing for him, I was singing for the both of us. I realized how I needed to hear this gospel promise just as much as Garrett did.
I would sing this song to Garrett several more times over the next couple weeks. The last time I sang it to him was three days before he died. Kneeling down by his lazy boy chair, my hand resting on his, I sang this song of hope as he slipped in and out of consciousness.
Today marks the anniversary of Garrett’s death. I’ve been thinking about him all weekend. Garrett taught me what I thought I already knew: ultimately, our confidence is not in our love for Christ, which may have moments of fervency, but more often is fickle and faltering; our confidence is in Christ’s love for us, which is steadfast and sure, unfailing and eternal.
Garrett also taught me that we never tire of hearing the hope of the gospel—we need to hear it, over and over again. And one of the gifts of Christian community is that we speak it to each other. Whenever we are afraid, we look each other in the face and we speak words of assurance that in Jesus Christ, God is with us and God is for us. Even better when we can sing these words to each other.
“What is my only comfort in life and in death?” asks our beloved Heidelberg Catechism. The answer: “That I am not my own, but I belong, in body and in soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” Or in the words of the poet John Campbell Shairp:
Let me no more my comfort draw
From my frail hold of Thee;
In this alone rejoice with awe—
Thy mighty grasp of me.
In this Advent season, as we draw nearer to Christmas, let us lift up our voices to the One who draws near to us. And let us rejoice with awe in God’s mighty grasp of us through the wondrous grace of a Savior born in Bethlehem.
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:78-79