Joy wills eternity.
My father passed away this past Tuesday. I got the news via voice mail after landing at the airport on a business trip. My brother’s message made me feel cramped and claustrophobic in the airplane fuselage. I wanted to crawl out the window.
My dad was a towering oak of character and intelligence. Yet he wasn’t strong enough to beat a twelve-month struggle with cancer. There’s a great many things I could tell you about him. One of our fondest memories is how he would often tell his four sons that we live in a “benevolent dictatorship – you may doubt the benevolence but never the dictatorship!” For a long time we didn’t know what benevolent meant but were clear as a bell about dictatorship. This doesn’t mean my dad was cruel – he was simply part of the Greatest Generation that had little appetite for “getting in touch with your feelings” and much of our current therapeutic mumbo-jumbo. Maybe he was on to something.
He also wasn’t comfortable with talking about religion. Dad was part of a generation that didn’t believe you wear religion on your sleeves. It was a private matter of the heart. He once cautioned me about “presuming on the grace of God.” It took me years to figure out what he might have meant by that. I think he was referring to many of us who seem to so casually summon God as we would a servile butler. Maybe he was on to something.
Toward the end of his life we did talk a bit more about faith. I believe he’d approve of me passing on two of our last conversations. The first was launched right toward the end of a trip I took to visit my folks late last summer. Dad was declining but still moving around and very much engaged with what was happening around him. I came to hang out and help around the house. Just before leaving, my folks mentioned how much they enjoyed our time together. I echoed that feeling. Joy. And it reminded me of a sentiment shared long ago by the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche: “All joy wills eternity – wills deep, deep eternity.”1 In one of the quirks of life, Nietzsche’s quote had come to mind as I prayed beforehand and packed for this trip. Now I knew why. Of course, my mom asked, “What does that mean?”
I asked mom if she had ever enjoyed a moment so much – for Kathy and me it’s sunset on a beach – that you wished it would never end? Of course she had. So had Nietzsche. The moments he most enjoyed; he didn’t want them to end. He wanted them to go on for eternity. Yet Nietzsche didn’t believe in eternity. Dad was somewhat familiar with Nietzsche, so he got the point. This sweet time around the breakfast table pointed to something beyond. We didn’t want it to end. But why would we even long for “never ending” if never ending didn’t exist?
I told my folks that four of my greatest joys in life are Kathy, Mark, Stephen, and Jennifer – my closest friends also known as my wife and three kids. Yet it would be unbearable – really unbearable – if all of our times together amount to sand slipping through our fingers. I take great comfort in the confidence that all five of us will be friends forever. Trips to the beach, laughing, or playing card games around the kitchen table will never end. All joy wills eternity – wills deep, deep eternity.
Our last conversation was less than two weeks before he died. I flew down for a long weekend with mom and dad. Right before leaving I sensed that this was goodbye. Not a “so long, see ya” but Goodbye. My dad wasn’t talking much by then, but he had periods of being lucid. One of those moments came just before I left for the airport. We kissed, I told him I loved him, stroked his hair and gave him another kiss on the forehead. The strangest things often come to mind – I noticed that his hair had come back with a bit more wave in it after the chemo had been discontinued. I thought it looked beautiful. And then I choked out the words, “Dad, I believe this is goodbye. I love you.”
I handed him a note that told a story about Easter coming early this year. The good news about Easter is that Jesus is alive today. And Jesus said those who embrace him never taste death. Really. He was the smartest man who ever lived. Jesus was also the only man who ever came in from eternity. So he knows what he’s talking about. Remember what Jesus said to the thief on the cross? “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” I thought the Nicene Creed says Jesus “suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again.” Correct on both counts. Just as infinity is not a number, eternity is not a time. In the experience of the thief, he never died but simply closed his eyes and opened them in eternity – with all his friends around him. I told dad that those who embrace Jesus never die nor do they arrive in heaven and wait for later trains to bring their friends. There is no time in eternity. It is one joyous Today.
The Puritans believed in dying well – leaving no good deed undone and no proper sentiment unspoken. I tried to be the best friend to my dad in his last few years. And I tried to represent my Lord and faith. Now he is in his God’s hands, since salvation is ultimately God’s business and only he knows for certain who enjoys eternity with him. But there is a finality in death that is so unnatural it screams for eternity. And there is a joy in life that is so natural it longs for eternity. I hope you have ears to hear and eyes to see eternity all around us. To my dad, I say goodbye. I long to see you Today.
1Thus Spake Zarathustra, 286.14-16