Ten years ago today, my father died. Below are the words that I spoke in farewell and tribute to my dad at his memorial service on January 25, 2001, in Roseville, Minnesota. Speaking them before 600 people was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The first part of this tribute was written at 30,000 feet above the North Pacific Ocean as I flew home from a vacation in Thailand.
The call you dread and fear and never expect comes. It’s mom. “Joann, your father died this morning. Please come home as soon as you can. I need you.” Like an arrow out of no-where, somewhere, it hits first the head, then the heart, and slowly the pain sinks into your bones. One day you’re relaxing on the beach, washing off the stress of a difficult term, and 24 hours later you’re wandering in a daze around international airports—Phuket, Bangkok, Narita—all jammed with people, and yet feeling so incredibly alone. The words keep shouting in your soul. “Joann, your father has died,” slamming against your bones and your organs and your skin like a bullet ricocheting around a steel cavern. You try to drive them away with polite conversation, with reading, with hymn-singing, hoping against hope that driving the words away will drive the reality away as well.
But then the words and reality force their way back and the pain starts again. “Joann, your precious father stepped into glory this morning.” “Joann, your wonderful father went home to be with his Savior.” With every fiber of my being I believe these words, but don’t want to believe them at the same time. He was a precious father, but now he is lost in wonder, love and grace in the presence of Jesus.
Yet here at 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, I feel just plain lost. Lost in sadness. Lost in pain. I know he’s with his Savior, but I want him here with us. How will I get through the next ten hours on this plane? How will I bear to see my mom and sister and her family at the end of this long journey? One hour at a time, one grace at a time. “He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater; He giveth more strength as the labors increase. To added affliction, He addeth more more mercy; to multiplied sorrows, He multiplies peace.” Then it hits me. Despite the pain, I too am lost in love and grace. Sustaining grace–John Piper describes it like this: “Not grace to bar what is not bliss, nor flight from all distress, but this—the grace that orders our trouble and pain, and then in the darkness is there to sustain.” Will the sadness and the tears and the pain ever go away? Probably not. But then again, neither will the grace.
So, my beloved dad is gone. What to say? The words that scream loudest from my soul are simply, “please come back.” I know he's in a better placee, but I still want him back here. There are too many words and no words. But following are a few—just a few of the special things I remember about my dad.
He had a sense of humor. He loved to laugh and make others laugh, and he was never in danger of taking himself too seriously.
He was a servant. He would do anything for anybody anytime anyplace, from bringing coffee to my waking mom every morning to fixing church roofs to shoveling neighbor’s driveways.
He was humble. In a stuffy academic world, he was just himself.
He was generous. If there was a financial need, he gave. His giving to us seemed limitless and it gave him great joy.
He was compassionate. His heart was tender and easily broken by the pain and suffering in the world. Last month in Beijing, we visited a clothing market that the government was ready to close down. The peddlers were selling their goods at rock-bottom prices. In a crowd frenzied over the best bargain, he kept asking, “what will happen to these poor people?”
He loved Jesus. Quietly and simply, he ordered his life grounded in that love.
He was a wonderful father and I miss him so very much.
Perhaps the greatest tribute I can give will be when I come to the end of my days and people say of me, simply, “she was just like her father.”
Goodbye Dad. I love you and miss you more than words can express.
(Ten years later, and there there is not a day that I don't think of him and miss him. )