How did you survive losing every member of your family of origin by the time you were twenty-eight? How did you handle that—when the last one died?
“Nannie’s dead.Aunt Nannie is dead!” I kept saying it over and over to myself and shaking my head.I couldn’t believe it, and yet I knew it was true.I had just seen her body at the funeral home.
I felt sick in the lower part of my stomach—empty. My throat was tight. I wanted to cry but could not because of a lifetime of conditioning to “be a man.” But I had not expected such a strong reaction. After all, Mother, Dad, and my only brother had all died or been killed over ten years before.And Nannie was only my aunt.
No, she wasn’t “onlyan aunt.” She had lived with us for fifteen years during my grade school and high school years. She had helped spoil me and had given me almost continuous approval (or acceptance when she did not approve) all my life. Now she was gone, and a great sadness had come over me. I knew that whatever good God may have for Christians, Nannie would now have. So I wondered why my grief was so deep. But all I could do was drive around the town, which had changed so much, and show our children where Aunt Nannie had lived. And I knew something was dying inside me.
It was five months later when I finally realized why my grief was so deep when Nannie died. I had loved her very much, but there was something more. The day before, we had received the initial copy of my first book,The Taste of New Wine.I was very excited. I had secretly wanted to write a book since I was a small boy. I didn’t think many people would read it, but that did not matter.
I started instinctively for the telephone to call and tell . . .whom? Then it hit me. Everyone who had known me as a child in our home was dead. There was no one to tell who would understand about the dreams and hopes of a little freckle-faced boy who had always tried to look tougher than he was.
When I got in bed that night, I lay there in the dark and began to weep for the first time in years. A great wave of loneliness came over me. I realized that all the memories of our home had died with Nannie . . . except mine. I was alone with my past. But the flood of grief was a great release.
The next morning I could see that the previous night I had stepped across one of the many small streams that separate children from adulthood. And although in one sense I was alone with my past, in another I was not at all—God had been with me as a small boy with my hopes and dreams and is with me still. In a sense, the Lord and I will always share the memories of the past. In Him not only Nannie but Mother, Dad, and my brother Earle, may in some way that is beyond my understanding still share these memories with me. And in any case I was not alone that morning with my past.
I had never seen before this aspect of Christ’s amazing statement, “I am with you always, even until the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20 KJV)—that his presence is really the thread which runs through the memories in a Christian’s life, holding the years together, giving them unity of meaning like a string of pearls. Without his continuing presence with each of us, fear, separation, and death would scatter the Christian family in the wind. And although at times I am still lonely, God’s presence and Christ’s promises help me not to feel so alone when I face my family’s death . . . and my own.
“The paths of glory lead but to the grave”—whether the “glory” be the conspicuous achievements (or perhaps only the conspicuousness) of the “great,” or the modest successes, or the “quaint deeds” of ordinary men. Not long ago I had occasion to visit a small church in a small town inVirginiawhere my father was pastor some fifty ears ago and where I spent an important part of my boyhood.My father was quiet and modest, a man of remarkable intelligence, humor, and charm and of quite extraordinary goodness, and I found that he was vividly remembered by the oldest members of the church. But the number of these is small and becomes smaller as each year passes, and quite soon no one at all will remember him. His name will be read for a while—as on a window in the church which they have dedicated to his memory—but the name will mean no more to those who read it than most of the names on the plaques and portraits of oldbuildings mean to us. Not only will he be silent, as he has been for nearly forty years, but he will no longer speak, for there will be no one to hear him. He will be forgotten. Here is perhaps the supreme pathos of human life—not that we die only but that any real and living memory of us must die too. Unless God is to raise us from death, it is in the end as though we had never been. Our dead have perished leaving no trace except our sad, if grateful, remembrance of them—and in the final reckoning no trace at all.
Death is the “last enemy,” and no man, however strong willed and defiant, no matter how stoical or wise, can wrest the final victory from its hands. Our only hope is in God. “Save us, Lord, or we perish”—perish finally and utterly, along with all we love and treasure.
John Knox, Life in Jesus Christ
Lord, thank you for not only healing the bad memories of the past through forgiveness but for preserving the good ones in the memory bank of your mind. Thank you for your awareness of our efforts and strivings, which sometimes seems to be the only thing that gives meaning when we fail. But thank you most of all that you have promised to take our hands when they can no longer reach out to you, and lead us through the doorways between death and life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:51-58