That statement, and the gut-wrenching events wrapped up in it, confronted me and my wife, Glenda, as well as our entire family, with a gauntlet of grief through which we never would have chosen to pass.
Though I had followed Christ since I was a teenager and have served Him in vocational ministry all my adult life, I had no say in this matter. The storms Jesus said come to all had torn through my world with a force and fury that was sure to blow away everything that wasn’t nailed down. Amid numerous “scattered showers” along the way–some of which were certainly intense–the big one had now hit. The question was, what would endure in our lives?
This was the same point Christ pressed as He concluded the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5-7:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell–and great was its fall (Matthew 7:24-27).
Daddy’s death unfolded in a manner similar to those of many aging parents. He had been under treatment for a serious heart condition for a number of years, but his health had especially declined as he approached 80. The man who was once strong enough to carry me on his shoulders became so weak that he himself had to be carried. Because of strokes he had suffered, the one who had seldom lacked for words became unable to utter a single intelligible one. Through it all, Daddy’s faith in Christ remained strong, and his cheerful spirit still shone. Nonetheless, his final days here resembled, for me, that trying season that the writer of Ecclesiastes describes, which winds down to the cryptic conclusion: “For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street” (Ecclesiastes 12:5).
Then, the day after Daddy’s funeral, at about 9:30 in the evening, the phone call came.
“Mr. Parrish?” said a person identifying herself as a sheriff’s deputy.
The deputy explained that she was calling from California where our son Nathan was working as a camp counselor. Because the camp was in a remote area and Nathan had been with us a couple weeks before Daddy died, we had agreed he wouldn’t make the trip back to North Carolina for Daddy’s funeral. He had already said his farewell and would be reunited with his grandfather one day in the presence of their mutual Lord and Savior.
The deputy went on to say that Nathan had been missing for a number of hours and that their department had been called to search for him in the rugged mountains surrounding the camp. She reported that, during some time off from work, he had gone rock climbing–a sport at which he was quite accomplished. He had been climbing on a rock face several hundred feet above its base and, with the winds blowing hard, had fallen.
Then, after pausing, she said, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this over the phone. He is deceased.”
I listened quietly for a moment, the message sinking into my brain.
Nathan … deceased.
What a strange and stunning pairing of words.
What finality there was in them.
They did not allow for the possibility that he might somehow recover from the injuries he had sustained. They did not leave any opportunity for anything else to be said or done.
They just put a punctuation mark–an inerasable, immoveable period–on the end of his life. And now those of us left behind would have to deal with it.
In that instant, our family was plunged headlong into an ocean of grief deeper than anything we were already experiencing in the wake of Daddy’s passing. This grief was like sliding off the continental shelf and sinking into the abyss.
What do you do when a lightning bolt strikes your world and explodes it into pieces? I paced the room with my arms lifted to heaven, uttering from the depths of my soul a guttural prayer for help, “Oh God … oh God … oh God …” For me, this was a time to cast myself upon the One I had followed, the One I had represented and preached about all these years, and to lean hard upon His “everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27). Only He could carry us through this nightmare.
And carry us He has. Grief makes you live one breath at a time … one moment at a time … one step at a time. Doing so doesn’t mean that you’re not experiencing the grace God promises. To the contrary, it’s the grace of God that enables you to get out of bed in the morning and to do so without throwing up, or to continue functioning even when you do. It’s the grace of God that enables you to handle the hard things–viewing the body of your child, picking out his burial attire and taking care of all the other arrangements that go with tending to the remains of someone who has departed this world.
Grief has been defined as pain over loss. My personal opinion is that no grief is quite like the grief over the death of one’s child. No matter how much those who have never faced it may imagine, it is not similar to going through the death of some other loved one or friend; it isn’t comparable to losing a beloved pet or anything else. It’s in a class all by itself.
And even the death of one’s child doesn’t put on hold the other pressures that come as part of life in a fallen world. Daily news broadcasts still announce unsettling events; people can still disappoint and betray you; bills still arrive in the mail. In short, life goes on–only, for those who are grieving, its challenges are compounded. But in the face of it, the sustaining grace of God is also real.
Real, too, is the fact of Christ’s ultimate triumph over the grave in His resurrection. Christ’s resurrection announced that His sacrifice for our sins was ample and acceptable in God’s sight. When faced with the death of loved ones, or with our own, we have no greater need than the assurance that their sins, and ours, are forgiven.
Through Christ’s death on the cross, God has made forgiveness and assurance available to anyone who will turn away from their sins and believe in Him with childlike faith. The knowledge that Nathan had made this commitment has helped to make his death and absence from us more bearable. How much more ghastly it would have been to think that he was separated not only from us, but also from God, for all eternity!
Christ’s resurrection also holds the only resolution for so many of the regrets, injustices and mysteries that life in a fallen world inevitably involves. If we’re honest, all of us struggle with those things in one way or another. The only way we can stare them in the face and not become distracted, absorbed and overwhelmed by these here-and-now struggles is by looking ahead to the day when all who are Christ’s followers will, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:11).
In the weeks following that fateful call about Nathan, some well-intentioned people urged us to find solace in our memories of him. To a degree that was helpful; we do have many fond memories of his time with us, for which we are grateful. But true consolation requires more than memories. In fact, memories alone can intensify the pain of a loved one’s death and haunt rather than console. Christ’s resurrection moves us beyond dead memories to living hope–hope of seeing our believing loved ones again and, more important, hope of dwelling for all eternity in the glorious presence of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Without this hope, memories of a departed loved one are a pitiful prelude to an eternity of unspeakable despair.
A few days after Daddy’s and Nathan’s deaths, I sat on our patio under a mild Carolina winter sky reflecting on the stunning blur of sorrow that had so swiftly befallen us, like some giant meteor crashing down on our world from outer space. I did not presume to try to understand it all. Those whose well-being is limited by what they can figure out will never, this side of heaven, be well, “for now we see in a mirror dimly” and know only in part what, later, we will fully know (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Still, though, my soul had come to rest on a certain core of unshakable conviction:
Jesus is enough.
Jesus is the only One who is enough.
In fact, Jesus is more than enough.
Simply put, that’s my story–it’s one of knowing God through His Son, Jesus Christ, even through the greatest storm of my life.
It’s one of proving that life in Him truly endures, no matter what happens.
And now, in an even greater way than ever before, it’s one of comforting “those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).