Today is my Dad’s birthday. It’s also the first of his birthdays since he died last June. So, while it’s still the day of his birth, it’s not his 63rd birthday, as it should have been. Instead, it’s the day after Easter – a day almost beatific as it basks in its spring-ness (were it not for the pollen), with a high of 73 degrees and clear blue skies. I recognize that there is a combination of factors here that could lead me very quickly into “online diary” territory (which I usually try to avoid), so I’ll go ahead and qualify whatever I may write below with all of the factors above.
Losing my dad last year was one of the most pivotal experiences of my life, for a number of reasons. Though I didn’t really see it before he died, I’ve got a lot in common with my dad. It was funny looking through his old photographs, connecting with him through images. I’m not sure if watching him make photographs, or seeing the photographs he made of the sky influenced me as a photographer, or if there was something we shared in always looking up.
As he died, I found that I had a way of connecting with people that I hadn’t before, something that grief opened up. I was, and am still, so grateful for the ways people poured out love on me and my family as we went through the process. I felt connected with people in grief, even in knowing that not everyone experiences grief in the same way. I appreciated those who let me sit and talk about losing my dad, and I hope that I’m now better equipped to sit and listen with people as they go through their grief.
More than anything, though, I think losing my dad helped me to continue to believe that there is something beyond this life, beyond my own experience. At some point toward the middle of my second year of seminary (in the spring of last year), I reached a point where I’d been neck-deep in theology, biblical studies, and church history for long enough that I started to accept the idea that this life may be all that there is, that religion was conceived as a way to make sense of life, to make it worth living in a fruitful way. I mean, thinking about something being beyond all of this gives a certain context to everything – it can give hope, accountability, trust in something bigger that is in control, that can make sense of this mess.
However, there was something about losing my dad that framed it all in a new way – religion no longer seemed to be about making sense of individual experiences as a connection to the beyond, but about making sense of the beyond as it breaks into individual experience – to the connection we feel with everything around us, even when it is no longer with us in the same way. I think back to a church history lecture, when my professor was talking about the experience of being with her father after he suffered a massive stroke, and how in being with him as he died, she realized what it meant for, (and I’m quoting here from the sermon of my friend and classmate Dawg Strong, who forwarded this to me shortly after my dad died):
“Christ to have taken on the “form” of flesh, to have assumed the pattern of what it means to be an embodied human being in addition to having his own physical form, and she had the sudden understanding that if God in Christ has taken on the flesh pattern and form of humanity, he resides in our flesh as well as in his own. That is more than Emanuel, than ‘God with us.’ It means that God was not just with my professor’s father as he experienced his stroke; God was in the stroke itself. It is true to say that the breaking of our hearts breaks God’s heart. It is even truer to say that God is [in] the breaking of our hearts.”
Our lives are lived individually – I am, in my flesh and bones, one individual. However, we experience this life as part of much, much more – connected with one another and with everything that lives and moves and has being, by something that goes beyond anything our individual bodies could possibly contain. It is in those moments of recognition of that “much, much more” that we, as my history professor would say, run up against the mystery; and all we are left to do is stand in awe of all that is.