When I was in university, I read Sigmund Freud's book, "The Interpretation of Dreams." In the book's introduction, I was struck by a paragraph where Freud talked about the impact upon him of the death of his father while he was working on the book. He characterized the death of one's father as "the most important event, the most poignant loss in a man's life." Now, that seemed like a strong statement to me at the time. What about Moms, I thought. And surely the statement tells us more about Freud than about anyone else. But his words came back to me last week as we tried to be present with Dad as he died.
So, what impact will Dad's death have on me, or on the rest of his family, and his relatives, and his friends who have gathered here today? Of course, a related and more upbeat question is, what impact has his life had on us? Maybe I will speak a bit about both.
I feel shaken by Dad's death, and part of this comes from how strongly I identified with him. Perhaps more than my brothers and sisters, I seemed to be like Dad both physically and emotionally. Certain arcs of our lives seemed to have parallels. We both had a lot of trouble dealing with adolescence, and dating, and finding love -– though Dad was smart and lucky, and he eventually found our remarkable Mom. If ever it can be said that Dad was a recipient of grace, I think it would be when Mary fell in love with him . . . and not just because Grace was the name of her Mom!
I also identify with Dad's call to ministry in the church, though I have been much more successful in resisting that call than him. Instead, I turned my spiritual enthusiasm into radical politics as a young man, and into other intellectual interests as an adult.
But mostly, I identify with a wavelength of anxiety that I perceive running through Dad's life and my own. And fortunately for me, I deeply appreciate how Dad learned to often handle his anxieties and come out the other side, to live so much of his life in joy, and in love, and in faith.
Dad wrote what is now his final sermon a few weeks ago. It was to have been delivered at his home church in Welcome this August, and it's about this topic of fear and anxiety. The night before his aneurysm burst and his ordeal in the hospital began, Dad gave Catherine an envelope at the train station that said, "To Catherine, Love Dad." When she asked what it contained, he simply said, "Read it on the train." So, she did. And since then, we have come to name this remarkable sermon as "Disaster is upon us; be of good cheer," But in reality its title is simply "Good Cheer."
Still, I like our title. After all, Catherine tells us that Dad spoke to her that day of an impending sense of doom – both for himself and for our society. And the sermon talks about our many social and personal disasters and tragedies, and how we might persevere in the face of those.
Like me, Dad was always waiting for disaster. And for him, it occurred the day after he gave that sermon to Catherine, as he was rushed to Peterborough in excruciating pain.
And yet, "Good Cheer." That was his message, based upon a line ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of John. Speaking to the disciples on the night before his execution, Jesus said, "In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."
Now, Dad notes in his sermon that the world has NOT been overcome. Our personal and social troubles persist, and we all face the certainty of pain, and struggle, and death. But while the world might not be overcome, Dad overcame his fears.
He was afraid to look for love, but nevertheless he found it, got married, helped to raise five kids, and gloried in his grandchildren. He was scared of public speaking, but he got into the pulpit thousands of times and delivered a Word of God. He was beset by all the doubts that any minister who has been through a modern seminary faces as they learn how their childhood beliefs are founded on sand; and how difficult a mature stance is in the light of modern knowledge and the amazing and dreadful moment of history that we are fated to live within. And yet, he carried his ministry through to the end.
We saw Dad triumph over his anxiety again in the hospital last week in Peterborough. Dad, unable to speak because of breathing tubes, often in discomfort, and stripped of almost everything, communicated his joy to us despite all that. On his third day in the hospital, after a 30-minute family conference where the doctor gave us very little hope that Dad would survive, and that the last-ditch therapy would mean deep sedation; we gathered in a circle around Dad. Essentially we were saying goodbye. Dad was awake. Mary put her hand on his forehead. Paul spoke to him. Dad waved his arms in recognition, he smiled, and he communicated his gratitude and his contentment to us all. It is one of my favourite memories ever of my Dad, and the last time that I saw him conscious.
Despite pain, despite imminent death, despite not being able to talk, Dad trusted in the moment; he focused on his blessings and on love. He focused on his family.
A key insight for me during my surprising return to the church these last six years has been about the word "faith." The word faith has about five different meanings in English, and my least favourite is to define it as belief in a set of incredible doctrines. On the other hand, my favourite definition of faith is as "trust:" trust in the universe despite its cosmic, awful mystery; trust in our bodies despite their pains and their finitude; trust in love despite our essential aloneness as individuals. In this sense, and in the face of his anxieties, Dad struggled all his life and every day to be a man of faith; and mostly I think he succeeded. In this best sense, Dad is my roots, my forerunner, and my role model. I treasure his memory in my heart. And I will miss him until the day of my death. Despite all the ups and downs in his role as one of our parents, I am filled with thanks that he was my Dad.
But I want to give him the last word in my remarks. So, here now is the closing paragraph of his "Disaster" sermon:
"Trouble in this world, Jesus said – no doubt about it. The world overcome? Hardly. But the word has gone out – "Fear not!" The road opens before us, the future is ours, the world waits, and wonders. "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." "If God be for us, who can be against us?" Who indeed? So pick yourself up, dust yourself off, take a deep breath, and go on. And – "Good cheer!!"
Ian Kellogg, July 2, 2007, Cobourg Ontario, Trinity United Church
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