Thursday, September 19, 2013

Perhaps Patricia

At the beginning of 1959, just before my Dad was to set sail from Port Arthur, Texas, for Bombay, India, he stopped for a few days with his elder sister, Mary, who lived in Texas at the time.

And he got to meet and know Mary's eldest child, Patricia. Patty.

Dad forged a bond with Patty in that short time that remains to this day. As a matter of fact it's flitted through my mind, like a breeze through sheets hanging on a clothes line on a fragrant summer afternoon, that the warmth of Dad's affection for his little Patty predisposed him - a stranger in a strange land - to look toward a familiar name when he heard it, to look in the direction of another girl named Patricia, a girl with brown eyes and an enormous heart who would become his wife a couple of years later.

My eldest cousin, Patty stayed with Dad for the last few days and was with us yesterday, the sixth anniversary of Mum's death.

Eight yellow flowers growing on one stem ...

Both our Patricias know what it is to suffer. Like Mum, Patty has undergone brutal treatment for cancer - and, also like Mum, her indomitable spirit and her deep strength of character have carried her through.

Like Mum, Patty is warm and loving.

She's quick and funny.

She connects with people.

She came along with Dad to the Manor on Tuesday and to our Wednesday TH Bible study yesterday - the actual anniversary of Mum's death. 

Dad is guiding us through Paul's tiny letter to Philemon on Wednesday evenings - you'd think that it would take one study, right?! But Dad is revealing a wealth of meaning and such a source of challenge and comfort through this little book.

This Wednesday he addressed three topics: Prayer, Human Nature, and The Providence of God, all as seen in the letter to Philemon.

The providence of God has been defined by Henry C. Thiessen in his book Lectures in Systematic Theology:

Etymologically, the word “providence” means foreseeing. From this basic
idea has developed the meaning of providing for the future. But in theology
the word has received a more specialized meaning. In this field, “providence”
means that continuous activity of God whereby he makes all the events of
the physical, mental, and moral realms work out his purpose, and this
purpose is nothing short of the original design of God in creation. To be sure,
evil has entered the universe, but it is not allowed to thwart God’s original,
benevolent, wise, and holy purpose. [Emphasis added is the part Dad quoted.]

(1989: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 122 ff)

Dad asked the question "If God is not the author of sin, how do we explain the horrible acts of sin if God is ruling over all? How is God related to [humankind's] sinful acts?"

Providence, Dad went on to say, is manifest in four ways:

Preventative Providence, where God restrains a person from the sin he or she is intending to commit: Genesis chapter 20 verse 6 is an example of this.

Permissive Providence is where God sometimes permits sin to take its course: the book of Acts chapter 1 and verse 16, and Psalm 81 verse 12 is God telling how He let people go their own way.

Directive Providence is where God allows evil to occur, but He directs the way it goes in order to accomplish His will: John 13:21-27 is the tragic vignette where Jesus tells Judas Iscariot to "do quickly" what he intends to do.

Restrictive Providence reveals God determining the limits to which evil and its effects may go: the book of Job chapter 1 verse 12, and chapter 2 verse 6 shows God saying to Satan, "So far, but no further."

In the letter to Philemon Paul is pleading with his friend for mercy to be extended to the latter's runaway slave, Onesimus. In the 15th verse Paul says, with great gentleness and insight, Perhaps he left you for a while so that he would return to you forever ...

The word perhaps in Philemon opens the door to the doctrine of Providence, Dad commented.

The other notable occasion the sense of this word is used is in the little book telling the story of Queen Esther: Esther chapter 4 and verse 14 gives us Mordecai, Esther's uncle, speaking to her fairly sternly regarding her responsibility to her people. "Who knows whether [Perhaps] you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"

There is more written in the Bible about the providence of God than about creation, Dad observed; and yet the word itself is never used. God cares about every aspect of our lives - if it's big enough for you to be concerned about, it's big enough for God to be concerned about. He has known us and cared about us from before we were born.

As I sat across the room from my beautiful cousin, who had no idea when she planned her itinerary that she would be here on such a significant date to our part of the family, I thought of her and my arms entwined as we shed tears and supported each other in remembering our mothers at Mum's graveside. I thought of the songs we sang, BA, Dad, Patty and I, into the sting of cold air that held no victory that day. 

For each one of us who has watched helplessly while a dream dies and we are left with a yawning hole stretched out before us, perhaps there is more to this story as we trace the providence of God working its mysterious way through our life? I think of my own life, of dreams that shattered or shifted last year and this one. Now, in hindsight, I can see the hand of God smoothing the way for me, guiding me in a new way, restoring my soul in ways I could not have imagined at the time.

And I thought to myself, Perhaps Patty was with us on this particularly hard anniversary, both for us and for her?

"Praise the Lord for the word perhaps ..." Dad ended.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

This Time Last Year

At exactly this time last year I was standing at the foot of your bed, watching you. Your eyes were closed, and your breathing was belaboured again. I was just wondering if I should call the nurse to suction out your airwaves when she appeared. 

As she prepared to do what she had to do, you naturally became agitated. I slipped to the right side of your bed as she worked on the left, and I gripped one of your enormous hands with both of mine.

"Brian, it's okay. This will make you feel better. Try to relax ..."

Suddenly I felt your hand gripping back, the pressure increasing as the suction tube invaded your throat. Your eyes opened and you looked sidewards to your left at me. Our eyes locked and great drops of sweat broke out on your forehead. Your eyes mirrored the pain you were in, and my "encouraging words" faded into suddenly thin air. We just stared at each other, hanging on for dear life.

When it was over, you looked at me. Thank you, you said, softly but distinctively. Your eyes fluttered shut, exhausted. 

I got a cool, damp facecloth and gently wiped your forehead, allowing the refreshing cloth to rest on the top of your head as I had seen your beloved Char do countless times.

That was the last time I was to see your blue, blue eyes. 

Those were the last words you spoke, as far as we know.

It was just like you to express gratitude with your fading breath!

I had stopped by your room at about 10 pm on September 3, armed with my Daily Light and a soft pashmina shawl. I had arrived back from Calgary half an hour earlier and suddenly felt strongly that I needed to go to the hospital and spell Char off for a stretch.

Hesitantly I offered and gratefully she accepted. She was able to catch about four hours' sleep, which gave her the strength she needed to be beside you, watching you enter the gates of heaven the next morning.

The two nurses on duty during the night, Miriam and Karen, recognized my ignorance and incompetence while understanding my good intentions; they very kindly stopped by your room every single half hour to make sure everything was okay and to reassure both of us. 

I had been singing to you; praying for you and Char, and Rebecca and Bob; reading, both to you and silently; and just sitting at your side, wrapped in my pashmina, watching your face.

As you calmed and seemed to rest more easily, I sat back in the comfortable arm chair and became conscious of the comprehensive softness, the fluidity, of the shawl under which I was sheltering. And my mind flipped back to the previous Sunday, when Dad spoke from the book of Ruth. He focused on Boaz, the eventual husband of Ruth.

The story of Ruth from Moab is quite well known to many of us: she marries the handsome foreigner and is accepted by her mother-in-law; her husband, brother-in-law and father-in-law all die; her mother-in-law, Naomi, can't stand to be away from her home country any more so she tells her two daughters-in-law to go home and get on with their lives. They both demur, saying they'll stay with her. She insists; one goes back, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi (isn't it interesting that one of the most romantic passages often used in weddings is actually spoken by a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law?! Go figure ...).

In extreme brief: Naomi settles back into her community; Ruth sets out to get food for them and - it being harvest time - starts gleaning the left-over and missed crop in the fields of a wealthy land owner, who turns out to be a distant relative of Naomi; several exciting plot turns; Ruth and the wealthy land owner, named Boaz, get married and have a son, Obed, who has a son named Jesse, who has a son named David - and David becomes the second king of Israel.

What was of great interest to me, however, was what Dad had to say about Boaz's lineage. Boaz's father's name was Salmon. Salmon is derived from the root word simla, meaning garment or raiment. The book of Genesis, chapter 9 and verse 23 uses the same word, where two of Noah's son's took a garment and covered up their drunk, naked father. The word cover takes the meaning assuming the shape of the object beneath. The book of Deuteronomy chapter 8 and verse 4 exhorts the children of Israel to remember that for 40 years their garments didn't grow old or tattered on them. A soft garment doesn't care what size or shape you are; it takes your shape and offers protection and cover for you.

What Dad did then in the little Hanna church was get his childhood friend, Doreen, up on the platform. Then he gently placed a soft pink shawl over her shoulders. The shawl immediately adjusted to her posture and the angle of her back - it took her shape. The same shawl would look quite different on someone else, Dad commented.

The shawl reminded Dad of what God did for us. The book of Romans chapter 8 and verse 3 tells us that God sent his own son, who took on the shape of sinful humankind - our own personal simla! - and became the offering for our sin. Jesus himself covers us, protecting us from the dreadful consequences of our own wrong doing, if we accept his offer of salvation. Just like Ruth in the fields of Boaz, there is nothing we can do to earn this covering; all we have to do is accept it.

I was thinking of all of this when I sat at the foot of your bed, Brian, after the nurse had left. And on impulse I rose, unwrapped my soft shawl from around me and placed it gently over your torso and legs. You were lying so still, the only sound in the room your stertorous breathing. The shawl settled into the hillocks and hollows of your shape under the covers - it took on your shape. I prayed then into the silence, asking God to cover you with his protection and peace and rest. I asked him to assure you of his covering as you walked through that last valley.

Your breathing eased and you slipped into sleep. I left the shawl where it lay and stood watch over you until it was time for me to leave. There was no need for lung clearing for the rest of my time with you.

And I realized that these hours with you and with God comprised one of the most holy, one of the most peaceful, nights I had ever spent. I had been given the inestimable privilege of standing at the foot of your bed, knowing I was standing on holy ground: God himself was covering that whole room. His protection never left your room until he took you with him the following morning...

Your dear Char crept back into the room somewhere between 3:00 and 3:30 and was with you for the rest of your journey here on earth.

Char's new toy!
She's doing okay, Brian. She is a woman of uncommon valour and courage. She is picking up the pieces of her life without you and is pressing on. The latest step on her journey is a camper she got in order to continue enjoying one aspect of life that you two enjoyed together for as long as you could. She helps out at the TH whenever I need her and she is taking on new academic and professional challenges. You would be so proud of her.

In many ways, you each - notable, independent people in your own separate right - had provided that soft, adaptable covering, that uncommonly delicate layer of protection, for each other. 

Her earthly covering has indeed been removed with your death; but she is finding solace, more and more, under her heavenly simla. She has always placed her confidence and trust in her heavenly Father; now she is claiming, from the yawning crevasse of her sorrow and loneliness, the promise from the 91st Psalm, "He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings shall you trust ... because you have made the Lord your habitation."

As tenderly as God covered you in your hospital room, Brian, he is covering her in her life after you.  But you are never far from her thoughts and always in her heart.

And oh, how she misses you ...