Sunday, January 28, 2007

Taps

Why does “Taps” always remind me of Psalm 121?

A dear friend of a small town community is gone and buried now. Tom was his name. His life has stamped its mark on this earth, revealing indelible impressions on the people in his life. His beloved wife is still there, three sons and their wives, and 5 grandchildren. In addition, he left a town full of friends, and a lifetime rich with investment in all their lives. He is gone, and a hole remains.

Services were conducted in a small town church. Seating was tight, and folks were escorted to almost every nook and cranny of the old building. Perhaps as many as three times the population of the entire town showed up. Tribute was given, both solemn and merry.

He was interred on a hill overlooking a farming valley with striking, snow-covered peaks in the distance. The day was cold, but the sun cast a warmish brightness over the snow-covered hardscrabble surface. Trees framed the cemetery, mostly evergreens, dark green against the stark-white landscape. How good to consider life’s end.

I wrapped my muffler around my neck, and tugged at my hat to adjust the glare out of my eyes. Around my feet, my grandsons scratched and fidgeted in the frozen turf, waiting for the graveside service to begin. Family, townspeople, and friends from near and far gathered under the awning.

My pastor-son shared from Tom’s old Bible, reading the Lord’s Prayer, one of Tom’s favorite texts. Then a short, halting prayer and he was done. Simple words to end with – for a simple man, a humble man.

The military was on hand to honor Tom’s passing, as he was a WWII veteran, a paratrooper and bronze star recipient. Two honor guards took their places, one at each end of the flag-draped casket. The slow salute, and then the mournful tones of “Taps” resonated in the cold-crisp air.

Suddenly I could no longer look on the so familiar scene taking place before my eyes. Turning slightly to one side, I stared across the barren farmland and hills, my eyes no longer seeing clearly for their tears. And Psalm 121 came to me: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills . . .”

Perhaps it is the solemn tone of that Psalm that gets me – or maybe the sense of awe that encountering creation at life’s end engenders. I don’t know. But “Taps” and Psalm 121 go together like earth and sky, like moonlight and starlight, like clouds and rain.

Tom was a man who understood this. He too had been a shepherd, like the Psalmist, watching many a sheep wander around the pastures. And he had worked with his hands as a carpenter, struggling to meet the needs of family and hearth. And he had responded to the call of his Savior, himself a carpenter.

Tom had learned the way of humility.

The story my pastor-son told me was that it was one of Tom’s children who, as a young child, asked him a pointed question that helped Tom to respond to God’s call. The simplicity of a child penetrating the heart in conjunction with the Savior’s invitation. And Tom was graced with humility to receive that simple question – as the Savior’s call.

Humility. Where would Tom be today without it? For it made all the difference.

A loving family, a grateful town, many, many friends. From a life empowered by dependence on his Savior, and tempered by a humble spirit, Tom went about doing what he did, and the fruit was there for all to see that last day. People came by the scores and hundreds, bringing tribute.

Many years before, he had sat under other skies, waiting for battles to begin or end, waiting for the next jump, the next skirmish. Like the Psalmist, he had wondered if he would live through the next fight. What would the hills reveal, what would come from beyond them?

Psalm 121 tells us what the Psalmist was expecting:

I will lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.

And the rest of the Psalm speaks about being “kept” by the Lord. That simple humility of believing, that simple trust of confirmation when the Lord keeps us. Tom lived that.

Later, when the Lord spoke through his young son, he was ready to respond because his heart had been prepared on the foreign soils of Europe, in battles and firefights where he survived. He was ready because he had returned home having seen the sustaining help that appeared from beyond those hills.

The slow notes came to an end, drifting away across the quiet air, echoing slightly in the open space, yet swallowed up in its vastness. My grandsons were quiet now, watching the flag folding with solemnity and curiosity. For Tom was their friend as well.

After all was done, my pastor-son came out away from the awning a short distance, and turned to look back at the casket, now bare except for its spray of evergreens and winter flowers, a cowboy hat and carpenter’s measure added to indicate his vocation. He is a good man, my pastor-son. His eyes dripped tears as he looked back at the casket of the man he knew and loved as one of his parishioners, an elder in the church, a friend, and a father figure. I stood with him a moment, and then others came up to speak with him. Back he went, doing the work God has called him to – another humble man.

My grandsons obtained permission to run, and off they went across the snowy hills, chasing back and forth with Tom’s youngest grandson. Precious youthful life being appreciated, even as we celebrated one that was over.

Yes, all three of them will do well. Tom’s grandson is an heir of his grandfather, and my grandsons are heirs of their Dad – both humble men – both worthy men – both sons of their Father in heaven.

The Scripture tells us that it is good to consider our end: Better to go to a funeral than to a party. I found more life standing there on that windswept hill with my pastor-son and his sons, watching and listening as my Father spoke with His eternal wise-voice, than I have found at many an otherwise fun gathering.

Consider this: One day we will all meet our Creator. It is not a matter of “if” – for it is one of the great guarantees of life. If you aren’t sure of your end, then heed my recommendation, and start attending a few funerals. They’ll do wonders for your outlook.

3 comments:

Elise said...

It's as if I am there - I can see the tears, the cold, the grandsons fidgeting! This piece is so vivid, and very moving.
And in the words of Beth, from Little Women, "You ought to publish it, Jo, really, and not just in the Pickwick Portfolio!" :)
I pray that many people read this, and are moved and changed. Thinking of my end today, as the pancakes bubble, the baby sings from her highchair, and the boys play with their Daddy, it is so good, how much better it will be then!
Thank you for coming. I believe it was as much a blessing for you as it was for us - you cannot know Tom or anyone around him without being deeply moved.
Love you, my Papa.
t.d.

Stacey said...

I agree with Elise - I felt as if I was there. I wept as if I was there. It was so fitting for me to read this today since I had gotten to know Tom through Elise's blogging of late. And to be able to say good-bye to him through your post has blessed me.

Thank you for posting about my dad - but most of all thank you and your sweet wife for my dad, and our whole family. I know you KNOW our fears, and our worries.

I have a particular request of you Kevin, in your prayer for my Dad. If you would be willing. Since you have basically been in these shoes very recently, would you pray for my father's heart - that he would have a radical and sublime conversion to Christ. You know, he has come along way over the years, since I gave my life to Christ, but what I wouldn't give to hear him pray, to hear him vocalize his trust in our Lord, to hear him reference a bible! It is the major ache I have in my heart for him. And since you are Elise's Papa, and he is my Pops, I am just hoping you could stand in the gap for me on this one.

I feel such a kindred connection to your daughter - she has become such a sister-in-Christ. It blesses me to know you as well.

Elise said...

I just read this again, Papa, and cried all over the place. Thank you again for writing this.
Love you -
t.d.