August: the month of school holidays (always), my holidays (sometimes) and sunshine (occasionally). It’s also the anniversary of my father’s death.
He hadn’t been answering his phone all day, so I went across in the evening and found him. There had been no warning, no preparation; no prior illness, no indication that we were about to lose him. Dad grew up in the mining area of South Yorkshire and, just like most males he knew, went ‘down t’pit’ at fourteen.
Many years later, when I was at university, he took me down with him to see what I’d escaped. I remember the cramped ‘cage’ that took us far into the earth, the long underground train journey to the seam being worked, the dust in the air, the rats and mice everywhere, the whitewashed walls. Most of all, I remember crawling into the seam itself — just a few feet high; not high enough to stand, sit or kneel properly. I remember being glad to get out. Years later, after they were both converted, Mum and Dad left South Yorks to be near us in Bournemouth. Mum died just seven weeks later. Dad lived another eighteen months, and, as that anniversary approaches, I’ve been thinking about what I learned from him.
I learned how good the ‘natural man’ can be. Dr Lloyd-Jones said his father was the best ‘natural man’ he ever met. I would say the same about mine. He adored his wife (whom he’d met when she was 14), worked hard for his family, doted on his grandchildren and lived a life of integrity. The hypocrisy of some professing Christians, indeed, did much to keep him from the faith for years.
I learned how little I have to complain about. I’ve been a pastor for more than 30 years, and it’s a calling with many stresses. Christians, believe me, your pastor is under stress and needs your support and prayers. But my life and working environment have never been as hard as the job Dad gave himself to year after year. I don’t have to work in coal dust and filth. I don’t have to crawl on my hands and knees. I’m unlikely to contract emphysema, as he (and many of his workmates) did. My office is bright, and comfortable, and sometimes even warm. I’m doing a job I love almost all the time; and directly serving the God I love all the time. I am blessed beyond measure. Dad taught me that.
I learned how grace can flourish late in life. One Tuesday night in 1983 our telephone rang. It was Dad, with the (almost unbelievable) news that he and Mum had both trusted the Lord. They were saved, and safe. I fear my witness to them had been poor, but my wife Elaine’s hadn’t and, at last, they were converted under the preaching and ministry of friends. There were so many changes. But most of all, I remember watching Dad’s grace in those last 18 months. How he pastored me when he must have been so lonely. More than once he said, ‘The day of your Mum’s death was appointed before she was even born. Nothing we could have done would have changed that; and she was so glad to die here with her family around her’. Then he’d say, ‘And now she’s with the Lord; we will see her again’. And I watched with amazement at how welcoming he was in the church, how he watched for strangers, spoke to them, sat with them, made them know he cared. Just a few days before he died, I said to Elaine, ‘You know, Dad is a real asset in the church here’. And he was, by grace — but not (humanly speaking) for nearly long enough.
I learned — but not early enough — not to take those I love for granted. What would you change, if you could? For me, it would probably be one of those times that Dad called unexpectedly and I was ‘too busy’. ‘Sorry, Dad, just going to…’ Well, there’s always next time. Then, suddenly, there wasn’t.
I learned that death really is an enemy. I was orphaned at 50 — not too bad, I know, compared to many. But then, suddenly, everything changed. No one there any more to ask questions about my childhood. No one there to share good news with. When our first granddaughter was born three or four years later, I think I actually said, ‘I’ll just go and tell Dad. Oh!’ John Piper writes somewhere that, even 14 years after his mother’s death, he could cry over her death on any given day. Somehow, we never get used to death; there is always with us the feeling that ‘this was not meant to be’. Surely, if evolution were true, we would have got used to death by now!
I learned afresh the hope of the gospel. Christians mourn with confident hope. Dad is absent from the body, but he is, thanks be to God, present with the Lord. I will see him again. I hope, by God’s grace, still to introduce him to the now three darling granddaughters. For Christ is risen and death is swallowed up in victory.
The author has pastored Moordown Baptist Church, Bournemouth, since 1997. He and Elaine have two grown-up children, who are both active in the church, and three granddaughters.