Missionaries are, by definition, people who are sent, which implies that we come from somewhere else. Leaving is part of the missionary life (see Luke 9:57-62). Leaving is an event, and it is also a state of mind. Sent to learn and serve in Rome, I left behind family, friends and community, relationships sustained by the thin connections of modern communication technology.
So it was with my parents. We spoke regularly, and saw each other whenever dad could get his temperamental iPad to work, but it wasn’t the same as sitting in the same room. During my time in Rome, dad downsized and moved to an apartment near my mom’s facility. My brothers were thankfully there to help, but as much as I tried to be part of it, I simply was not there.
This week, I returned for dad’s funeral. While we were not surprised that his frail body finally failed – the 200 meter walk to visit his beloved had recently been replaced by driving, so labored had his breathing become – I was counting on coming home this summer to see him, to say goodbye.
There have been other deaths while I was away too. The sister and brother of my children’s mother and my wife of many years died over these last months. Mary Anne died almost five years ago, so it marked the passing of a generation, and a major loss for us. Physical separation and grieving have been part of the fabric of my missionary life, threads of connection, remembrance and loss woven through the cloak of joy I have been given as I encounter Christ and seek to be good news among the saints on Rome.
As many of you know, the death of a parent is a major life event. While I am just beginning this season, I have received a reassurance of sorts. Death is painful separation and loss. As Christians, we are also called to live the hope of resurrection. While I have the same difficulty groping for words as Paul (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-39), like him, I am confident that death is not an end. I know my father lives. Because I feel his presence. It is a change, a transition to a new kind of relating, an unbounded communion of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14). Dad and I are together in a new way, a way that offers me a glimpse of the great multitude whose robes have been washed white in the blood of the lamb (Revelation 7:9-17). There is a continuity of life, of belonging, of love that transcends the physics of time and space (and this coming from a physicist!).
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12).