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Rick Blunt: When a Pastor’s Atheist Father Dies During Holy Week

Guest blog by Richard (Rick) Blunt, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Lowell, Michigan. Rick is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and Western Michigan University. He has a background in teaching and administration, having once been a school teacher and a school principal. Rick has pastored United Methodist churches in Michigan for over 20 years (if my calculations are correct, it will be 29 years this summer — counting a student pastorate). Rick’s wife, Natalie is a physical therapist assistant in Grand Rapids, and they have two children, Michelle and Nate. Rick is lover of all the arts, especially watercolor paintings, theatre, and music. He is an aspiring calligrapher. He loves spending time with family.

Rick is a colleague and friend, who posted the following reflection on his father’s death this morning on FaceBook. I am posting it here because I thought it should have a wider circulation.

I walked the road of duty and grief during Holy Week. My father died early Maundy Thursday morning. It’s been a rocky road for my dad and me. I was never the son of which he dreamed. He wasn’t able to be the father I needed.

His alcoholism had its consequences: for his body, for his relationships, for our family. His atheism meant he never understood my call to ministry, meant he felt my skills and abilities were wasted. There was tension. There were years of silence that eventually gave way to polite conversations. Our contacts were limited to an annual get together for a few hours at Clementine's restaurant on the banks of the St. Joe River after Christmas. We exchanged cards at birthdays and I always tried to find a Father’s Day card that didn’t say “You’re the best dad in the world.” 

My dad was a loner. He hardly knew my wife, Natalie, and essentially never knew our two, now grown, children. He wasn’t interested in seeing his only grandchildren play sports or perform in concerts. He chose to be distant and alone.

In 25 years of ministry, he only heard me preach once, when he showed up unannounced at worship in my small, northern lower Michigan congregation. When I stepped into the pulpit, there was the man whom I had been dealing with in therapy for years. His presence was obvious in that congregation where everyone knows everyone, and where everyone usually sits. I felt violated by his invasion of my carefully drawn emotionally safe boundaries. I didn’t know my dad well. We shared little in common and our values were different.

there are obligations, duties, and responsibilities that come with being a child, which I share with two sisters. My older sister lives near him and spent considerable time checking on our stubborn and independent father over the past years. Dad’s illnesses got worse in February. I spent days downstate helping with details to get him hospitalized, then into a nursing home, and a slew of paper work complicated by dad’s isolation, privacy and rapidly increasing dementia.

I went willingly but didn’t expect anything. This was simply obligation work. Duty. A son’s responsibility. It was tiring and draining. It was time consuming and frustrating to deal with the mix of medical, governmental and legal institutions, that often conflict and rarely know how to interface with one another.

On Tuesday afternoon of Holy Week, situations arose so that I needed to make time to meet with hospice on Wednesday morning. I didn’t want to go. I had plenty of excuses — after all, I am a preacher and it was Holy Week. I went anyway. 

I spent nearly 4 hours with dad on Wednesday morning. Mostly in silence. He didn’t speak. His eyes were glassy. I wasn’t sure he knew who I was. It didn’t really matter. I was just doing what had to be done.

Sitting in his stark room in the nursing home, I thought of the women who came to the tomb on Easter morning. They came mostly out of obligation and duty, doing what had to be done. They weren’t expecting anything.

On that obligatory Wednesday morning,
for the first time I can ever remember, my dad wanted to hold my hand. So we did. Not because of any great emotional bond, but out of duty. A son beside with his dying father. I held his hand. I knew he was transitioning. I tried to convince myself that this was just a pastor doing a pastoral visit. Nothing more. 

I turned up the volume on his iPod -- a collection of his favorite music -- so that it was loud enough for him to hear. I felt sorry for him as I watched him dying, few friends…and without a Savior or faith to lean into. A Christian song came on his self-selected play list. Had he come to faith?, I wondered. I watched him quietly.
My father, yes, but in many ways a stranger.

Then I did what we preachers become experts at doing… I moved all those feelings and emotions to the back burner… after all, it was Holy Week. There were obligations. Other duties called. I wanted to get back to my congregation in Lowell, an hour and half north. I wanted to be with the children in our after school Kids’ Club that afternoon, though I’d made contingency plans in case I could be back. The bulletins needed to be finalized. Services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. I was too busy preaching death and resurrection to deal with dying, especially in my own family.

call came early Thursday morning. Dad died sitting up in his bed listening to his music. I waited until sun up to tell Natalie and notify the kids. I decided I didn’t want it put out on the church or conference prayer chain that day. I didn’t want any focus on dad’s death while trying to do Holy Week. I needed to focus all my time and energy into leading worship over the next four days. I dove into the details of services for the Holy Triduum and Easter.

Sometimes the obligations of life are our escapes. Sometimes busyness is our coping mechanism. Whatever it was, whatever it is…I stuffed my feelings and emotions. Figured I could process them after Easter. Come Monday, I could sort it all out, try to make sense of it.

My sermon for the night of my dad’s death was well down the homiletical path when the news arrived. I was going to focus on Maundy Thursday meaning “mandate” Thursday, lifting up Jesus’ mandate to love one another like he’d love them. He, who that very night, humbly washed the feet of his friends who would betray him, deny him and desert him, then ate with them. He allowed Judas to have a seat of honor. “Love like that,” Jesus commands. 

All I could think and hear as I prepared and preached was,
“Rick, love your father -- the one who was never what you wanted and needed from a father, the one who hurt you and from whom you never got the desired affirmation -- love him the way Jesus loves you.” If Jesus could love love Judas and Peter and all the rest, can’t I love and forgive my father? Even more, if Jesus didn’t give up on those disciples, would he ever give up me or my dad?

Through those days before Easter, in the midst of the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Dark Saturday, I felt like I was on my Emmaus Road. Present but not fully there. Going through motions. I walked the community Good Friday Cross Walk from the front steps through town to the cemetery. I preached the crucifixion on Friday night. And Saturday I struggled mightily with what to preach, how to preach, how to understand resurrection in the face of an my dad’s death.
Was the Good News really bad news for my dad? Did the fact that I didn’t know of my father’s faith and no one heard his confession mean he is doomed to hell? I was sad that dad never knew the joy and comfort of living surrounded by a faith community.  

I wrote a cathartic sermon that grew organically out of my struggle. Then I edited it late Saturday night, removing the personal portions and keeping the parts that applied universally. I didn’t want Easter to become focused on my personal struggle, but a celebration and proclamation of the Easter Good News. Most in the congregation hadn’t even heard of my dad’s death, and those who knew didn’t know the full story.

Here’s how I ended the sermon (in the first draft form, with the personal stuff): 

I think this Easter morning has dawned with great surprise for my father.
  I think that the One who dined with Judas, 
     who would come back to Peter
        and give him opportunity to redeem his three denials
            and who would bless his disciples who abandoned him...
  I think that the One who from the cross forgave those crucifying him 
        and who promised the thief a place in paradise...
  I think that the One who met the women in the midst of their routine and duty
       and walked beside those followers, giving up and heading home...
I believe that 
                 that God never gave up on my father.
I believe that that God
never gives up on any one of us.
I believe in redemption.
I believe in forgiveness.
I believe our God is not bound by time or space or chronology.
I believe
Jesus lives
             and that
his presence is made known to us in simple ordinary ways...
  when we do the things that just have to be done,
he is with us.
  when we walk and talk with friends,
he is with us.
  when we share meals with one another,
he is with us.
  when we are numbed by events and circumstances,
he is with us.
  when we’re exhausted and simply going through the motions,
he is with us.
  when we’re filled with doubts and can’t make sense of things,
he is with us.
  when our theology or doctrines can’t find a way,
he finds a way.
  when our Good Fridays come and we can’t see beyond the darkness,
he brings a light.
  when guilt haunts us and shame lingers,
he forgives and frees us.
  when hurts and wounds fester,
he heals us.
  when we come to this Table,
he knows our names
                                                    he knows our sorrows
                                                    he knows our feelings of unworthiness
he still loves us
invites us
offers his life for us.
I believe that when you and I come to this Table this morning, he will still meet us here.
when a non-believing, alcoholic, father reaches for his pastor son’s hand on his death bed...
            I believe God hears what we cannot hear or understand.

still meets us wherever we are...
   on the road, in our homes,
      filled with doubts, confused or fearful, angry or overwhelmed
             or filled with joy and compassion and overflowing with love,
                  in our healthiness or illnesses, in our living and in our dying...
I believe Jesus knows us before we know ourselves and God claims us before we claim God.

He is risen! Risen. Not just for us good church-going folks.
     He is Risen for real people
        who live in a messy world where nothing is perfect,
all need a Savior.
He is risen for that world, for those broken people...
            us broken people...
                     for you and for me...
                                     and for my dad.      
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Thanks be to God.

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