With you, my readers, I have shared some of the most intimate and embarrassing experiences of my life. Today I have decided to tell you how God spoke to me at Christmas during one of the great tragedies of my life. The tragedy is the story of my father's death.
After a mischievous childhood, Daddy answered the call to the ministry and then struggled to get the necessary education in the midst of the Depression. His parents were poor farmers, yet 11 of their 14 children graduated from college, with many serving as teachers, preachers, and missionaries.
My father wrote a little book, "Struggling Upward," which recounts the sacrifices his family made for the sake of the Christian education of their children. (I used to tease Daddy, reminding him that his family had spent a lifetime struggling to get off the farm and into a better way of life, but with one fell swoop here I was back on the farm -- and indeed struggling.)
After a childless marriage, Daddy's first wife died of pneumonia, just before the discovery of penicillin. Though Grandma paid people to pray against it, Daddy persuaded Mama to marry him despite the fact that he was 17 years older than she. When other folks his age were having grandchildren, Daddy and Mama started a family. I remember how delighted we all were when folks would tell Daddy what fine grandchildren he had. And Daddy was proud of us children and loved us dearly. Most of all, he told us so.
Of course, I respected my father because he was so nearly perfect. Though it likely damaged his mental health, he never allowed himself to show anger or to say an unkind word about any person. He was jolly and knew more corny jokes than the "Hee Haw" writing staff. What's more, he told them at every opportunity.
He was full of love, at peace with himself and others and just plain wise. He had both great courage and compassion. He kept a diary all his life, and he ended almost every day's account with this statement or a similar one: "I pray that as I go along my life is counting something for the good of others and for the Lord." This was the sincere prayer of his life.
But with age, Daddy's health began to fail. During Christmas of 1968 he had several serious heart attacks due to hardening of the arteries. He continued to preach until retirement and enjoyed several years of retirement. Then the hardening of the arteries began to affect his brain, and Daddy became depressed. In the summer of 1972, his mental condition deteriorated rapidly, but the doctor said not to worry -- that it was age. When Daddy could no longer stand the depression, the anger and the confusion, he committed suicide. It hurts me deeply still just to write these terrible words.
Though I tried to hold onto my faith in God during the weeks that followed, there was no answer at all to my questions of why: of why a supposedly good God let this happen to one of his most faithful servants; of why God did not listen when Daddy spent several hours of his last night on his knees in prayer, pleading for help.
As our troubled family planned for Christmas, our one hope was that the stone we had ordered could be put up at his grave before Christmas. That seemed terribly important. The stone was to have two simple crosses and the inscription, "He was a good man." Then Mama called a few days before Christmas to let us know that indeed the stone was up.
As the farmer and I drove to Spencer, North Carolina, on Christmas Day, we talked little but just listened to the secular Christmas music on the radio. Of course, we went to the cemetery first. As we drove in to the cemetery and stopped before the beautiful stone, a miracle happened. After hours of only light Christmas tunes, at that very moment as I wept before my father's grave, the radio began playing, majestically and triumphantly, the hymn "Faith of our Fathers." I listened to the lyrics, "Faith of our Fathers! living still in spite of dungeon, fire and sword. O how our hearts beat high with joy whene'er we hear that glorious word! Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee till death."
The song that the angels sang to the shepherds one Christmas many years before could not have been lovelier or more needed than was the message of that hymn. The faith that my father had lived by was real. We could continue to trust the God of Love with our lives and even with our Daddy's soul.
Now cynics are already saying that this was nothing more than a coincidence. It is when we start calling them coincidences that we say there are no longer miracles. But as we left the cemetery and the radio resumed playing light melodies, divine peace calmed my heart. As I've pondered this event, I know that God used the air waves that Christmas to remind me of his best news. God never has fully answered my questions concerning my father's death, but the gift of His presence was far more precious.
As my faith was renewed, I began to live again.