My wife’s father passed away two days before Thanksgiving 2011. His name was Chub; that’s a nick-name. His given name was Arvin. The family rumor is that he was named after a truck heater; a fitting name for an over-the-road-trucker but, I think, not one to be made so public. But, the real truth is that his grandmother gave him that nick-name because he was a chubby baby; and aren’t they all?
We drove from Colorado to Frazee, Minnesota for Chub’s funeral. Along the miles and miles of road flanked by dairy farms, cattle ranches, wheat and corn fields, I had lots of time to think about death; my own in particular. There were signs along the highway in South Dakota urging me to “Prepare to meet thy God.” A word like that from Amos 4:12 also reminded me to watch my speed! Am I ready? How do you get ready? What is it like to know that you are dying? What promises from God’s word would be in my mind and on my lips? Will there be a door? A white light?
Part of my thinking about Chub’s last days was taken up with a comment by John Calvin about meditating on one’s personal eschatology, which is not particularly welcomed by our culture, nor is the topic given much room for contemplation. I think we could profit from Solomon’s wisdom: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccl 7:2).
A principle in Calvin’s understanding for growth in godliness included the practice of focusing on the eternal, rather than the temporal. Calvin taught that following Christ meant fixing our gaze on heavenly realities. According to Mark Shaw, “Calvin believed that we see 20/20 only when we focus on the vanity of this life with one eye and the glories of eternal life with the other.” This practice is not meant to be a morbid meditation. It isn’t even meant to be the only thing we think about. After all, Calvin also practiced enjoying all the good things God created. He had rules for the “holy use” of the things of creation, like food, recreation, and so forth, to guard the heart from making God’s good gifts into idols.
But it was one small sentence that made me think of Chub’s last twenty-four days as he struggled for life. Major organs were shutting down. He needed to be resuscitated. He needed dialysis. He needed a miracle. One day he’d be up, getting a bath; the next he was out and unaware of his surroundings.
Chub was a big, strong man. When I first met him, it was obvious that we came from two very different worlds. He was raised in rural Minnesota working a farm with his father and many brothers and sisters. I was raised in a city just north of New York City. If it had an engine Chub could fix it when it broke down. Chub could diagnose what was wrong with a car’s engine just by listening to it and repair it blindfolded. I knew that cars had things called engines and mostly where they could be found.
One very frigid Minnesota winter’s day, Chub heard about an old truck with a very special kind of engine in it. He, and his brother Bill, and Bill’s son Ronnie, thought they should go see this very special motor. Chub asked me to go and I agreed. We drove for two hours in below zero temperatures across the snow packed white landscape of northern Minnesota to a desolate spot of land with a farm on it. Old cars, rusty tractors, and engine-less trucks were lined up in rows like a car dealership.
The owner of the frozen car lot met us and we all walked over to look at this very special one-of-a-kind engine. The farmer opened the hood and there was the engine – right where it was supposed to be. Chub, Bill and Ronnie inspected it with great delight. They pointed, and commented, scratched their chins, and were generally very impressed by what they saw. Even I could tell this was a very special engine, all right. Mind you, I had absolutely no idea what made this hunk of metal so special, but they knew it was. Of course, no one had any intention of buying it; the farmer was asking too much and wouldn’t budge on the price. But Chub, Bill and Ronnie reveled just at looking at this very special engine.
They thanked the farmer and Chub said it was time for lunch. So, we got back in the car, drove across the frozen wastes of northern Minnesota to a diner where we ate hamburgers, french fries and drank the weakest coffee made anywhere in the U.S.A. Minnesotan Scandinavians don’t like their coffee strong, or mild for that matter. I have insisted for years that they boil water and wave a bean or two over it and call it good. I guess they figure they can drink coffee all day and night that way.
We hopped back in the car and drove another hour and a half back to Frazee basking in the glow of having seen a very special engine. It was a good day for Chub.
The one thing we had in common was his first-born daughter, Nita. Chub was Nita’s stabilizing force as she grew into her teens. When we announced to Chub and his wife Nancy that we were going to get married (I don’t remember doing the traditional thing like asking Chub for his blessing to marry his daughter), they seemed happy enough. I say “seemed” because they are Minnesotans, after all. And like most Minnesotans rarely show their feelings. Nita told me later that her dad encouraged her to marry me. That way she’d be happy and so would he!
After some “dickering” (a thing Chub liked more than anything else) we married in my wife’s hometown church, which the family attended faithfully. It was the same church that held his funeral/celebration Mass.
When I became a pastor, my obligations made it difficult to be with my wife’s family on weekends. So, Chub would often visit with us on Wednesday nights on his way home from a road trip. He’d park his rig in our church parking lot. I’d go pick him up and bring him home for dinner. He ate with us, played with our girls before bed time and watched whatever was on TV while we all ate popcorn. He got every dog we had hooked on popcorn. Chub was always in a cheerful mood; smiled easily, had a characteristic laugh that sounded like the Cheshire cat and freely called foolish people or more frequently foolish politicians a [insert your own official “trucker’s epithet” here].
He was not given to many words, but could tell a good story; and laugh at his own story. His stories were real events in which he saw the humor. He liked cars, engines and card games. He seemed to enjoy life wherever he found it or it found him. Chub was always patient with my ignorance of all things mechanical.
Our church produced a Christmas show almost every year over a fifteen year period. It was a Christianized version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol called The Gospel According to Scrooge. Chub was in one of those audiences. At the end of each performance it was my role to tell people of the wonderful good news that God sent his Son to die in our place and make peace between sinners and his Father. All that was required was for a sinner to recognize his or her sin, turn from it to Christ in faith as one’s only Savior, and find peace with God and adoption as his child. Because the audiences were so large, I asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to respond to this gift and put their trust in Christ. Chub raised his hand that night. Nita’s sister Sonya, who saw Chub’s hand go up, told her much later and we were thrilled. Nita was particularly comforted by this bit of faith in her father’s last weeks of life.
Chub fought hard for life. When we saw him a few months earlier, he looked pale and weak. My father looked that way in the last months of his life. He fought lung cancer. I remember my father the way I remembered Chub: strong men, confident and decisive. But as strong as both men were, neither had what it took to withstand death.
Chub fought very hard for life. But my guess is that he knew he would not leave the hospital alive. He fought so that he could see all his children before he left this world. There are eleven of them; one of them shipped home from a deployment to Kuwait.
Chub’s fight for life made me think of Calvin’s statement: “But everything (in us) longs for permanent existence.” The principle of life is in us strongly because we are created in the image of the living God (Gen 1:26; 2:7; Matt 16:16). But there is a catch: we may think life is irrepressible but it is not powerful enough to sustain itself. Nor is it powerful enough to deny death which comes to each one of us in our strength or our weakness.
I wondered then if this desire for “permanent existence” might be the reason so many have a cavalier attitude toward death. We take risks and talk riskily about death. It strikes me as whistling past the graveyard. Natural observation tells us that the principle of permanent life has been lost, yet its memory remains. Believers who trust Christ for eternal life have an assurance that is more than a memory; believers have a promise that death does not not have the final word over their lives; Jesus does. Jesus bluntly said: “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (John 8:51).
Solomon was wise when he counseled that we would gain more wisdom at a funeral than at a feast. Chub, without realizing it, made me think about something that put us on the same page in life – all things mechanical aside. He served me in the last days of his rich life in a way that my own father did not. I was too young then and cavalier.
The next step will be to look cheerfully to the day of death. That’s what Calvin recommended. That discipline will keep me from holding onto this life with too tight a grasp. Here is how Calvin finished off his thoughts: “I admit this, and therefore contend that we ought to look to future immortality, where we may obtain that fixed condition which nowhere appears on the earth. For Paul admirably enjoins believers to hasten cheerfully to death, not because they would be unclothed, but clothed upon.” Then Calvin cited 2 Corinthians 5:2. The whole paragraph says:
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened--not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. (vv. 1-5)
Looking forward to the day of entering eternity isn’t about escaping the bad stuff here, but about gaining the reward of putting on a new set of “clothes.” These new clothes never get wrinkled, never need ironing, never get soiled, and never wear out. They are holy permanent press. God is at work daily in those who trust in Christ to prepare us for that day; a day of entering into the rest of God permanently. It is said of the Puritans that because they knew how to die well, they lived well. I want that said about me and my family.
Thanks Chub for allowing me the privilege of knowing you, marrying your daughter and the lasting reminder.