This past Friday night [26 January 2001] I had what will undoubtedly be among the most enduring experiences of my life, sitting by my father's hospital bed from late evening until dawn. Keeping vigilance. It turned out to be his last night. I was not tempted to sleep. I had much work to do.
Part of what I did was to write. Here are some of those thoughts.
"Tonight I sit by my father's hospital bedside, straining emotionally in rhythm to his labored breathing. His breaths are short and shallow; his exhales are punctuated, frail muscles from chest to stomach rippling in brief contortion, emptying the lungs in desperation for the next gulp of air. Only occasionally does his body relax, save for the percussion of scarred lungs doing their best against impossible odds.
"He seems to stay alive by sheer strength of heart, a heart whose jerking pulse fairly rattles the aortic vein running up his neck. His heart has always had the stamina of a plow mule. Only now his other organs can no longer keep up."
In dying, as in living, he worked harder than most.
"Tonight my Dad is dying. He knows, and we know, there is nothing more to do except to wait and to pray. And so I read aloud to him from the Psalms. From Paul's letter to the Romans. From the Gospels. And I sing, all the lines from all the hymns so familiar to us both. When I forget the words, I hum.
"Does he hear? Some, I suspect. Probably in depths beyond which the mere mind can go. And that is enough.
"If I beg for his life, I know it is for my own sake more than his, for his days have been full and his time is now ripe. From comments made in recent days, during fleeting moments of lucid thought, we know he is ready for this harvest."
I pray we shall be, too.
All of us in the family were deeply touched by the sheer number of you who came here last night during visitation hours and recounted, with genuine emotion, the important ways my Dad had touched your life or the lives of those you hold dear: by faithfulness and trustworthiness in friendship; by visits in your home or at your hospital bed; by lighted eyes and cheerful greeting as you entered the church house, home to a community of faith so near and dear to his heart.
The testimonies of affection accounted by one after another after another were amazing. Who would have thought it so of a man who considered himself too unlettered to lead; too slow of tongue to speak; too common of birth to command respect.
But he did lead; he did speak; and your outpouring of affection is eloquent testimony to the respect he did in fact command.
My purpose in this tribute to my Father—to my mother's Beloved, to my and my sister's Daddy, to my children's Papa—is not to romanticize him, to apply heavy cosmetics to make him more winsome than he was. He was made of flesh and blood, like us all. He was not always the easiest person to live with. Who among us is?
He was not a saint—at least not in the sentimental, silly way we use that term. He had some hard edges. He was not perfect, and sometimes his sense of responsibility overshadowed his capacity for joy.
Early in his adult life my Dad gave up dancing, on religious ground. And Lord knows he couldn't carry a tune in a bucket! I suspect that this past Saturday afternoon, when St. Peter greeted him at heaven's gate, the first angelic assignment Dad was given was to take dancing lessons! When the day finally arrives for his dancing granddaughter to cross over Jordan, Dad will be ready; and the two of them will cut a rug from one end of heaven to the other.
And after that, singing lessons!!
Brothers and sisters, the good news of the gospel is that our flaws and failures and unflattering features do not define who we are in the eyes of God. What defines us are two things that, without question, characterized my father.
One is the practice of forgiveness. The last intelligible words he spoke came Saturday morning and were mumbled with great effort to my sister Glenda. She wrote them down. "I ask that everybody forgive me for any time I've hurt them and I want everybody to know that I forgive them if they ever hurt me. Everybody." He repeated for emphasis. "Everybody."
The practice of forgiveness is the very heart of the believer's vocation.
No matter your intelligence, your brilliance, your education—it will fail you. No matter your eloquence of speech—the sound will fade. No matter your royalty of birth or prestige of name—these will grow more stale than last week's casserole. What will endure, what matters in the eyes of God, in the heart of Christ, in the breath and power of the Spirit, is our willingness to confess, to God and to each other, and receive forgiveness.
This is my father's testimony, and I believe it to be the sure and faithful testimony of Scripture.
This my Dad would do. This we are called to do: To confess our failures and accept the gratuitous mercy of God not as an isolated act, but as a daily discipline.
The flip side of being forgiven by God, of course, is to practice forgiveness with each other. Jesus went so far as to say that the measure of forgiveness we receive from God is in direct proportion to that which we give each other. The two notes are of the same measure, the two steps are of the same spiritual journey. Being forgiven, by God, and practicing forgiveness, with each other, are mirror reflections of the same reality.
And what is the practice of forgiveness other than the pursuit of justice and the proffering of mercy? These habits, and these habits alone, hold the promise of peace.
"What doth the Lord require of you," thundered the prophet Micah, "But to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
My father taught me about the promise of peace in the pursuit of justice and the proffering of mercy. I can recall, for instance, as a young adolescent the many Friday nights I spent helping my Dad build a simple sanctuary for the Primera Iglesia Bautista, a Mexican-American congregation in Snyder, Texas. I think my Dad built that humble structure almost single-handedly; in doing so he crossed many of the racial and class barriers which have plagued our nation from its beginnings.
My father was experienced in caring for the destitute, in visiting the sick, in welcoming "strangers." Some of you here were recipients of his merciful presence and, simultaneously, were transferred to the seat of mercy in the process.
I have no question that my father's influence was a pivotal factor in my own chosen ministry of making peace, of pursuing justice, of calling the church to its ministry of reconciliation.
Just last night my wife Nancy discovered a note card in Dad's Bible, with a wonderful quote that is both a call to worship and a call to action. I don't know where he got it, but I know it must be old because the words were typed on an ancient manual typewriter, probably the one I inherited from my folks many years ago. This quote, as much as any other, sums up the deepest longing of my father's desire to follow in the footsteps of Jesus:
Lean thine arms upon
The windowsill of heaven,
And gaze upon
The face of thy Lord;
Then with this vision in mind,
Turn strong to meet the day.
"Lean on heaven," is my Dad's testimony, "and turn strong to meet the day." So may we all.
Chauvin Funeral Home
January 29, 2001