My father Richard, died on January 24th. His last illness and death, and the prayers and rites by which we commended him to God and laid him to rest, have pretty much overshadowed for me everything else going on in the diocese and in the nation, as I suppose it should. He died six days after coming home from the hospital and truly had a peaceful, painless and holy death, dying only about fifteen minutes after his pastor anointed him, gave him the apostolic pardon and prayed the commendation of the dying. I’m grateful that I was able to be with him, both in prayer and in person during his last days, and for the opportunity to help care for him alongside my mother, sisters and the truly magnificent hospice nurses.
The deaths of our parents is both a commonplace occurrence which cannot be evaded in the course of every person’s life, and yet a unique moment and a milestone in the life of a son or a daughter. As we accompanied him in his last days, I kept finding myself thinking of the parable of the sower. (Matthew 13:1-9). In that parable, the sower sows seed. Some falls on rocky soil or is eaten by the birds or choked by the thorns. But for the seed that falls on good soil, it yields a thirty, sixty or hundredfold harvest.
What a striking image of the life we receive as a gift from God! Our lives, which are not simply given once at birth, but a gift that God gives us in every circumstance and situation. In my father’s life, over each of our lifetimes, we experience the rocky soil, the birds, and the thorns that stand in the way of the abundant harvest that the Lord wills and desires for each one of us. Yet through the mysterious transformation wrought by God’s grace and our cooperation with it, the seed the Sower has sown take root and grow and yield an abundant harvest. I’m grateful that my father’s did.
As I stood by my father’s grave last week, I pondered the truth of what Jesus also taught his disciples, that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) Looking down on my father’s body lying in the earth, I was reminded of how each of us must die in order to fully put on Christ’s resurrected life, which will transform and transfigure us body and soul in the likeness of Jesus, “the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”(1Corinthians 15:20)
I thought too of how that dying to self which concluded in this life with his final breath, began with his baptism. This kenosis, this self-emptying love we are called to in imitation of Jesus, took a new form when he entered into marriage and only deepened and intensified when they brought their four children into the world. With her, he chose to love (imperfectly, as with all of us) which meant that he chose over and over to love us and let go of the outcome. The lives he generously planted in this world, my life, and those of my sisters, were a free gift, not his possessions. Imitating the Sower, he had no way of knowing or ensuring that the daily example of love he gave to us would take root in our lives or fall in vain. Or that the choice to live and love with such vulnerability would not break his heart, which it did, especially when my sister Nancy died tragically at a young age.
A good father, a loving father, an authentic father, imitating the Father revealed to us by Jesus, lives, not through his children, but for them. The seeds he plants in the hearts and lives of his children may remain hidden during his lifetime but he plants them in the confident faith in a rich harvest in the future. I am and remain grateful for having had a good and loving father and teacher in my father. I’m grateful for the life he shared with me, for his patience and forbearance and for his constant, generous love.
Although my attention these past two months has been primarily focused on my father’s final illness and death, I’ve been thinking about the departure of our bishop and reflecting appreciatively on his time here with us in this diocese. I am especially grateful for the kindnesses he has shown my parents, particularly my father, during this time for me and my family. His prayers (and those of so many others) have sustained us during these days. Thank you!
During these days I’ve been reflecting on all that the Bishop has done as our spiritual father during his time in Southeast. Let me suggest that as he leaves to take up his new assignment in Dallas, we try to identify the seeds of faith that God has planted in our hearts and lives through his example and ministry.
For me, these are two of the many seeds of faith that he has planted in my life.
First, I think of what he has taught me about prayer, that lifting up of the heart and mind to God that is central and indispensable for the life of faith. What I learned from Bishop Burns is that I need to ground my prayer in a deep confidence in the faithful love of God. The motto he chose for his coat of arms, “Pray with confidence” has challenged me to trust in God’s love and mercy and to persevere in prayer, in every circumstance and situation.
Second, and I think it is linked to that confidence in God’s compassionate love and mercy, is joy. The message of the gospel is a message of joy. Joy in the gift of our salvation in Jesus, joy in the new way of life he has given to us and that fulfills and redeems our deepest hopes and longings, joy in the saving Cross and life giving Resurrection of the Lord that has broken down every division and makes us brothers and sisters, now and for all eternity. Through his example Bishop Burns has modeled for me how to be a joyful follower of Jesus and thus, a faithful witness to the Good News.
May the seeds he has planted in each of our hearts and lives bear abundant fruit in our spiritual lives and for the building up of the Church in Southeast Alaska. May God continue to make Bishop Burns a blessing to all those whom he will be serving and may bless him abundantly in the days and years ahead.
– Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the
Diocese of Juneau. PH: 907-586-2227 x 23. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org