"Now, needless to say, as a small child I was devastated. This dog I loved so dearly was gone, and I simply had no idea what to do, what it all meant, or any of that. It was my first experience with death of any kind. I turned to my parents, to my father, specifically, but he had no answers for me. Afterall, how could you explain the loss of a pet, or anyone, to a small, innocent child? How could you, how could anyone, make that pain go away? You can't. I don't think anyone can. Only God can soothe that kind of pain. And even as a six year-old boy, I realized this. I knew about God, I knew about the Lord from my mother and father . . . I'd like to think I have a better understanding of the Lord and what he requires of us today than I did then, but then again, remember what Jesus said about the faith of a child. That's what I had, the faith of a child. I knew that God was up in Heaven, and that he loved me, and that he wanted to help us.
"And I knew about prayer, and the power of prayer, and the importance of prayer. But I'd never felt like this, never felt so helpless, so afraid, so confused . . . I wasn't sure a prayer would do it. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil--you know, one of those fat pencils they give to children, so their little hands can hold it more properly?--and I sat down and I wrote God a letter. . . . I figured, it worked for Santa Claus . . ." The assembled congregation let out a collective chuckle, as though they'd been awaiting their cue.
"So I wrote God a letter," the pastor then continued, "and I asked God for my dog back. I made it quite clear to God that I loved the dog very much, and missed him very, very much, and wished I could have the dog back alive again. But even as a child, with that pure, unassuming, innocent faith that I had, I left room for the reality that perhaps God might decide not to grant my request and bring my dog back to life. So I also said that, if God could not bring the dog back, could he at least make sure that he is fed, and played with, and not lonely until someone from the family can get to Heaven to watch him. And I signed my first name and my last name, so God would be sure to know it was from me." Another, more scattered chuckling sound came from a few among those in the pews in front of me.
"My father would take the mail out to the mail box in the morning on his way out to work. The night I wrote the letter, I went out and set it on the kitchen table with the other mail that my mother needed sent out the next day. I don't recall putting a stamp on it, since I didn't have a stamp, and the only address I had on it was 'God,' and the address was simply 'Heaven.' My father saw that letter, and I imagine his heart just melted.
"The next day when the mail came, there was a letter for me, from God. It was written in simple, plain language so I could read it, and in it God told me he was sorry, but my dog was in Heaven, and had to stay there. But, God told me in his letter that he loved the dog very much, and would keep the dog safe until we were all together again in his Kingdom in Heaven.
"Naturally, God didn't really write me a letter after my dog died when I was six years old. Some years later, my mother told me that my father had written it. He told her all about it, and decided to write a response, much as I've heard of parents writing responses to their children's letters to Santa Claus, pretending to be Santa Claus themselves so as not to disappoint the children. Afterall, he told my mother, he had to answer--God doesn't write letters.
"A month or so after that, following a routine doctor's visit and several follow-up visits to other doctors, my father was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He began experiencing symptoms rather suddenly--headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, and so forth--and within a few months of his diagnosis, he had wasted away to a literal shell of his former self, and, forty-two years ago as of this past Thursday, my father died. This all came on my family rather suddenly, and you can imagine as a six year-old child, if I had a rough time reconciling myself to the death of my mother's dog, I had a much more difficult time trying to come to terms with the death of my father. It's something I struggled with for years, actually. It affected my faith in God, it colored my view of God and made me question his mercy for a time. . . . It stayed with me, in a way, until I was a young man in the seminary. But while I was in the seminary, studying to be an educated man of God, I had a teacher by the name of Joseph Elliot, a great man of the Bible and of God, and I told him about my father, and I told him about the dog and the letter and the whole story, and he said something to me that . . . that resolved my inner conflict into perfect, calm, crystalline clarity, and suddenly the stormy, crashing waters of my soul became as settled and as clear as a pane of glass. And I'd like to share with you, this morning, what he told me.
The pastor cast his eyes down at the surface of his dark brown wooden lectern as he spoke his next few words. "He told me that to speak for God was heresy, blasphemy, arrogant presumption--in other words, sin! He told me that no man, no matter how well-read in the word he is--and I must confess my father, though a God-fearing man, was no scholar of the scriptures--is qualified to sign God's name to his words, no matter how much he loves his son, no matter how much he wants to help, no matter how good are his intentions. We all know what the road to hell is paved with, don't we? My good friend and teacher Joseph Elliot told me that when my father signed God's name to that letter, he was signing at the same time his terminal prognosis! And that was hard for me to hear. That was hard for me to accept, almost as hard for me to accept as it was to accept the death of my father.
"But he was right. Can you hear me?" He looked out across his congregation. "He was right!," he cried loudly in that impassioned, strained tone that I imagine most preachers must be required to perfect at some point in their careers. "My father sinned! Not out of malice, but out of love! Out of love for his son, out of desire to end his pain, but he sinned all the same! God doesn't want our good intentions!" he declared, his voice colored with disgust. "He wants our love, and our respect, and our obedience! He gave to us through Moses ten commandments, one of which is have no other gods before him, and another of which is bear no false witness! Jesus Christ told us in the gospels that if we are to follow him, we must place him first in our lives, ahead of friends, ahead of family, and family includes grieving, heartbroken sons! My father bore false witness! Whatever his good intentions, my father bore false witness, and my father placed his love for me ahead of his love and obedience to Christ. And for that--hard as it may be to swallow--for that, my father deserved to die. And my father deserved to go to hell, just as we all deserve to go to hell were it not for the saving blood and grace of Jesus Christ.
He held his open Bible over his head with one hand, its pages flowing out from their binding. "God doesn't write letters? God did write us a letter. We do not need to write letters for him, in his name, falsely." He closed the Bible and held it in front of him with both hands. "It took him sixty-six books, it took him four thousand years, but God wrote us the only letter we will ever, ever need. All he asks of us is that we read it, and follow it, and live in it every day of our lives. My father didn't know it, and just as it took God four thousand years in his good time to give us the whole of the Bible, it took my father quite a few years after his death to do it, but he taught me this." He looked out across those assembled and nodded reassuringly, like a man affirming the truth. "And it's the most important lesson I could ever learn. And for that, I can thank him.
"May we stand?"
The pastor stood at the door after the service, shaking hands of people as they left, smiling, saying goodbye for another week. I tried to avoid him, but everyone was moving so slowly, and I didn’t know the church well enough to know where to look for another exit. He saw me and shook my hand, and smiled warmly and told me, “Welcome, my friend.” I smiled back and thanked him, and walked past him out into the parking lot and the rain, knowing full well I’d most likely never set foot in the building again. I got in my car and started my drive home.
I wasn’t even sure why I’d come to Ruhl’s today in the first place. I wasn’t a Methodist, or any other flavor of Christian, and was perfectly happy to leave it at that. I hadn’t thought of myself as going through a spiritual crisis of any kind. I had no real desire to hear hymns or scripture read aloud. Maybe I just wanted to be in a place called a House of God. Maybe I just wanted to be in the presence of faith, since I had so little to believe in lately. I didn’t know. Maybe the sermon today was the last thing I should have heard. Or maybe it was the perfect message for me that day. Maybe God had led me there. Who knows? Who cares? It didn’t matter. When I got home, I changed clothes and drove to the hospital.
Dad was asleep when I got there. I’d expected that; he’d been sleeping a lot lately. Part of it was the medication they were keeping him on, for the pain, the headaches. Part of it was just that he was getting sicker and sicker, and couldn’t stand to be awake for as long. The last time I spoke to Dad’s doctor, he told me it probably wouldn’t be long. “There’s really nothing we can do for him,” I was told, “just keep his pain to a minimum to keep him comfortable. And pray.”
I leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, something I never, ever did before he was this sick. I held the hand that first threw me a baseball, the hand that held the back of my bicycle seat to steady me after my training wheels came off, and I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of regret for not learning to ride that fucking bike. He tried so hard, and I let him down. Or maybe he blamed himself. That would be more like him. We had never talked about it, though. I guessed we never would.
I waited around, trying to read the Batman comic I’d brought with me with little success, until he woke up finally, about an hour and twenty minutes after I arrived. He looked around, and saw me through eyes glazed-over by painkillers that were being pumped into his body to ease the suffering caused by the chunk of cancer swelling in his brain. He smiled, and we talked for awhile, only a few minutes, really, until he fell back asleep. The nurse had brought him his dinner, and he’d eaten most of it while we talked, leaving only his dessert—a piece of chocolate cake—and a cup of apple juice, which he said I could have if I was hungry. The cake was dry and barely edible, but the apple juice reminded me of how, as a child, I used to put whole apples in the blender in my mother’s kitchen and liquefy them. They reduced to this thin, chunky golden soup that tasted a little like apple cider, and I remembered I could never drink more than a few sips of it before I had to pour it down the kitchen sink.
I stayed with him for another hour or so, read another page in my comic, then stood up from the chair at his bedside. I kissed him on the forehead again, and squeezed his hand, then laid it down on his gently rising and falling chest. “I love you, Dad,” I told him.
Sitting at my desk that night, I wrote God a letter. I would have prayed, but I’d been praying and I didn’t think a prayer was going to do it. When I finished the letter, I signed it with my first and last name, tucked it in an envelope, and addressed it to God, in Heaven. I figured a stamp wouldn’t be necessary. I decided I was glad I’d heard Pastor Price give that sermon. It meant something to me. Probably not what he intended it to mean, but it meant something to me anyway, and that’s all that matters. Some people may have thought it was all right to choose a distant God over a loving father, but I wasn’t one of them.
It wasn’t raining outside for the first time in what seemed like forever, so I threw on a jacket to guard against the chilly breeze that was blowing and walked the quarter-mile or so to the post office to drop my letter in the mailbox on the curb. On the walk home I thought about taking down that dusty Bible that was on my bookshelf. When I got there, I decided to finish my Batman comic instead.