What Do You See?
It was a very eerie moment. The man at our table had been quiet for most of his meal. Suddenly he held up his fork and dangled his half-eaten steak. “What do you see?” he asked us.
My father’s question came several years into his Alzheimer’s journey. Confusion was his constant companion on our vacation. It would show up unannounced, possessing him, willing him to say and do things completely out of character for a retired United Methodist minister of 40 years, and devoted husband of half a century. So, for him to hold out his food and ask, “What do you see?” was, well, unexpectedly expected.
Mom mercifully broke the awkward silence. She tried reassuring him that he was holding the steak he had ordered. She had assumed (not without reason) her husband was having trouble remembering what he had done only a few minutes ago. I tried next to reassure him it was cooked correctly. My assumption (also not without reason) was my father might be living in an alternate reality where he was eating last night’s not-quite-done-enough steak. And my teenage niece outwitted everyone by reminding her grandad it was just a dead cow. God bless the little philosopher.
But Dad would not be not satisfied with our answers. He asked more insistently, “No…what do you see?” I remember thinking: where was he going with this? Had the noisy restaurant in an unfamiliar town agitated him? Had our conversations confused him? Was Dad going to cause a scene? Would we need to leave? The mood moved from eerie towards terrifying. We repeated our assurances like liturgy: “It’s the steak you ordered, Bill”. “It’s cooked enough, Dad”. “It’s a dead cow, grandad”.
We sat. We waited. Then all at once he proudly pointed and revealed the answer: “It’s a cross!”. We looked. We sighed. For there, sizzled on the surface of that hunk of dead cow, were grill marks at just the right angles to remind the old country preacher of the familiar, comforting sign. And being the preacher, he was only doing what came naturally – sharing his Savior with those who could not see because they were too preoccupied with their own worry and fear.
I laughed. Hard. I laughed the way one does when they are surprised to be laughing again. It wasn’t just a good joke, it was an even greater sermon because it came from someone I thought would never preach again. I needed to find the cross again after watching my Dad, my hero, cast about in restlessness, agitation, and darkness. His strange behaviors forced upon me the burden of recategorizing the meaning of the man who had most exemplified what a called-out life looked like.
The disease was stealing his nobility from me. I had always beamed with pride as people asked my pastor-father to pray and speak on behalf of God. But now his public utterances elicited this new, unsettling feeling: the potential for embarrassment and shame.
Then there was the anger. All around my faith community were vivid reminders of the possibility of miracles: just pray! Yet from where I sat, God seemed to have more mysterious plans when it comes to the millions of sons and daughters and husbands and wives who petition for the resurrection of any one of the precious memories buried today, yesterday, the day before, for thousands of years. Our souls must make peace with His decision to not yet heal Alzheimer’s. But it is hard to make peace when doing so seems to imply one's faith is weak and deficient. That catch-22 made me very angry.
True, Mom and Dad raised me better than to blame God for a fallen world. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t confused, terrified, angry, and lonely. My heart was grieving. These were precisely the times when I needed a pastor the most. And all my life, that pastor had been my Dad. Until this damned disease.
But now here, in this meal, in this moment, hope had broken through Dad’s disease and my self-pity (which was probably harder). Dad was the preacher again, proclaiming the Savior, revealing the Christ who had been with us all along! And if he had a Scripture to accompany his message, it probably would have been from Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Yes, it had to be that letter.
You see, when Paul was writing to his spiritual son the second time, he was writing what would be his last letter. And he was writing from a Roman prison, seemingly cut-off from the former greatness that had defined his ministry. All signs pointed to Paul’s loss of vitality and likely demise; despite years of faithful service and faith-filled obedience. People whispered. People left. No one, not even Paul, saw his life ending like this.
It is not hard for me to imagine Timothy’s conscience and his congregation wrestling with questions like mine. After all the adventures and miraculous rescues, why would God not spare his servant from this shameful end? Aren’t God’s people destined for a greater end than this? How do I reconcile my hero’s life of unstoppable purpose with what now appears to be a sad shell of his former glory? How can I proclaim the power of God now? What in the world is going on here?
I believe Paul sensed all this in the way good fathers do. And so, he wrote to his confused and heavy-hearted son whom he loved, with words like,
“So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner…Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my Gospel, for which I am bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!”
2 Timothy 1:8; 2:8-9
2 Timothy 1:8; 2:8-9
If you’ll permit my paraphrasing, Paul was saying, “Son, don’t let my circumstances confuse you or anyone else about the truth of the Gospel I have lived for. Let it not be asked if God can be trusted when noble lives appear to meet ignoble ends. He can be trusted still because I am not the goal here; look only to Christ. Not my life, nor my death – but rather His resurrection. Look for him in the confusion even as I am doing now!”
Words like these are great gifts. Every son needs to hear them from their spiritual fathers. Yet these words are not mere sweet sentimentality, any more than they are magic talismans or poetic shrines. They are empowered by the Holy Spirit. And the same Holy Spirit who penned those unbound words, that promises to raise us up from death to life, that called my father and mother to faith in Christ as a newlywed couple, that then called my Dad to set aside the drums and his fear of public speaking to become a preacher, that then enabled him to preach for 40 hard years all over rural Virginia, that led him to step down before the disease could harm his flock, that quickened his addled mind in a restaurant to deliver this poignant sermon at just the right time – that same Holy Spirit will accomplish God’s purposes no matter what our lives look like. Not even the specter of death can stop Him from reminding Paul and Timothy, Bill and Zach, all fathers and all sons, all mothers and all daughters, His Bride – to look to Christ alone, above our failing frames, for our eternal hope. He will never, ever, ever be stopped.
Yes, the word of God is indeed unbound. We know it has broken through the guarded gravestone. We know it has outlived the threats from a thousand ruthless empires. And most important to me, it broke through the fog of Alzheimer’s to faithfully preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because the cross reminds us of the Gospel, and the Gospel is how the Church remembers how to hope – even when we have trouble remembering anything at all.
So, Church, consider carefully the meal set before us even amid our adversity.
What do you see?