And I Did Not Know It

Tomorrow is the 15th anniversary of my Mother’s death. I honestly can’t summon up the energy to write a fitting tribute for her as I’ve done in years’ past. (I’ve already written tributes to her here and here.) I just miss her so much and no amount of writing about it is ever going to assuage the pain of her absence. But I decided to honor her by posting a sermon I preached in her honor last spring. Fair warning: it’s lengthy. But these are my thoughts as I reflect on my Mother today.

_______________

“And I Did Not Know It” – Genesis 28:10-16

In the darkness…
In the night…
This refrain rises and rings out over the plain…
“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.”

The Biblical account recalls Jacob as a rather despicable character. Our text for today comes fresh on the heels of Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac. In the Bible’s first account of identity theft, Jacob pretends to be Esau, duping his blind (!) father into conferring upon him the blessing that was the rightful possession of his older brother. But we should’ve seen this coming all along. When these twin boys were born, it was Esau who came first; Jacob, tenacious even in birth, enters the world clinging to his brother’s heel. His name becomes some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy; Jacob means either “he takes by the heel” or “he cheats”. As if swindling Esau’s birthright away (for a bowl of stew, no less), Jacob steals the family blessing as well. He cheats, indeed.

The text says that Isaac preferred Esau, the firstborn, the rugged “man’s man”. He liked to feast on the game his hunter-son would bring home. Jacob no doubt knew of this preferment. In fact, that seems to be what prompted the deception in the first place.

For Jacob, you see, was the favorite of his mother, Rebekah. She is the one standing in the corner, aiding and abetting the deception of her husband. She is the one who, in the aftermath of the deception story, convinces Isaac to send Jacob off on a journey to find a wife, a shrewd tactic to assist Jacob in avoiding the wrath of his older brother. And so we find Jacob in the midst of this journey. The text says he comes to a certain place and the sun is setting, so he makes the decision to spend the night.

It is here on the plain that we find Jacob. Here, in this darkness, in this night, he beds down alone. And in this darkness, in this night, loneliness begins to envelope him. This much is clear: he is not lonely because he misses his father. To tell the truth, he was accustomed to being without Isaac. Not being in his father’s presence – this is no new experience for Jacob. No, it is his mother that he misses! For she is the one who loves him! She is the one who nurtures him! Can there be any doubt that he is on his way to his mother’s homeland to find a wife that will love him the way Rebekah has? It is his mother that Jacob misses at this, the hour we stumble upon him.

And so, we find Jacob, alone in this darkness, in this night, with nothing but the barrenness of the plain, the barrenness of his own soul.

Jacob drifts into a deep sleep, until…

Behold! He sees a ladder, a staircase, more precisely, coming down from heaven to the place where he lays on the ground. He looks and Behold! The host of heaven! Angelic beings surround him! These celestial beings are ascending and descending in the firmament between heaven and earth. And Behold! A voice booms from beside him. “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father, the God of Isaac!” And Jacob realizes that he is not alone after all. He is in the presence of God. Behold!

It must be noted that the text gives no indication that Jacob had ever encountered this God before. Oh sure, he’d heard the stories. He’d heard the stories of his grandfather Abraham and how God had spoken to him. No doubt he’d heard the stories of this God who had appeared to confer blessings and promises upon his father Isaac. But Jacob? He’d known nothing of this God. And yet, here He stands, beside him. “I am the God of your fathers, Abraham and Isaac.” The implicit question here is: Will I be your God, Jacob?

God offers blessing and He offers promise. “Behold, I am with you,” He tells Jacob. And Jacob awakes from his dream, and he says, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know.”

When I was 10 years old, my father passed away. He contracted a very rare form of lung cancer in the winter of 1986. We watched him die a very slow, painful death. He died on October 20, 1987. In the years that followed, my mother took on an even greater role in my life. She was still there to bind up my scraped knees with nurture and care and Sesame Street Band-Aids and chocolate ice cream. But she also started taking me to my baseball games. She bought me my first razor. She said real men love God. She even tried to have “the talk” with me; I wouldn’t let her, but she gets credit for trying.

In short, she became both mother and father to me. That’s what made the spring of 1994 so difficult for me. In the fall of ’93, we noticed a change in Mom’s energy level. Simple things, like working in the garden, would just wear her out physically. We also noticed a mole on her back that was beginning to concern us. She’d always had a half-dollar size mole on her back, and she was suspicious that it was changing shape and getting some jagged edges. She called her doctor and they told her to stop by. Said they’d “squeeze her in.” My mother, a teacher, left at the end of the school day and she was the last patient the doctor saw that day. He took a quick glance at the mole and told her she had nothing to worry about. Said he was late for his tee time, but if she noticed anything else that concerned her, she could give him a call. That was September, 1993.

Four months later, my mother was diagnosed with a full-blown case of malignant melanoma. I’m not a doctor, but from what I understand, malignant melanoma is one of the fastest spreading types of cancer a person can contract. She started chemotherapy treatments immediately, but it was too little too late. The doctors told us she had only weeks to live. 6 weeks later, she was gone. I was 17 years old.

The last time I ever spoke to my mother was at the hospital. I would go to school during the day and then come out to the hospital in the afternoon. I remember sitting on the bed with her and she was asking me about my day. “How is baseball going?” she asked.

“Fine,” I told her.

“When is your next game?”

“I don’t know.”

She asked me about this girl I was dating and I told her I didn’t want to talk about that. I told her I didn’t want to talk about any of this stuff. “We’re not supposed to be here, Mom! You’re not supposed to be here! I don’t like this and I don’t want to talk about anything!”

She looked up from her hospital bed and smiled and said, “Jason, I love you.”

That night, she slipped into a coma. Over the next day or two, she would awake only for a moment. In the end, the cancer spread to her brain. She died on March 26, 1994, 14 years and 9 days ago.

When we buried her, I made myself a promise. I promised myself that I would not cry. I promised myself that I would not give God the satisfaction of watching me weep. I became the epitome of the angry young man. I wasn’t sure if God was real anymore, but if He was, He sure wasn’t anything like this “God of love” I’d been hearing about all of my life. My experience told me God – if He existed at all – was at best benign and at worst a cruel sadist. I half-hoped He was real so I could have someone to lash out at. “What, taking my Dad wasn’t enough? You have to take my Mom, too?” If you can imagine every awful, venomous, mean-spirited thing one person can say to someone else, I said it to God. I hated God. And I told Him, “It’s gonna take a whole lot more than that for you to break me.”

And so, for a full year, I kept my promise. I did not cry. Not one drop. Fueled by my anger, I entered into my personal plain of darkness and isolation. I wanted to be alone. People would ask how I was doing and I kept them at arms length. “I’m doing as well as I can,” I’d say. I learned to quote Romans 8:28 to people before they had a chance to quote it on me. Oh, I heard them all: “She’s in a better place now.” “Everything happens for a reason.” And my personal favorite: “God must’ve needed her in heaven with Him.” I learned to hate this God who needed my Mother more than I did. And I learned to accept these pithy truisms with a smile and a hug if that’s what it took for people to leave me alone. By all outward appearances, I was a well-adjusted young man orphaned at the age of 17. On the inside, I harbored anger and resentment that I refused to let go of. Like Jacob clinging to Esau’s heel, I refused to let go of my anger.

One evening, a full year after my Mother’s death, I found myself literally alone. The family members I was staying with were all out of town for spring break, as were all of my close friends. I checked the youth group calendar, but to no avail; the next youth event was weeks away. All the things I’d filled my life with to keep myself busy (school, friends, family, church)…none of these distractions were available to me. The power went off at our house that night, so even watching TV or playing video games was out. To top it all off, I decided to run grab a bite to eat, only to find that my car wouldn’t start! So there I sat, alone in a big empty house, eating a peanut butter sandwich, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but sit and reflect on the barrenness and loneliness of my life.

The cumulative effect of sweeping my emotions under the rug for 12 months must’ve caught up with me. As I sat there that evening, watching the sun slip behind the horizon, I realized how utterly alone I was. I think I finally allowed myself to lay my anger down long enough to acknowledge how much I missed my Mother, her warmth, her love. In the end, that’s all it took. I began to feel something very much like sorrow brimming up from my heart and into my throat. My eyes turned moist and I thought of her final words to me: “Jason, I love you.” And for the first time in over a year, I thought of the God of my Mother.

I’m still not sure what it was that drove me to pray in that moment. I only got out one word – “God…” – before waves of tears washed over me. I began to sob uncontrollably as I writhed around on the floor. I grieved my dear Mother. I grieved my Heavenly Father. That one word prayer, born out of the darkness of the night, became my cry for reconciliation. “God…”

I really don’t have the words to describe to you what happened next. The best way to describe it is to say I had my own Behold! moment. I felt God’s presence by my side. Amid all the darkness and pain and brokenness of my life, I felt His presence and I felt His promise. And He spoke this word: “Behold, I am with you…and I always have been.” A sense of peace fell on me that I’ve honestly not stopped feeling since that day. And that peace has made all the difference in my life. That day, the God of my Mother became my God, too.

In the darkness…
In the night…
This refrain rises and rings out over the plain…
“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.”

This entry was posted in My Girls, Preaching, Scripture. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to And I Did Not Know It

  1. Fran says:

    I’m so glad that you survived that time and became aware of the presence of the Lord beside you in the darkness of your life. The God of our mothers and fathers is so good and so patient, waiting for us to find Him on our own. I remember so well those times of darkness, those times of isolation after my mom died when I was 15. But, like you, my mother had taught me to know her God and that He is love.

  2. Sunny says:

    Thank you for sharing this Jason. I am so thankful that you are who you are today. I only wish that I had known your mother and your father…

  3. Allen W. Jerkins says:

    Jason,This was really good. You write well. I read that you are considering abandoning the blog; when you write about God, the blog is at its best. But I notice that these posts generate the fewest comments, typically. A blog is a curious thing…I hope that your writing will center on what is best, and most important, whether it is in blog format, or perhaps, in another form, which I hope you will consider.

  4. Joshua Whitson says:

    I remember sitting and listening to you preach this sermon, and I was in awe. I honor you and your life, and thus in a very real way I honor your mom. Blessings!

  5. Jason says:

    Thanks for the encouragement, guys. I needed it today.

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