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Seeing God in my Father-in-law’s passing

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.

In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. -Proverbs 3:5-6

These two verses were my father-in-law’s favorites. They were the ones he chose as his “life’s verses” when his mind was still untouched by Alzheimer’s; the ones that would be said at his funeral.

Norman Penner passed away one week ago today. The week of traveling to Medicine Hat and being with family as we buried him has been very meaningful and I knew that it would be the topic for this week’s reflections.

Norman Leslie Penner 1928 – 2012

Waiting for someone to die is a surreal experience – it is not like any other time. The time is liminal (being on the threshold of life and death), and while it is difficult, I would say it’s a sacred time.  It certainly was that for Lyle, and for me. For those who held vigil in the hospital, it was a time of anguish and reflection and prayer. Lyle was present at his passing, but it was also a surreal and sacred time for myself here in Winnipeg. Thoughts of Dad and the family who were in the hospital were ever present.  I spent much time praying; prayers in the car while on errands, prayers as I prepared supper, prayers even while I read in the evening. They were simple prayers. “God, be with Dad. Be with Lyle, Mom, Shelley, Cheryl, Bob, Paul… Give them strength.”

You realize how important simple acts of kindness are during difficult times. Lots of people, from our church community to family to co-workers, simply told us they were thinking and praying for us and wished us peace. I saw God in each person who took time to sympathize and some who lent a listening ear. Our church community sent flowers out west. In Medicine Hat, local church people started a parade of food donations to my sister and brother-in-law’s house. It meant that Cheryl and Paul didn’t need to do quite so much food prep for all the company and the fact that people were so kind would bring unexpected tears to my eyes and does even now as I write this. (And ironically, just now our dear friend Verda brought us supper here in Winnipeg, so this story of love is still growing. Thank you Verda.)

I also saw God in the actual event of his passing. In obituaries you often read that a person was surrounded by loved ones as they passed. It’s almost a cliché, but up close, it is a miracle. Everyone who was there was at peace with each other and with Dad and had nothing but love for him as they let him go. In the end, love becomes so clear. Dad’s foibles, as small as they were, were completely forgiven and I witnessed Lyle’s gratitude well up within him. Gratitude for the legacy of faith and unconditional love that his Dad had given him. Death really makes people see more clearly and it is a reminder to hold each other close like that during the rest of life as well.

In the last hours before he passed, Shelley, Dad’s oldest daughter, made it in from Washington. It was as if Norman was waiting for her, being ever the thoughtful guy that he was. They spent a few hours reminiscing about him – his strengths, his weaknesses, the memories they had. They were able to laugh and cry together. And then, as if God was welcoming him, a glorious sunset began outside the hospital window. When

The sunset outside Dad’s hospital room as he passed, taken by his son-in-law Paul Durksen

it was done, he passed.

The next morning after his death, I wrote some reflections of his life and I became quite struck by something. I think it’s fair to say that Dad’s life was not without its share of suffering. He struggled with almost constant headaches throughout his life, and inherited the Penner tendency to be a worrier. He probably suffered from depression as well. So when I saw and heard of how wonderful his passing was, I was so moved. It was as if God was saying, “In this life you had suffering, but I am and always have been with you in the midst of it.” God showed his love to Dad through the sunset and through the love of so many people (including incredibly kind palliative care nurses) who stayed with him to the end.

The day before my son Joel and I traveled out by car, I told the story to anyone who would listen.  In a small store, I told the shop owner about the sunset and about how he was surrounded by love, and she and I both got all teary. Four different people that day told me their own stories, through tears, of the death of a beloved parent. Dad’s death opened up conversations of depth.

The verses Dad chose about trusting in God were undoubtedly not easy ones to follow in his lifetime.  I’m sure it was not always easy for him to trust in the midst of doubts and struggles. Lyle says that growing up, his Dad would just sit for hours and think. I’m sure he was in many ways trying to piece together his own understanding of things, but he always chose to go back to trusting in God. Trusting in a Bigger Picture that was beyond his understanding. His and Mom’s life together was that of service and humble dependence on and acknowledgment of God. From my vantage point, I can see that like the last part of the verses say, God directed their paths and gave them fruitful  and meaningful lives in the midst of any doubts and struggles.

Lyle and his sister Cheryl shared memories of Dad at the funeral and this too was such a clear witness of God to me. I saw how grief brought out depths of feeling in both of them. So much gratitude for dad has made this week so meaningful. I have been very grateful to have been a part of it all.

Thank you Dad for your humble and kind-spirited life. You were a good example to me in always trusting in God, even during your many headaches. And of course, you gave me Lyle and Joel, whom I am so thankful for. Bless you as you are now with God.

Dad’s obituary can be read at this link.

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