Delivered February 5, 2012 at Grace Presbyterian Church
Joel Whitmire McClain
July 6, 2007 – February 3, 2012
Today I find myself in an uncomfortable position. I am in unfamiliar territory. I have crossed a line that I had hoped I would never have to cross. Many of you see us every Sunday and know that I and my family, The Clan McClain, are strictly “back pew” kind of people. The back pew is nice, comfortable. The angles are a little softer; from the back pews you don’t have to strain your neck so much to see the overhead. Back pews are especially nice for those of us who are not really good at small talk. When you sit near the front of the sanctuary you have to navigate through a crowd of people; you have to talk to people. I love church, and I love this church, but crowds just about anywhere can be overwhelming for introverts like me. But because the back pew is closest to the doors, they make it easiest to slip in and out. They are closest to the boundary of being in church, and make it easiest to cross the line. I think on a few occasions, when we have been running late, The Clan McClain has lost the competition amongst the other “back pew” people of this church and reluctantly taken a seat closer to the middle of the sanctuary. Today, however, is different. A different line has been crossed and I unwittingly find myself on the front row.
Earlier we read Psalm 16. It is my favorite Psalm. It is the song of someone who finds themselves in an uncomfortable position, in unfamiliar territory. There is grave danger. How will they survive? Some call it a song of Lamentation, others call it a Psalm of Confidence. I would call it a Psalm of Shalom. If you know me or go to this church, you have heard of Shalom. It is a uniquely Biblical concept of well-being. It means “universal thriving”, or “relational wholeness”. It is a picture of true community, of everything flourishing together. Shalom is a vision of how things were made to be, how they are suppose to be, of how things can be. You can detect the vision of Shalom in Paul’s letter to the Romans when he writes “all things work together for good for those who love God.” Psalm 16 strikes me as the words of someone who has been taught by God the lesson of Shalom, and it is a lesson of three parts: Of Community, Of Boundaries, and Of Resurrection.
I will confess that when Joel was born four and half years ago, I had not yet grasped the full significance of Shalom. The reality of Joel, and of his genetic disorder, did not seem compatible with my thriving. Many of you may recall the Cosby show. One of the funny things about that show was the way the Father, Heathcliff, made it very clear that he longed for the day their children would grow up and move out. Then he and Claire would have their money, their time, their house, their very lives, back to themselves. I think this is a very typical dream of Dads. A dream of no more diapers. Of the ability to travel and spend time alone with one’s wife. A dream of some quiet. Joel’s arrival into our family, however, threw a cold cup of water on this dream. And for the first year of Joel’s life, I am ashamed to say I resented him and God. Joel seemed incompatible with my dreams of independence and a life of ease. I was willing to sacrifice some things for children, but only for a reasonable number of years. I knew becoming a father meant postponing my pursuit of happiness, but why should I have to give my dreams up entirely?
I am very blessed to have a wonderful wife, who is much wiser than me. It was Brea who worked so hard to demonstrate that Joel and his disorder were not incompatible with our family. Rather, he was breath of fresh air into our lives. This is not to say the last few years have not been a challenge. Rather, it is to say that as a family we worked hard to do what I thought was impossible, experience joy. Joel was a delight and his presence enhanced our lives and our dreams. This often involved thinking outside the box, and pushing the boundaries. It meant learning medical facts and talking to others using terminology that I struggled to pronounce. It meant special diets and medicines. It meant wheel chairs and sign language.
It also meant needing help. And humbling ourselves to receive it. And help we did receive, from doctors and therapists. Online from other CDG parents. From Aunts and Uncles. From you all. In the nursery you accepted Joel. You held him, and played with him. And when he was sick, you prayed for us, you fed us, took in our other children, shuttled us about. You comforted us, when we spoke of the realities we faced. And in the short time Joel lived, new dreams had emerged. And while they shared some things with the old, they were not stunted versions of the old ones. Rather, they were wonderful and glorious and they included you all. We experienced our Joel making advancements only a few CDG children make. We saw him communicating. We saw him crawling and pulling to a stand. We celebrated with him his victories over his disorder. We saw him filled with joy and us joyful with him. We experienced a taste of the beautiful mystery that is Shalom.
The third verse of Psalm 16 says:
“I say of the holy people who are in the land,
They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”
Another translation says:
“As for the saints who are in the earth,
They are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight.”
But one of my favorite renderings is by Eugene Peterson, who translates it as:
“And these God-chosen lives all around— what splendid friends they make!”
I want to Thank you all for the love you have given my family, and especially Joel. You are a testament to the goodness of God; a true community.
Verse 6 reads
“The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.”
This verse strikes me as incredibly profound. Boundaries lines mark the edge of something. Something significant. The boundary line of a fence, the space between neighbor’s yards. The curb marks the boundary between the safety of the sidewalk and the danger of the road. On the calendar, the boundary lines mark the beginning and end of days.
My dear son Joel died Friday morning at 4 am, in his mother’s arms. He had been hospitalized for month, battling pneumonia. One aspect of Joel’s genetic disorder was that his immune system was comprised. Last July, he battled pneumonia and was hospitalized for three weeks. He won that fight. He was a fighter. Until early this week, we were fully confident he would win this fight as well. But another aspect of Joel’s genetic disorder was that his organs were vulnerable. And in the end, it was his liver that failed. On Wednesday morning we learned the awful truth. The Ammonia levels in his blood were continuing to rise, and were poisoning his brain. His blood could no longer clot. He could be kept alive on machines, but he would never come home. He had crossed a boundary from which there was no return. His mother and I then were faced with the decision of despair; His mother and I decided Joel had fought and suffered enough. Joel was made as comfortable as possible. His siblings visited with him, and he was able to give them hugs. On Thursday morning he was unconscious and unresponsive. We are told he will soon pass. We are joined by close friends and family. We held him, told stories about him, we celebrated his life. Throughout the day, his breathing slowed, but his heart, the strongest part of his body, continued strong. The evening came, and all was quiet; his mother and I alone were with him. And in the stillness we held him as he peacefully crossed over the final boundary.
The possibility of Joel’s early death has always been us. The statistics on CDG survival rates are startling. Online, we have come to know other CDG parents and their stories. From afar, we have watched the tragedy of an illness unfold. We offered love and support, all the while holding our breath. We compared strategies and worked hard at staying alive. It was a boundary line that we did not want to approach. It was too scary. But Joel’s final moments were not scary. Rather they were a profound spirit of peace. God was with us in the room. And he received Joel. Afterwards, his mother and I placed him on the bed and washed him, cleaned his wounds, combed his hair. With the help of the nurses we made handprint and footprint mementos. He had the most beautiful look on his face.
Don’t get me wrong, his Death is hard. His mother and I see him everywhere. It will take time. But God has placed this boundary line of Joel passing in a pleasant place. We, his mother and I, and now you all, have received a great inheritance.
But Brothers and Sisters, Community and Pleasant Boundaries are NOT enough. They help ease the burden, but they do not lift it. I cannot help but wishing for more. I WANT to see my son again. I WANT to see him whole. I WANT to speak with him, and walk with him. I WANT to hold him. Death should not have the final word, the final embrace.
Psalm 16 is significant for Christians for it prophetically speaks of Jesus and his resurrection. It is recorded in the second chapter of Acts that on the day of Pentecost, Peter cited Psalm 16 as evidence that the risen Jesus was the Messiah. Verse 10 says:
“you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.”
The Psalmist was being prophetic, he was speaking about the realities of the Messiah, but he was also talking about the realities of Shalom. He was talking about the benefit that he, and all those who place their trust in God, will receive. My son is dead, and we will soon place him in a grave. There are moments now that I hurt so much, so sad and heart- broken, that I feel as if I am decaying, and might as well be dead. But friends, we who are in Christ have not been abandoned. We will not decay. No, we will rise again. We will live. And so will Joel. He will be made whole. We who are in Christ will all be made whole together. Shalom is true, because the resurrection of the Christ is true. God the Father temporarily placed a boundary between himself and his Son, on our behalf. But then he removed it, and the pleasant place that is his Creation became all the more so. The community of which Christ is the King and we are full members is here.
God has only temporarily placed a boundary between me and my son.
It will one day be removed.
And the thing which separates us now will be no more.
I believe it.
I believe it.
I believe it.