One of my favorite movies is a 2005 Cameron Crowe offering that flew almost entirely under the radar. Critics panned it and moviegoers mostly ignored it. Both responses were amiss. Elizabethtown tells the story of a grown son who has to fly across country to attend his father’s funeral. It’s a funny, beautiful, bittersweet movie. But every time I’ve seen it—and I’ve seen it a lot—I’ve had to grapple with the fact that this same journey would someday be mine. And then suddenly it was. My dad retired in January, was diagnosed with lung cancer in May, and died in June. He was an unyielding optimist, to the very end, but not even positive thinking can overcome death. And so I found myself on a plane to Arizona.
Jeffery James Spielman was born in Georgia but grew up in Van Nuys. California. He played baseball at USC and jumped out of helicopters in Vietnam. He was a decorated soldier, but never traded on his past success. My dad’s defining characteristic was a self-deprecating sense of humor. He had a knack for making people laugh—which is a rare and wonderful gift. My dad loved baseball and softball, cold Pepsi and hot showers, good books and good movies. He loved reading and writing, grilling out and camping out, taking hikes and exploring new places, but his greatest pleasure was spending time with friends and family. He loved people—not just friends and family. In fact, the only time I can remember my dad getting upset with me as a kid was when I didn’t show enough respect to a department store clerk. Treating people the right way was a nonnegotiable for my dad—which is why he was always on time, or early. He would rather wait himself than make others wait for him, which is a very practical application of an ancient maxim. Let each of you regard others as more important than yourself.
Growing up, I knew that if my dad was taking me someplace we were going to be on time—unless his beloved VW van broke down, which it did with some frequency. He called it Fritz, as in “always on the...”. But I have plenty of great memories in that van, some of them while stranded by the side of the road—which wasn’t such a bad thing because this van had a sink, and a table! And I suspect that it may have single-handedly sustained the business of a wizened old German mechanic in Sunland, CA—who knew my dad by name. “Ah, Mr S(h)pielman!” he would say every time we rolled up. My dad had many talents, but he was hard on transmissions. And for the whole of my life, my dad never owned a new vehicle, teaching me in the process that there is no shame in driving an old car. For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.
My dad taught me how to play football and baseball—and how to throw a frisbee. I had to go elsewhere for basketball, and neither of us ever had any patience for golf. But more than teaching me how to throw and catch and hit, my dad taught me how to be a good sport, win or lose. He taught me to remember that it’s just a game, and that you should only play for as long as you’re having fun. As it happened, my dad kept playing baseball and softball for 70+ years, and never gave up trying to become a better hitter. My dad taught me how to shave, and how to drive and how to treat people, of course, though I’ve never been as good at that as he was. My dad was a recent transplant to Arizona when he died, but there had to be more than 60 people at his wonderfully unconventional memorial (which took place at a batting cage). Most of them had to fly in. He was far more beloved than I realized in his lifetime, and unless something changes, I can’t imagine I’ll have anywhere near as many people at my own memorial.
My dad died in the early morning hours of June 21 after a long and grueling night. Thankfully, I’d gotten the “come now” call some 36 hours before. So I went from Myrtle Beach to Charlotte to Phoenix to Prescott Valley and arrived in time to spend one last day with my dad. Father’s Day. And as I waited by his bedside through his final night on earth, I couldn’t help but think of the nights I’d spent at my wife’s side, waiting for the births of our children—and of another night languishing through the agony of miscarriage. It was a poignant parallel. For all the joys of birth, for all the hopes we harbor for our kids, it is ultimately death that awaits them. It is death that awaits us all. Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. “It is the same for all,” Solomon told us. “The same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice.”
Solomon may have been the wisest mortal to ever live, but he was also a bitter and cynical man—who wrote a sometimes bitter and cynical book. He called the dead more fortunate than the living and those who never existed more fortunate than all. He said this not because he held out any hope for a heavenly future, but because he simply longed for oblivion. He argued that a living dog is better than a dead lion because he believed this temporal life was all that anyone had. “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.” Solomon wrote an entire book of instruction to his son, but for all the things a father can teach his son, there is one subject on which no man is an expert. Death. Because it’s a journey we all take alone and there is no coming back. Not even Solomon had any idea what was on the other side. “Who knows,” he lamented, “whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?”
Nevertheless, Solomon asserted that it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, mirroring something Jesus said at the very outset of his public ministry. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Christ declared, “for they shall be comforted”—which seems a strange rationale. Wouldn’t it be better to skip the mourning altogether, and thereby mitigate the need for comforting? Apparently not. Apparently there is value or blessing in mourning and being comforted—just as there is blessing in being hungry and eating, being thirsty and drinking, being tired and sleeping. There is value in being emptied and then filled back up again. “Sorrow is better than laughter,” Solomon maintained, “for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.” It was something J.K. Rowling wrote in her Harry Potter finale that helped me understand this better:
Just as Voldemort had not been able to possess Harry while Harry was consumed with grief for Sirius, so his thoughts could not penetrate Harry now, while he mourned Dobby. Grief, it seemed, drove Voldemort out—though Dumbledore, of course, would have said that it was love.
It was grief that finally gave Harry Potter the capacity to resist his evil adversary because grief is an expression of love, and love is the highest virtue—not as its understood by the world but as it was personified in Christ. Grief, in fact, is the most intense expression of love that the human experience knows. It can drive out evil and refine the soul.
I got to hold my dad’s hand as he breathed his last, and though he was staring right at me, I don’t think he could see me. He was somewhere else, but he couldn’t tell me where—leaving intact life’s most paramount question. It is the uncertainty of what lies beyond that makes death such a formidable foe. But if the stories are true—and I believe they are—there is one man who triumphed over death and left the world a pathway forward.
“Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms.”
But Jesus also said that the way is narrow and few are those who find it.
“Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus said, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
But Jesus also said that whoever does not take up his cross and follow him will perish.
Jesus said that whoever is not against him is for him, but he also told the disciples that whoever is not for them is against them.
It is exceedingly difficult to reconcile everything Jesus said in scripture, but I’ve noticed that he spoke words of comfort to the contrite and humble —“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”—and he spoke words of condemnation to the proud and conceited—“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.”
My dad professed faith in Christ but was never a church-going man. Some would say those two things are incompatible. There was a time when I would have said the same. Now I’m not so sure. I’ve come to the conclusion that wisdom allows for uncertainty. At some level, wisdom demands uncertainty. This was certainly the case with Solomon. “For who knows,” Solomon asked, “what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life…? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?” God has put eternity into our hearts, and yet we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” In light of this uncertainty, Solomon prescribes the follow:
I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
The hedonistic rendering of this admonition—eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die—misses the key caveats. Be joyful. Do good. Life’s pleasures are a gift of God. Notice that despite Solomon’s ongoing lament that everything is vanity, and despite his ignorance of what lies beyond the grave, he advises against yielding to despair. Make the best of the temporal life you’ve been given. Take pleasure in all your toil. In my case, combat abortion in joy. Do not denigrate the value of the material world. Do not be so fixated on heaven that you’re blind to earthly needs. Every single one of the children Abort73 has helped spare from abortion will one day meet their death. Like Tolkien, we are fighting the long defeat, but that doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel. That doesn’t mean there’s no value in temporal victories. While there is life there is hope. A living dog is better than a dead lion.
As I’ve grown older, my prayers have grown simpler. You could almost reduce them to a single word. It’s what I prayed for my dad. It’s what I pray for my wife and kids. It’s what I pray for my friends, my family, for the world, and myself. Mercy. Lord have mercy on our souls. And so far as I can tell, the surest way to receive mercy is to show mercy. “For if you forgive others, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive you yours.”
If you want God to show mercy to you, show mercy to others. Forgive and be forgiven. And I think my dad understood that. “To be a human being,” C.S. Lewis observed, “is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.” That is our legacy. Made in the image of God, yet clamoring to be gods. Mercy. I don’t know what lies on the other side—not with any certainty—but I lean in on the goodness and faithfulness of God, and I am hopeful that my dad and I will one day meet again. But even if we don’t, living with hope is an act of faith—or perhaps rebellion—that makes the world an infinitely better place as we gamely march towards death.
Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.