When I Had to Tell My Kids Their Pops was Gone

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On the evening of January 6, 2016 outside Tampa, Florida, my father-in-law suffered a fatal heart attack on vacation with my mother-in-law. On the morning of January 7, 2016 inside my living room in Franklin, Tennessee, I had to find the words to tell my 3-year-old and 4-year-old sons the bad news. How to fit such sadness into the small box of language and experience of little children?

The historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus matters in times like this. If it were not for the risen Christ, I would have no good words to share amidst the bad news of death. But because Jesus has risen, I have hope that speaks into a hopeless situation. And I needed some hope to share.

I sat my boys down and told them we had something to tell them. They didn't remember the tears in our eyes from the night before. They didn't know why my sister came over to play with them until bed time as their mom and I withdrew together. They thought good news of a fun-filled day was coming. I wish it was, but that day had to wait. Death had approached our doorstep, crashing its way from Florida with the speed of a trembling voice on the other end of the telephone. Their Pops was gone.

It was time for the hope of the resurrection to prove its power. He was united with him in a death like his, and he shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

My father-in-law was a Christian. My boys were close to him. He was a part of their weekly lives. He went to church with us. He played hide and seek with the boys every Tuesday night, sat them in his lap as they ate their ice-cream sandwich, and brought my oldest a peppermint every time he saw him. Those special bonds were severed without warning, without preparation, and without apology. And it was awful.

But because he knew Christ, when he died he was ushered into the presence of God - the great gift of the gospel. He had departed from us, that’s true, but his heart would never fail him again. He is with God, and soon he will receive his resurrection body. The day is coming, as my 4-year-old says, when Jesus will "restart everything". The resurrection is coming.

In sharing bad news of death with my two boys, I had the good news of the resurrection to point them to. And that good news does not reside in that we merely have hope of future life. The good news resides in the fact that Jesus is there to make our future life the kind of life where death and evil and sickness and pain cannot live. The good news of the resurrection is good news because it is the restoration of all that this sin-stained world has ruined. Jesus is making all things new - even new hearts in old Pops, for what was sown is perishable, but what is raised is imperishable. And what is raised in Christ will live with him forever, beholding God for eternity - the great gift of the gospel.

Through tears that January morning, I had hope to share while delivering bad news. My boys could not understand the full impact of death that day. They are still slowly realizing all that it means. They understand life much better than death, and we do too. And so the truth that we have a God of the living, not of the dead, matters because life, not death, fits inside their language and experience. They can understand the future life of their Pops, even if they can’t understand his present absence.

It will not always be like this. In just a little while, if my boys come to faith in Christ, they will see their Pops again. Perhaps they will share an ice cream sandwich in some big leather chair in the new world. Jesus will join them, and tell them of all the little things he was doing in their lives in these hard days as he worked for their good and for his glory. Perhaps they won’t have the language or experience to understand the full impact of it all until they can see the good news himself sitting beside them. Perhaps their experience of heaven will only be enhanced because early on in life they began to look forward to it.

I don’t know all that they feel when they ride in his old truck, or see an old picture of him in a party hat, or when they play with a hand-made toy he gave them one Christmas. Maybe it whispers to them of the brokenness of the world. Maybe thoughts of heaven shine into their little minds. Perhaps Jesus himself comforts them in ways I can't see. I pray it creates in them a longing for a better world with a God who saves them from everything bad, and gives them back all the joy in his heart - the joy at his right hand, with pleasures forevermore.