By Greg Asimakoupoulos
Like most pastors, my father had a fascination with the cross. He loved hymns that celebrated the mystery of Good Friday. His study at church had more than a few books on the atonement. Unlike many of his Evangelical colleagues, the wall over his desk boasted a crucifix. Even when my dad transitioned from pastoral ministry into the business world, that wooden crucifix graced his office.
As a successful businessman in his community, my dad maintained his spiritual disciplines of Bible study and prayer. His favorite activity each day was the hour he spent before breakfast in his favorite chair with an open Bible in his lap and a pen in his hand. On more than one occasion he told me how much he anticipated his appointment with his Heavenly Father each morning. He could hardly wait to see what insights he would glean from God’s Word.
When I became a pastor, my dad enjoyed comparing notes. He would often relate observations he’d mined from his personal study. He’d share sermon illustrations he’d discovered in real life he thought I could use. He would suggest ways I might approach preaching a particular text. Similarly, I would regularly give him a preview of a forthcoming series I was planning or walk him through my outline of next Sunday’s sermon.
Without fail, whenever I shared how I was planning to preach on the cross, he would say: “Remember, Greg, the message of the cross is not so much the physical torture Christ endured. It’s the fact that the sinless Son of God bore the sin of the world as he suffered, bled and died.”
It’s not an overstatement to say my dad gloried in the cross. He saw in it a source of healing in life and in death. It was a mystery he held on to in both pleasant and challenging times. During my father’s fourteen year battle with cancer, he often meditated on Isaiah 53:5. “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
My dad hoped for complete healing. When that did not appear to be God’s plan he took comfort knowing that he had lived seven years longer than most with his particular diagnosis. When his oncologist indicated my dad had just weeks to live, I asked my congregation to pray for dying grace.
One afternoon while stopping by to pray with a member of our church battling throat cancer, Larry’s wife said he had something for my dad. She proceeded to hold out a small hand-carved wooden cross. “It’s a holding cross,” she explained. “It’s asymmetrical shaped so that it fits easily in your fingers as a meditation tool. I ordered one for my husband and one for your dad.”
A couple days later I made the two and a half hour drive that had become a weekly pilgrimage. As I held out the cross to my dad, his shriveled hand took hold of it. I explained about the shape of the cross and the woman who had ordered it for him. His eyes teared up. A smile crossed his face. It was as if he’d been given a million dollars.
For the last month of my dad’s life, he clutched that little olivewood cross continuously. Whether watching his favorite cable news channel, The Price is Right or a Gaither Homecoming video, he held on tightly to that cross. As members of his small group dropped by to visit or the hospice nurses attended to his needs, he clung to the cross. What had been his focus in living defined his hope in dying.
The night my dad died, I sat by his bed reading the Bible to him. Although he was unresponsive to my voice, his right hand continued to cradle that little cross. He was holding it securely when he took his last breath.
As we sang The Old Rugged Cross at his memorial service, the lyrics took on new meaning for me. “So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross ‘til my trophies at last I lay down. I will cling to the old rugged cross and exchange it someday for a crown.” No wonder St. Paul wrote, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 6:14)
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