My dad died in the fall of 1999.
For good (mostly) and bad (occasionally), my dad was the dominant personality in my life. When he was in a room, the room was alive, and as his son, I had to keep up. I always knew I had his love, but sometimes I wasn’t sure if I had his approval. He came from a hard childhood with little encouragement and conquered that and legal blindness to become a well-known pastor, counselor, author and conference speaker. He figured I could make the same determinations and achieve the same heights. But I took after my mom and was more comfortable in a quieter role. There were a lot of great moments between us, but there was also tension.
The days between his death and his memorial service were busy with notifying people and making arrangements and preparing the service. The family gathered at his home in the woods of northern Wisconsin and mourned and laughed and distracted each other.
Finally, after supper on the day before the service, we were pretty much ready. I walked outside alone and headed off through the woods to a rocky, pine-covered peninsula that jutted out into Spider Lake.
It was early evening when I arrived. I sat on a rock along the shore, my feet inches from the water. My mind raced, thinking of everything and nothing — remembering my dad, wondering what life would be like without him, going over my talk at his memorial service the next day.
As the sun sank behind the trees I noticed a movement between my feet. A tiny shrew, about two inches long, was foraging in the leaves along the shore. It must have felt secure in the foot-and-a-half space between my shoes because for the next twenty minutes, it stayed right there. But it was active. It scurried and darted, disappearing at times under the leaves then reappearing in its mad hunt for insects. Shrews have the fastest metabolism of any animal. To survive at that pace, they have to eat their own body-weight in food each day. I never saw this one stop.
I didn’t move. I simply sat with my elbows on my knees and my chin in my hands, watching. Finally, as dusk drifted into darkness, it disappeared.
I got up, being careful not to step anywhere the shrew might be, and headed back through the woods to the house. I got about halfway there when the tears finally came. I stood in the dark and cried into the night. After a couple minutes I realized that my grief all came down to one question.
Did I really believe what I said I believed? If I did, then I knew Dad was with the Lord and I would see him again one day. That was a reason to be sad, but it was a sweet sadness. But if I didn’t …?
I spoke out loud as I asked myself. “Well? Do you?” In that moment, I realized a great sense of peace. This was the first time in my life I had lost somebody on whom I was emotionally dependent. It was the first time I had really faced this question. It was the Holy Spirit, I believed, who answered my question. I was certain Dad was with Jesus Christ. It was no longer “goodbye.” It was now “See you later.”
Since that moment, heaven has been much more real to me and my priorities on earth have entirely changed. Material things are just that — fun and sometimes necessary, but not important. My hope for my own future is real and sustaining when times are rough.
I walked back to the house and met my sister who was out looking for me. We wandered down to the end of dad’s dock and talked and laughed and cried for a long time. But it was a different sort of crying, a good sort of crying.
I’ve often thought back on that night. I’ve tried to make that tiny shrew into a symbol of something. How our busyness ultimately doesn’t matter; how life goes on no matter what; how sometimes you see great things when you just stop and reflect. None of the symbols really work. I don’t think it meant anything. It was just a shrew hunting for insects between the shoes of a grieving man. But somehow, for some reason, it has always been an inextricable part of my memories of that night.
A shrew ran across the path in front of me when I was walking recently. Five minutes later, another one dashed by. It got me thinking again of that night and Dad and heaven and hope.