This past weekend, I was in St. Paul, Minnesota for my seminary commencement. Although I had received my degree a few months ago, they only held commencement once a year and the journey to get to the end was too significant for me to have missed it. I wanted to see friends and faculty and have a celebration with my family, who was incredibly supportive throughout the entire journey.
In the midst of it all, there were two people missing from the festivities. My mom and dad, both of whom were so influential in me being there that day, in more ways than one. Growing up the son of a pastor, I didn’t expect that I would have gone to seminary or into full-time ministry, but God had other plans. After 9 years in engineering, I felt the tug of the Holy Spirit and I have not looked back in the more than 7 years since I made the decision.
My mom and I always had a special relationship. She was always so encouraging to and supportive of me. Whenever I would update her on my progress through seminary, she would always marvel at my accomplishments. Isn’t that what any mother should be doing with their children? Nevertheless, it always made me feel so special. She would claim Luke 1:14 over me, “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth.” She even wrote it out in calligraphy and framed it for my desk.
The day that my mom died, among the many other heartbreaking things for me was that she, who had played such an influential role in my spiritual formation, would not be physically present to see me graduate from seminary. I had no idea that I would lose my dad less than two years later as well so that neither of them would be physically present for my graduation. At least Dad heard me share about receiving my degree since that happened a month or so before he died.
As my family and I made our way out to Minnesota, I knew that the sheer emotion of these moments would overtake me at some point. After a long day on Friday, my wife and I made our way to the campus to take part in a communion service before the actual commencement took place on Saturday. We were both tired and road-weary from traveling, but we had committed to each other that we would go and we had friends who had traveled out to be with us who were watching our children.
Communion has always been a special time for me in the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The weight and significance of what was accomplished is always enough to bring me to tears if I allow myself to fully engage and participate in the moment.
As we went through the service, I did what I hate people doing in church, I religiously followed the program that had been handed to me, mentally checking off every element of the service as we went. I noticed a moment during communion where graduates would receive a servant’s towel as a symbol of our commitment to Christ and to his church.
Different faculty members were handing the towels out and praying over graduates as they went up to take communion. I surveyed the various faculty members, trying to pick out who I thought would be the most appropriate choice for me. I spotted the professor who had taught the class that I had the week after my mom died. While there was nothing ground-breaking in the class, the significant events that happened around it made it a special class for me. It was a week of raw emotion for me and the professor’s heart shined throughout the week.
As she prayed over me and I received the towel, I looked down at what was written on the towel. It had to be some kind of joke, right? As I hurried back to my seat, I pulled out my smartphone and looked up the passage to confirm my suspicions. The exact verses that were cited on the towel were the exact verses that my mother had handwritten and put on her nightstand in the last 6 months of her life. Isaiah 61:1-3. How could this be?
Well, that just opened the floodgates for me. I was a weepy mess from that point onwards, looking heavenward as I had a sneaking suspicion that the “great cloud of witnesses” was indeed watching as we worshipped our Lord that evening. Among that cloud, I could imagine my mother pointing down at me and saying, “Yup, that’s my son. I am so proud of him.”
Everything else, for the rest of the weekend, just seemed extra surreal to me. I tried to slow it all down, but it just didn’t work. I felt as if heaven had come down and touched earth in that moment.
While I don’t like to fall into the western mindset that God is our genie who, when the bottle is rubbed, grants us all of our wishes, I have had too much experience in my own life to think that he is not concerned with some of the intimate details of our lives. Friday night was just more confirmation of that to me. While I hadn’t prayed for any signs from heaven, God knew my heart and the aching within it as I journeyed through the close of this chapter in my life. He gave me what I needed, even though I hadn’t asked for it.
Yes, I think Mom and Dad may have been watching. Having just finished a significant degree in theology, perhaps some might criticize me for adopting theology which seems a bit off-kilter, but again, Hebrews makes reference to the great cloud of witnesses and I can’t help but think that they were watching that night.