Thursday, June 19, 2014

A river will run through it, and night will be no more

I struggled with writing about this for over two months. On April 9th (April 12th "officially"), I lost my little brother Peter at the age of 32 very suddenly, and of natural causes. He was a wonderful husband, a father of two sons, one of which was born just over a month after his passing, he was a son himself, and my only brother. His death has no doubt left all of us in a world of pain and shock.

When I started this blog, I left the door open to not only talk about fly fishing, but also about theological issues. So far every post has been fly fishing related, but in another life, when I'm not fly fishing, I play the role of some sort of armchair theologian. I recently completed my Bachelor of Science in Bible, and am looking towards beginning an MA in Theological Studies. Theology plays a huge role in who I am and how I view the world. So, it is times like this where I am glad that I never intentionally limited this blog to simple musings on fly fishing. For those who read my blog who are not "believers", so to speak, I pray you'll bear with me as I launch into this post.

I shared many things with my brother. Being just two years older than Peter, I can say that my memories begin with him coming into my life. My earliest memory is of my parents bringing home from the hospital. I still remember them laying him on our sofa and bringing me over to see this new life. I didn't understand, as no two year old would, at just how life changing that moment would be.

My childhood was spent fishing and enjoying the outdoors with my dad and brother. While we didn't get into fly fishing until our teen years, the comparisons to our family and Norman Maclean (author of A River Runs Through it) and his family were obvious. Yes, we are a family of devout Presbyterians (and Scots Irish on my mother's side to boot), and while my dad is no Reverend Maclean, as you would not see him casting to a metronome, wearing a leather glove, banging out a four count rhythm and critiquing my English composition papers, he is a hard working man who gave my brother and me a deep seated appreciation for the outdoors, in particular fishing. Imagine a blue collared version of the Macleans living not in the foothills of Montana, but rather in the farmlands of Lancaster County. We didn't live at the junction of two great trout rivers, but rather, a quarter of a mile from a dirty farmland creek infested with carp, yellow bellied catfish, and the prize of Lancaster County-big bronze backed small mouth bass. And while my brother and I would spend our summers walking the creek catching bigger bass than most people believed lived in that stream, our summer vacations were spent on the great trout streams of North Central Pennsylvania, where we discovered fly fishing.

The bond that was forged on these trips runs deep. There were times in my brother's life where his path seemed not so different from Paul Maclean's. Drinking too much, running with rough crowds, taking risks, and I confess, there was a time when I genuinely felt that I would lose Peter tragically just as the Macleans would lose Paul. There were times when I felt much like Norman Maclean when he wrote about not knowing how to help his brother, other than to take him fishing. Fly fishing was something we still had. No matter how different our paths in life were during these times, we could go out on a stream and reconnect. The times in our lives where my dad, brother and I were most far apart were times in our lives where we could still wade the Kettle Creek and put all that distance behind us.

And yet, unlike Paul Maclean, my brother came around. We would contribute this to the workings of God in his life. Being of Presbyterian stock, we fully believe that the Lord never lets His children go too long in rebellion, and my brother would testify to this years later. He once told me that even in the darkest moments of his life, he would lay in his bed at night with the overwhelming sense that God's hand was still on him. It would become clear later on in his life that Peter's feelings were right, and God's hand truly was on him.

I had the privilege of watching Peter come to a strong, vibrant faith in God. As he grew out of his early to mid twenties, he became a man dedicated to his faith, to his young wife and son, and to his church. Peter changed. He abandoned his destructive life, turned to his God, and sought to lead his family in the rich traditions of our Presbyterian heritage. Ironically, it would be in this time that he would most talk about death. I long since stopped worrying that I would lose Peter like Norman lost Paul, and yet my brother would talk about the hope that the Christian has in death. He would talk about the unimaginable reality of being in the presence of Christ. He would talk about the perfected soul that he would become after death. He would ponder the mysteries of the Triune God. He not only developed a rich theology that lived in his head, he developed a theology that would effect his heart. He was a great theologian because of this. He learned to connect orthodoxy with orthopraxy. He learned that to believe right meant that he would live rightly. And so it was that our family saw Peter in his last years on earth living in a way that brought joy and encouragement to us. We saw the reality of God's hand on his life being fleshed out.

And then, suddenly to us, the Lord took him home. Here again, I found myself feeling like Norman Maclean, losing my brother at the age of 32, the very same age that Paul Maclean died. Yet, I praise God that I did not lose my brother like Norman did, to a street fight gone wrong, but rather, I had the opportunity to enjoy sweet Christian fellowship with him in the past several years. It was in these last years that our bond grew ever deeper as we walked similar roads. We would meet our wives, marry, have children, even live next door to one another, and of course we remained fly fishermen together. Our time on the water became all the more sweet. I stopped worrying, as we fished together, about what I could do to help my brother, and instead started spending that time with him talking about the Divine. We would hash out our theology together, all the while sharing a love for the wilderness and the wild trout that lived there. We would talk about our families, the joys and struggles of being young fathers and husbands. But mostly, we would enjoy the fishing and each other's company.

My brother had no fear of death. He was open about this. He saw that "to live is Christ, but to die is gain". Perhaps deep down he had a sense that his time was short on this earth. Perhaps not. Perhaps his "all or nothing" approach to life led him to a place where once he truly and fully grasped Christian theology, he couldn't help but dive head first into the depths of faith in Christ. Either way, he believed that God numbers our days, and that God works all things for the good of those who love Him. For Peter, this is his reality. He now sees the glorious hope of his faith. He has heard his Savior say, "Well done, good and faithful servant." For the rest of us, we struggle.

I find myself often asking this question. How could the best thing to ever happen to my brother feel like the worst thing that could ever happen to us? Our family now has a widow, two fatherless children, grieving parents who had to bury a son, and a brother who has to live my life in a way that I never had to before-without Peter by my side. How do we move forward with this? This is the place where the rubber meets the road. This is the place where our theology is hit in the face by real life. I once fully confessed to my brother that there is a big disconnect between my theology and "real life" sometimes. I told him that there are times when my theology feels insufficient to deal with the world around me. He flat out told me that was a load of bunk. He said that if I truly believed my theology I would never say such a thing.

Much has been said and written about grief. As I move along in the process, I realize one thing. It is easy to focus on the grief itself and strive to deal with it. I think of what might ease the pain. I think of what might make the sorrow a little less bitter. Here, I find very little comfort. I read about Christian suffering and pain. I read about dealing with loss and grief. I'm thankful that I don't walk this road alone, but walk it with many other saints. What I read may help somewhat, but its always temporary, and more like psychiatric treatment than anything else. What truly lifts my spirits is to reflect on the God that my brother served. The God who created this world, the streams, the trout, the mountains, and who gave us these relationships and lives that cross with one another. What lifts my spirits is to reflect on a God who is glorious, good, sovereign, holy, merciful, gracious, patient, perfectly loving, eternally faithful, just and righteous, all powerful, all knowing, fully present with us all the time, is self sufficient and fully sufficient for us, and is perfectly beautiful. This is the God in who my brother believed in faithfully, and now is experiencing perfectly. This is the God who is closer to us than any brother, son, father, or husband. This is the God who, as Saint Augustine said, judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist at all. This is the God who not only brings good out of evil, but also submitted himself to the greatest of all evils so that he could bring forth the greatest good the world has ever known, bearing not only the physical pain of death but also the spiritual pain of making atonement for our sins. This is the God who loves us so deeply that he did not spare himself from the pain and agony of evil. In these reflections, there I find comfort. Reflecting on grief and pain seems to only magnify more my grief and pain. Yet in God, there is true comfort and peace.

What starts out as a reflection of my brother's life turns into a pondering of the character and nature of God, and I think my brother would be pleased with that. He would not want us to romanticize his life, but rather, he would want his life to point to the glory of God himself. Perhaps this is one reason why reflecting on the attributes of God brings me comfort-because I know that my brother would want me to reflect not on his character, but on God's. By reflecting on God's character and nature, it honors both my brother's legacy and God himself.

I've been fly fishing several times now since his death. Each time is a bitter sweet moment. I feel close to him when I'm on the stream, and yet I'm most reminded of his absence. As my father and I fished together for the first time since Peter's death last weekend though, I learned a great truth. It is still possible to enjoy the things we once enjoyed with Peter, even without him by our side. Every moment is bitter sweet, and yet, I find that the bitterness has a way of magnifying the sweetness. I can only attribute this to the grace of God himself.

The last picture of the three of us (from L to R-me, our father, and Peter), taken in October of 2013 in the Hammersley Wilderness Area. This was the last fishing trip the three of us took together.


  1. . Your blog has always attracted me and this particular post left me speechless. It is one of the best pieces of writing I have seen. Good job.
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  2. Thanks. I'm glad the heavily theological ovetones of this haven't turned people away.