Tommy Givens could make the drive in his sleep—the 30-plus miles cutting a path from Pasadena, where he lived and worked, to his hometown of Santa Clarita, California. He’d never made the journey at 12:00 a.m. before. Midnight on the dot, he noticed, as he glanced at the glowing numbers on the dash. With his jaw set, he thought about his father, the reason for many treks through the foothills over the past year. Tom Givens had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease just 18 months before, and the deterioration of his body seemed to happen both in the blink of an eye and at a tortuously slow pace.

Now it was over. Tommy thought back a few nights, when he sat with his father in his parents’ living room; Tom stared out the window, unable to move anything but his eyes. The family had worked out a code—with a series of blinks, Tom could painstakingly, letter by letter, communicate thoughts to his gathered family. That Thursday night, it was just father and son when the last message was blinked out: “My passing will be soon.”

The message sank in Tommy’s heart like a stone. He wanted to share the suffering of his father who had borne many a burden for him. At a loss for words, Tommy wrapped his arm around his father’s frail shoulders, pressing his bearded cheek to his father’s wrinkled one. Together they stared out the window and cried. Tom had been the pastor of a large and thriving Baptist church in Santa Clarita for most of Tommy’s life, and tonight Tommy was thankful for the memory verses that had filled his childhood. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .” he recited softly into his father’s ear. He prayed, beseeching God to be with his father as he walked through the valley of the shadow of death.

They were the last moments with his father, and Tommy was grateful, for they were good. Pulling into the driveway of his parents’ house, Tommy took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and opened the door. There, in the living room, was his father: Tom Givens, the eloquent preacher and dynamic pastor, the larger-than-life man under whose shadow Tommy stood through his teen years, and later the friend with whom he debated theology and mission. Facing Tommy in the same wheelchair where he spent most of his days for the past 18 months, his eyes were closed. Everything was the same, and yet his father was gone. His mother looked tired and pale, her eyes red with weeping. Tommy suddenly realized that they were both at a loss for what to do. “At that moment,” says Tommy, “I wished I were Catholic.”

Tommy is young to lose a parent—Tom Sr. was only 64 when he passed away in 2012. “I had never been that close to death,” admitted Tommy as he told his story in his office on Fuller’s Pasadena campus. Tommy’s age is in his favor; at 39 years old, the assistant professor of New Testament is among Fuller’s youngest faculty members—with an approachability and radical, passionate views that have made him a particularly popular one as well.

The evangelical church reflects the wider society’s dearth of guiding traditions when faced with death. Even a Baptist pastor’s kid, lifelong Christian, former missionary and seminary professor stood in his parents’ living room where his father had just died—and wondered what to do next. “We were groping for what might help us navigate something very profound,” he recalled, “something that would shape us for the rest of our lives.” Which is why Tommy wished he were Catholic—he would have known to call a priest, who could perform last rites for Tom.

Instead, what Tommy and his family chose to guide them was the Neptune Society, “America’s Most Trusted Cremation Provider,” as pre-arranged by Tom’s wishes. While they waited for the Neptune workers to show up, the Givens family gathered around their patriarch to say goodbye, hugging him one last time, weeping and unsure of how else to absorb the fact that he was really gone. “I’m sort of the go-to figure in my family for offering spiritual guidance,” said Tommy, as he recounted his fumbling for what to do, the spontaneous prayer he offered up.

When the Neptune Society workers arrived, Tommy’s mother and brother went into the other room, unable to bear watching Tom’s body being taken away. Tommy’s sense was, “We should see my father all the way out the door, right?” After receiving cold handshakes and mechanical condolences, Tommy helped the two men transfer his father onto a gurney. Once the Neptune employees were carrying his father out the door, he thought, “Why am I handing over my dad’s body to these people with whom I have no connection?” Yet he knew of no other way; his father was gone, out of his hands, to be replaced a few days later with a sealed box of ashes.

“We are failing to reckon with the profundity of death,” lamented Tommy later. “Knowing how to die well is something a community learns very slowly, and there is an enormous debt to the past.” Tommy found conversations with fellow faculty members helpful—his office neighbor David Augsburger, senior professor of pastoral counseling, reached out to Tommy with conversations and simple one-liners packed with compassionate wisdom. Fuller Professor of Cultural Psychologies Alvin Dueck came alongside Tommy, as well. One evening Tommy shared a beer and a long talk with John Goldingay, Fuller professor of Old Testament, who in his lectures and books is known for offering profound and vulnerable insights about death and suffering, drawn from his life with his late wife, Ann, who suffered with multiple sclerosis.

At home, Tommy was trying to grapple with these topics not with renowned theologians but with his three elementary-school-aged children. When Tom was diagnosed, he asked that his grandchildren be kept from him, to prevent their seeing the gradual deterioration of their grandfather into a “monster,” as he put it. But Tommy refused. “By the time my dad was diagnosed with this disease,” he explained, “I had learned that we live in a culture that is terrified of dying, and I wanted to try and teach my kids not to be afraid.” Grandpa Tom’s deteriorating condition raised questions among the children, and Tommy and his wife, Kim, discussed life, death, and dying with them on the drive to and from their visits in Santa Clarita. “As Christians, we need to learn not to be afraid,” said Tommy. “It doesn’t mean that we are flippant about it, because our lives—our bodies—are good, and death is their undoing, and we should resist that. But we don’t resist it out of fear and cling to our lives, as if death is some unconquered enemy or some place that God does not live.”

Perhaps this is the greatest truth Tommy learned through his father’s journey to death: God lives in our dying, as much as he does in our living. God’s grace covers our fearful deaths and our awkward fumbling with the deaths of our loved ones just as his grace pours over the births of our children that fill us with wonder. God invites us to live with him both in growth and in decay; to learn to live and to die well.

THE JEWISH TRADITION OF CHEVRA KADISHA

Our Jewish brothers and sisters demonstrate an alternative to merely succumbing to contemporary culture’s attitude toward death. Present in many synagogues are chevra kadisha, or burial societies: a group of men and women from the congregation who ceremonially cleanse and prepare the body for burial in the most honoring way possible. Men prepare men, and women prepare women; the body is never placed face down; modesty is always preserved; materials are passed around the body and never over it—at the end of the procedure, the chevra kadisha members pray for forgiveness for any indiscreet word, thought, or gesture they may have committed during their task. If Tommy were part of such a community, he might have had the comfort of knowing his father was not only in capable and compassionate hands, but in the care of people he knew and loved and lived with. Just as Tommy felt reluctance at releasing his father’s body to strangers, so Jewish tradition calls for a shomer, a watcher, to be with the body from the moment of death to the moment of burial.

These rituals are as much for the benefit of the ones who are left grieving as for the one who passed on. The tangible, practical support of the community helps relieve the burden of the family in mourning—not only does the chevra kadisha prepare the body for burial, they often make funeral arrangements as well. The family members are left to their one task at hand: grief. The traditional seven-day mourning period, the shiva, offers a time to think of nothing but one’s grief and the beloved person who has died. Such patience with death and mourning, the willingness to sit with it together, is an attitude evangelicals need to somehow regain.

This story was originally published in Issue 2 of FULLER magazine, released in 2015. View the article at FullerMag.com.