January 9, 2008

A Father's Journey

2008 1501 page25 capHEN I WAS A KID, MY FATHER told me one night that he dreamed he was instructed to give 10 days to God. Throughout my life I periodically asked him if he had given those 10 days to God. He told me repeatedly, “Not yet, but I will.”
I grew up in a Catholic family. I became an Adventist when I was a teenager, much to the consternation of my parents. My father was angry beyond measure, going as far as to reject me as his son. I soon moved out of the house 
and finished my schooling with the help of other family and friends. Although I kept in touch with my mother, in-depth conversations with my father were rare.
Tied to the Old Country
My father’s mother brought him to the United States from Croatia in the former Yugoslavia as a boy. Each year at Andrews University, where I eventually taught New Testament in the Theological Seminary, Yugoslavs from all over North America came together for a few days of camp meeting. It dawned on me that I ought to invite my dad to these meetings, so he would hear his native language spoken and music played on instruments he played. He accepted my invitation and thoroughly enjoyed all that took place.
At a Sabbath worship service the speaker was the late Theodore Carcich, the big, strapping Croatian retired vice president of the General Conference. At one point in his sermon he began talking about the mark of the beast. With my Catholic father sitting right next to me, I thought, Dad isn’t ready for this. I prayed, “Dear Lord, help Elder Carcich talk about something else.” Suddenly Carcich switched thoughts and said: “In the state of Washington, where I live, are many Catholics. You know, the only way to win a Catholic to the Adventist church is to love him.”
2008 1501 page25Carcich was more right than he knew! After the sermon, as my father stood visiting with the people, I asked if Carcich would greet my Catholic father. He burst forth with an enthusiastic “Oh, yes,” and moved with the speed and power of a Yugoslavian tank toward my father. Whomp, he threw his arms around my dad and gave him a gigantic hug. My father was a big man, but the good elder was even bigger, and all I could see of my dad was his stunned face. This expression of Adventist love and acceptance was extremely moving. Carcich’s words and actions were a prophecy and preparation for what was to come.
The Trip of a Lifetime
All his life my father wanted to return to his homeland, and now, with ticket in hand, he was set to go. With the date of his departure approaching, he called one morning and told me he had experienced something like an explosion in his head the night before; that he felt weak and couldn’t walk a straight line.
I warned, “Don’t go to Yugoslavia; go to a doctor.”
He was a strong-willed person, but he acceded to my appeal. The physician examined him, took tests, and released him with instructions to return in a couple of days to discuss the results of the tests. But instead of returning to the doctor, my father announced, “I feel OK; I’m going to Yugoslavia.” And he did.
I received a postcard from him, sent from the coast of the Adriatic, from a city called Split. He described the area as being beautiful beyond words. But, he said, the pace was fast. He was traveling with friends, and he felt so. . . . The sentence was incomplete. Only a drooping line indicated where his pen had run down the card.
The day he was to return home, my brother waited for him at the airport in Detroit. A long line of people got off the plane, but Dad was not among them. My brother called me right away. Two words flashed in my mind: “Heart attack.” I assumed I’d receive some word about my father, but we heard nothing for two days. Then a telegram arrived: “Father in hospital. Heart attack.” It said nothing about how or where he was. I thought I would surely receive another message telling me more, but no further word came.
Finally I called the United States embassy in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. A soft-spoken Yugoslavian woman came on the line and promised to look for my father and telephone me when she knew something. She called the next day.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Blazen,” she said. “Your father has had a massive heart attack and is in the hospital in critical condition.”
I had to be with him before his condition grew worse. I had never been to Yugoslavia, and I needed some advice on staying there, perhaps for an extended period of time. I got a list of Yugoslav students studying at Andrews University. My fingers ran down the list, and I randomly picked the name of a married seminary student and went to visit him. He gave me many good tips and said he would make certain preparations for me. Soon I was on a plane to Yugoslavia.
But would I get there in time?
Someone Watching
 I later learned what had happened to my father. On the day before his return to the United States, he visited the birthplace of Marshal Tito, former president of Yugoslavia. My father had admired Tito because of Tito’s struggle against the Nazis during World War II. Tito’s birthplace was at the foot of a high, steep hill. A souvenir shop and restaurant stood at the top of the hill. My father was climbing that hill, when about two thirds of the way up he felt a massive pain in his chest. Notwithstanding, he climbed the last third of the hill, staggered to the top, and collapsed.
2008 1501 page25Father was rushed to a clinic seven kilometers away. There a Seventh-day Adventist doctor injected his heart with medication that kept him alive until he got to the hospital in Zagreb. The doctor’s sister, also an Adventist physician, worked in the hospital. She began to visit my father, as did an Adventist nurse on staff.
Unbelievably, the parents of the wife of the Yugoslavian seminarian I had called for help lived next door to the hospital. This Adventist couple visited my father every day, bringing him food, which he was too weak to eat, and juice, some of which he could drink. They sat with him, massaging his arms and legs. They turned him one way then another. They lifted him up and put him down. Above all, they talked to him about Jesus.
One day during their conversation with him, they asked if he had given his heart to the Lord. He said, “Yes.”
All this took place before I arrived in Yugoslavia. It was beyond anything I could have imagined or hoped for.
Getting off the plane in Zagreb, I was unexpectedly met by a tall, well-groomed man who announced he would take me to the hospital. This was undoubtedly due to the “preparations” the seminary student said he would make for me. As we drove to the hospital I said to my host, “I suppose you’re a minister here in town.”
“You might say that,” he said. In fact, he was the conference president. Here I was, just a stranger, and the conference president came to help me.
When I walked into Dad’s hospital room, he was sitting on the edge of the bed with a nurse supporting him. He wasn’t expecting me, but when our eyes met I saw a look of unbelievable joy in his face. A torrent of emotion swept through me. I had made it; my father was still alive.
When we began to talk, my father said things I will never forget. For years I’d had such longing that he would come to know his Lord and the Adventist faith. And that day he said to me, “If they make people like this, I want to be a part of this people. You are a righteous people.”
The “people like this” were Seventh-day Adventists who had been visiting and caring for him.
A little later Dad said, “If I live to get out of here, I want to be baptized into this people.” Unbelievable! What had led him to this? Not doctrine, as important as it is, but Adventists radiating the love of Christ.
One day in his hospital room Dad said to me and the conference president, “Put one of your hands up to the hand of the other.” Our palms and fingers came together. Then my father placed his hands around ours, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “You are my son.” Turning to the president he said, “You are my friend.” His words were a complete reversal of his long-ago declaration: “You are no longer my son; you have no place in this home!” Now, in the final hours of his life, Dad solemnly asserted that I was his son. At that very moment I believe our heavenly Father was bowing low to my father’s bed, saying, “And you are My son.”
Relationships Restored
None of his medications had been effective in relieving Dad’s pain. I learned later that two thirds of his heart muscle had been destroyed, and his circulation was so poor that gangrene began to develop in his toes. His pain and feeling of cold were unbearable. I pled with the doctor to give him morphine. He worried that the morphine might cause Dad’s heart to stop. But after some reflection he agreed.
The morphine put my father into a relaxed and peaceful sleep, staying that way all day. Late in the evening two people I had gotten to know took me out to dinner. With my father resting comfortably, we were off.
When we returned it was past midnight. They asked if I wanted to visit my father. I said yes, and before long I was in the critical care unit of the hospital. In the quiet of the moment, with not even the nurse present, I approached my father’s bed. He was propped up on his pillow asleep, just as I had left him.
I put my hand upon him and prayed, “Dear heavenly Father, forgive my father’s sins and receive him into Your everlasting kingdom.” About an hour and a half later my father died. What a privilege it was to place a benediction upon the one who had made possible my introduction into the world.
In all, I spent 10 days with my father in the hospital. He died on the tenth day, the day Catholics call “All Saints Day.” I believe that my father, Catholic as he was, Adventist as he became, is now listed among the saints, and that the 10 days I was with him at the close of his life were the 10 days he was commissioned to give back to God.

Questions for Reflection

1. What stories can you tell about people being "loved" intro the church? Be brief.

2. Why do acts of kindness, service, and love often prove more effective thatn other witnessing methods?

3. "People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care." Do you agree or disagree, with this statement? Why?

What practical ways have you demonstrated Christ's love to others this week? List at least five.

No one should give up on the salvation of another. God’s grace can come any time, even in circumstances of suffering; even at the end of life.

Prior to his death, the night nurse caring for my father made the statement: “God is not good; I am good.” This was not a blasphemous remark. She meant that she was doing everything she could for the comfort and healing of her patients, while God seemed to be doing nothing. Where was the evidence of His presence?
Of course, God was there. His unseen presence was working through my father’s suffering. God did not take away his suffering, though his death brought a halt to his pain. But God’s providence guided my dad to a heartfelt conversion experience, not merely to Adventism, but to God as loving Savior and Lord. When my father awakes, he will find himself in the loving arms of God.
Theodore Carcich was right: The love Adventists showed my father led him to the God of love.
Ellen White was right when she wrote: “The last message of mercy to be given to the world is a revelation of [God’s] character of love” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 415).
That happens only as we—God’s servants—extend love and care to everyone.
Ivan T. Blazen is on the faculty of the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.