Obituaries

2014-10-18 14.19.41I went to an elderly lady’s funeral this week. I didn’t personally know her, but I know some of her family. I teared up at the funeral, not because of the homily or songs, but because of her obituary. Every obituary has a “preceded in death by…” section. This dear old lady was preceded in death by her parents, husband, brother, sister, etc…and her great-grandson, Titus. I will never forget Titus although I never met him. His memorial was the most sorrowful one I had ever done at the time; surpassed only by Maria’s fourteen months later.

Titus’ mother is a good friend. Jill and I think of her affectionately as an adopted little sister. She and her husband were expecting their first child in February of 2015. The pregnancy had gone well. No major complications. And then I received one of those phone calls you never want to receive. The baby was due in just over a month, but his mother hadn’t felt him move for a few days. It just didn’t seem right to her. The doctors couldn’t find a heartbeat. The umbilical cord had somehow wrapped around his neck. Titus was stillborn at 7 ½ months. No real explanations. Just a tragic loss. A little boy whose life was cut short.

I gathered with the family on New Year’s Day, 2015 for Titus’ memorial. It was an intimate gathering; just family and me. What do you say to a sweet young couple whom several days before was eagerly anticipating the arrival of their first son, and then to have to labor, deliver, and hold his lifeless body? I read a few laments. We prayed some psalms. I reminded them that they are now parents. While none of us ever got to know Titus, he will always be their son and they will always be his parents. It was a painful day.

Seeing Titus’ name in the obituary this week moved me with sorrow and gratitude; sorrow because of the tragedy of his life cut so short, but gratitude because he is remembered. I didn’t know Titus, but I think of him and remember him. He was here. His life mattered. He is not forgotten.

I’m not quite sure why it is so important to those of us who have lost loved ones that other people remember those who have died, but it is vitally important. Those who have died mattered. They are loved. The world is not quite the same without them. To remember is to acknowledge their existence, their life, their death, and the giant chasm their loss has left in the hearts of those who loved them.

I had never thought about it before this week, but those who die so young are included in generations of obituaries. They precede in death their great-grandparents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, named in obituaries for generations until the memory of their life fades away into history. And, at every family funeral from now until my funeral, I will look for Maria’s name. I will see her name listed among the deceased, and cry, and remember. She was here. She was loved. She is not forgotten.

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Two Possible Lives

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I can imagine two possible lives that look almost identical. The first life is our current family. We have had five daughters. Our middle daughter died. We still have four lovely and healthy girls and a lot of joy. And we have sorrow, fear, and heartache. Our life is messy and complicated. It is depressing and hard and good and beautiful. It is the life we have been given.

The second possible life I can imagine is our current family if Maria had never been born and had never died. I can picture our life as it is currently constructed: four lovely and healthy girls, lots of laughter and joy with very little sorrow, fear, and heartache. I imagine a happy family with less mess and complication. A life without depression. I picture a simple and happy life.

And the question I’ve been contemplating is which life would we choose between these two possible lives? You may think it would be a difficult choice, but it is not. We would choose the first life, our actual life, every time. The second life sounds easier and lighter. It is the happier of the two options, but we were never promised ease and happiness. In that life our hearts wouldn’t have been shattered and our family would feel complete. That life sounds so simple, but we would never choose it at the cost of forgetting. We’ll take the pain because it is the price of loving. We’ll continue to suffer her death because we loved her in life.

Today we remember Maria’s birthday. She would have been six. I can’t picture what she would look like or what she would be like. I hate this. How can I imagine a world in which she never was, but I can’t even picture in my mind what she would be like if she were still here? I can’t see her in my mind anymore, and it crushes me.

The birth of your child is one of the greatest days of your life. Six years ago this was one of those truly joyful days. Our child had been born! Tears of joy. Now, no more joyful tears. It’s mostly sad, but I’m still grateful for this day. Without this day she never would have died, and our lives would be easier. If she had never been born, we never would have lost her and our lives never would have been devastated. But I would choose this day and her life every time. Today is a sorrowful day, but I’m still thankful for it. I would still choose life despite the horror of death.

Loved and Lost

We’ve started reading poetry at dinner most evenings. Tonight I read this brief one from Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

I Envy Not in Any Moods
I envy not in any moods
The captive void of noble rage,
The linnet born within the cage,
That never knew the summer woods;

I envy not the beast that takes
His license in the field of time,
Unfetter’d by the sense of crime,
To whom a conscience never wakes;

Nor, what may count itself as blest,
The heart that never plighted troth
But stagnates in the weeds of sloth:
Nor any want-begotten rest.

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
than never to have loved at all.

 

It reminded me of this passage I posted two years ago from C.S. Lewis:

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one…Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”

Hope Beyond Hope

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Today marks two years since our beloved Maria died. It is also a Sunday marking the day we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. Over the past two years I have found the most comfort in the suffering of Christ. The great mystery that God descended, took on human flesh, and suffered in our midst has strengthened me in my grief. Christ’s resurrection is harder for me to imagine, just as it was hard for the disciples to imagine as they watched His broken body hanging lifeless on a cross. Who could have believed they would see Him again, alive and fully restored? To imagine such nonsense is hope beyond hope. But it happened.

To imagine seeing Maria full of life again is a hope beyond hope. To one day see her walking by the river in the cool of the morning, the fullness of her humanity restored, and to hear her say, “Daddy, it’s OK. Come, enter into life that is truly life, and look, He is making all things new.” This is more than I can even dream. To one day hear the words:

For I announce to you redemption. Behold I make all things new. Behold I do what cannot be done.

I restore the years that the locusts and worms have eaten. I restore the years you have drooped away upon your crutches and in your wheel-chair. I restore the symphonies and operas which your deaf ears have never heard, and the snowy massif your blind eyes have never seen, and the freedom lost to you through plunder and the identity lost to you because of calumny and the failure of justice; and I restore the good which your own foolish mistakes have cheated you of.

And I bring you to the Love of which all other loves speak, the Love which is joy and beauty, and which you have sought in a thousand streets and for which you have wept and clawed your pillow.(Thomas Howard from Christ the Tiger).

Mystery and the Afterlife

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(From autumn of 2016)

Many people speak to me about the afterlife with great confidence but not much clarity. They say things like, “We know Maria is in a better place. She is perfectly happy in heaven right now.” I appreciate their attempt to encourage me. Most who make these statements are people of faith and have a genuine hope. Many probably have a greater faith than I do. I still have faith, but it feels weakened. I have enough to get me through today. That’s sometimes the most I can muster. I have hope, but my hope is not simple. It contains sorrow, doubt, and unanswerable questions. My hope is not sentimental, but it remains. My hope has changed, but it is still there.

When I’m being honest I ask a lot of question, not as a cynic, but as one whose hope is not simple. I ask, “What do people mean when we say Maria is in heaven?” I think most people mean that she has arrived at her final destination with God, but this doesn’t seem right. The Christian hope is not that we will one day leave our bodies behind and enter into an eternal spiritual existence. The creed declares our hope, “We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” The resurrection. The BODY restored. Our hope is a real, physical, and eternal life, not a gnostic, spiritual, euphoric state of the soul. Our hope is founded on the resurrection of Jesus. It is the hope that one day there will be a new heaven, a new earth, and new bodies. On that day life will not just be restored, it will be glorified to a state beyond all beauty, goodness, and joy we experience now. On that day death will be swallowed up by LIFE. But that day hasn’t come yet. So, we wait. I imagine Maria is waiting for that day too.

My desentimentalized hope asks, “What is Maria experiencing right now?” I honestly don’t know. Is she dancing and twirling on the streets of gold? Some people say things like this. It sounds nice, but it doesn’t help me. Why? Well, it sounds like bodily resurrection. It’s hard to think about how a person can dance and twirl without a body. Since the resurrection hasn’t happened yet, I just can’t imagine what it means to dance and twirl. It also sounds like wishful thinking. It’s what I would want to be true to make me feel better about Maria’s death, but wanting something to be true does not make it so. Hope is not the same thing as wishful thinking. If I base my beliefs only on my desires, I am only fooling myself. I will not allow my emotions to dictate what I believe to be true, even about Maria. Hope must have a foundation in reality. Wishful thinking is the stuff of fantasy, not faith. I wish Maria never died. I wish she were still alive. I wish I was holding her right now. But wishes are just wishes. My hope about the afterlife cannot be based on what I want. It cannot be founded on what I wish to be true. My hope must be established on something substantial, and the one substantial hope I have is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I agree with St. Paul. “If Christ has not been raised….then our faith is in vain.” My hope is not in conjured up images of Maria dancing in clouds. My hope is in the resurrection of Jesus. Don’t misunderstand. I do believe in a very real afterlife. I believe that Maria’s soul still exists, but what that existence is like is far more mysterious and less tangible than I can pretend to know.

Finally, my desentimentalized hope asks, “Is Maria perfected?” or “Has Maria arrived at her final state of rest?” I am referring here to the state of Maria’s soul (not the resurrection of her body). Is she holy? Has she been made complete? Most Christians seem to assume that Maria and all other Christians who die are instantaneously perfected at death. They speculate that the dead are immediately glorified the moment after they breathe their last breath. Maybe that’s possible. But I’m not sure it’s what happens. Paul said to be “absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” but does this imply that the soul is instantly matured and made perfect the moment one dies? In this life, maturation and transformation require discipline and struggle and grace and time, and I’m not convinced that one’s journey into the afterlife is all ease and pleasure. Maria was not even four-years-old when she died. She had a lifetime of learning and maturing ahead of her. It’s hard to imagine that she would gain complete wisdom, maturation, and perfection in a mere moment. Certainly she will not remain perpetually transfixed as an immature, almost four-year-old child for all of eternity, so how will she be made complete? I imagine she will continue to grow and be transformed, but I have no idea how or what that looks like beyond the grave. To assume much more would be vane speculation.

Here is what I do know. God is merciful. He is also terrifyingly holy. Who among us could stand before the LORD? If you casually think that standing before a perfect, holy, and all-powerful Deity will be a comforting experience, then I’d argue that you just haven’t given it much thought. The day she died, Maria was far from perfect. This is not a criticism of Maria; it’s a statement of fact about nearly every Christian I know including myself. Almost all of us continue to be selfish, sinful, immature, and unwise. We lack certain virtues and continue to struggle with vices. For heaven to truly be heaven, many things within us must be changed. If we’re honest, we should admit how far we are from reaching perfection; from being made complete. Imagine spending the rest of eternity with all the people in your community or church if everyone remains as they currently are forever. Would you all be able to live in loving fellowship for five years? Or for a million years? What about just with your family? What about with just yourself? I think we all know that for eternity to be good, our hearts need to be drastically changed first. We all need to be made complete.

Maria was far from being perfect, far from being made complete when she died. Maybe she is now fully changed. Maybe she is still being changed. Maybe she is at peace. Maybe she is still struggling on her journey. Maybe speculating about what Maria is experiencing now is vanity. If her soul has left space and time, maybe words like “now” become meaningless. Maybe I just don’t know much. Maybe nobody really knows; except for Him. And in Him I place my hope.

Theodicy of a Three-year-old

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(from May, 2017)

Sadie came up to me, sat on my lap tonight and asked, “Do you know why God is bad?”

What are you talking about, Sadie?”

She repeated, “Do you know why God is bad?”

Still not knowing what she was getting at, I asked, “Why?”

He makes us sick. That’s why Maria died.”

No, Sadie, God is not bad. He is only good. He is love, and He loves us. He is not bad and doesn’t do bad things.”

She smiled and seemed to accept my theological correction and went back to playing with her dolls. I was left shocked by the logic and honesty of my three-year-old daughter wrestling with faith’s most difficult question. Why does God allow evil? Suffering? Sickness? Maria’s sickness? Her death? Is Sadie more honest than I am about the reality of this world?

I have thought long and hard about the problem of evil, and I know that God is and must be good. No other answer is sufficient. I came to this conclusion long before Maria died, and I still believe it now. But somethings are easier to know than to feel. I know He is good, yet there are many things I will never comprehend.

Jesus Loves Me

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(Written in January, 2018)

Our worship leader started a tradition at our church three or four years ago. Every time a new baby is born and is brought to our church for the first time, the parents and child are invited to come stand before the congregation and everyone sings “Jesus Loves Me” to the child and family. It is a tender new tradition. Watching a mother hold her newborn child with her husband’s arm around her often with children gathered around their legs staring up at their brand new sibling is beautiful thing. It’s our congregation’s way of welcoming this child into the body of Christ. We are saying to the child, “You belong here, little one. Here you will come to know our Lord who loves you.” We’ve had the opportunity to sing to three children in the past six weeks. I fight back tears every time.

To be honest, I’ve never really liked “Jesus Loves Me.” I’ve always thought it was overly simplistic and sentimental. I don’t like many children’s songs. But, I’ve softened on “Jesus Loves Me.” I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to sing it again with dry eyes. The final video we have of Maria was a recording of her singing “Jesus Loves Me” with her sisters just one week before she died. A dear friend was babysitting our girls that night and took the time to record a few videos, something we too seldom do. That last video is an invaluable gift. A final recording of our little girl singing that simple and sweet song. It is painfully beautiful.

I put a lot of time and thought into preparing Maria’s funeral. I knew there would be a thousand or more people attending, and I wanted the funeral to honor my daughter and to speak of her beauty. And I wanted it to point us in worship to our suffering Savior; to help us see His beauty and look to Him for hope. I prayerfully and thoughtfully chose all of the readings and songs. I asked several friends to help lead. I painstakingly composed the words that I needed to say. I spend endless hours working on that service. It was one thing I could do out of my heartbroken love for Maria.

But I didn’t prepare the graveside service. It was too agonizing. We invited only a small group of family to join us at her grave, leaving the crowds behind at the funeral. I asked my friend and fellow pastor, Phil, to lead the time at her grave. He was the one who baptized Maria when she was an infant, so I figured it would be appropriate if he said the final words by her graveside. I gave him no instructions. I couldn’t be a “pastor” there. I was just a devastated daddy. And Phil did great. He barely said anything. He read a brief passage Scripture and led us in prayer. Nothing more needed to be said, so he concluded by leading us in singing “Jesus Loves Me.”

I choked out the words “Little ones to Him belong…” She was never ultimately mine. She is His. A profound truth for such a simple and sentimental song.

Phil unknowingly established a tradition for our family that day. Anytime that we gather together with our girls at Maria’s grave, we sing “Jesus Loves Me.” I can never hold back the tears when we sing. We mutter our way through the song the best we can often with Sadie and Lucy helping to carry us.

Two traditions. One simple song. The joy of a new child being received into the body of Christ and the ritual reminder of Maria’s last song repeated each time my daughters are at her grave. Four plain words: “Yes, Jesus loves me.” I cry every time.