My day started with a funeral. It was a tough one. A young man succumbed to cancer, never reaching the quarter-century mark. His was a rare form of cancer for a young person to contract: fewer than 300 cases in the United States annually for people his age. Typically laborers who have worked in coal mines or been exposed to asbestos for a career develop this lung disease. None of that fit the person whose life we were celebrating that morning. Stricken with abdominal pain one night, he awakened his father. When remedies from the medicine cabinet didn’t work, they headed to the hospital. That was the beginning of a nightmarish journey for the family. With a memorial service the goal is to celebrate a life that has been well-lived. But, when a studious college student is interrupted in their march toward graduation by an aggressive disease, it’s hard to summon up any cause for celebration.
This was a particularly difficult service for me because I had officiated at this young man’s mother’s funeral sixteen years earlier. She passed away suddenly in the night leaving behind her devoted husband and two elementary school-aged children. Our congregation was rocked. She had been with us in worship the day before. Her children had played at the house of other church children after the service. It had seemed a very normal Sabbath to everyone. But Monday morning she was gone. It was one of the most emotional memorial services I’ve ever done. I managed to keep my composure while processing with the coffin and family members out of the church. But then I had to slip away into my office to cry: for the young widower and two children whose memories of their mother were inevitably going to fade. No matter how deep the love of a parent, time erases memories when we lose someone at such a young age.
The funeral director reached me first to tell me of the death of this son. I was heartbroken. While I hadn’t kept up with the family, their great loss years earlier had stayed with me. How could they hold up in the face of another tragic death and still hang onto a shred of hope in God? I met with the grief-stricken father and sister of the deceased. It was an emotional reunion. I would never have imagined that this would be the occasion that would bring us together again. They caught me up briefly on their own lives then filled me in on the battle of the past months. Cancer showed up in his medical chart and never let up the chase. He had been wrapping up a college degree with internships promising a budding career. He had found the love of his life with whom he intended to spend the rest of a long life. Instead she courageously lived out the traditional marriage vows without having the chance to go through the ceremony of her dreams: “I give myself to you….in sickness and health…as long as we both shall live.” They considered getting married in the hospital but her fiancé was traditional. He wanted to get out of the hospital so that he could go to her father and ask for her hand in marriage. He assumed he had time. But he never left the care of doctors and nurses. He died, leaving behind a dad who thought he would one day be a grampa to his son’s children; a sister to whom he was particularly bonded because of the early loss of their mom; and a fiancée who would never walk down the aisle to a beaming groom.
I knew I would have to do some real preaching at this service. The pain was too great to ignore. The outcry of “Unfair” was too clearly warranted. So I selected Paul’s writing to the Romans in which he spoke of the groaning of creation, awaiting liberation from bondage to death and decay. Our world is in travail, like a woman in labor, and what seems so real and permanent to us is actually fleeting. The very best things in life will pass away and our hope is found in the promise that some glorious day all that is earthly will be swept up in newness of life. Eternal life.
In the meantime, we carve out our lives. In the meantime, we groan under the weight of the losses we experience. When we realize that we don’t have the strength to navigate life on our own, the Holy Spirit surrounds us with tender care. When we can barely breathe, let alone put words together into a prayer, Paul assures us that the “very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:27)
The procession of cars to the gravesite was long. It interrupted the traffic flow of people caught up in the rush of daily demands. Even in today’s brash culture, people know to revere a caravan of cars on their way to the cemetery. It was a beautiful fall day with sunshine and a refreshing breeze. The Spirit was near but a gravesite is unavoidably lonely. The father was the first to grasp the coffin of his son as it came out of the back of the hearse. He told me he was with his son every day of his cancer battle—every day. On this last day with his son’s earthly body at hand, he stayed by his side. The sister survived this requiem by tightly hugging all the guests who had gathered. As I intoned the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm I heard voices quietly praying it along with me. “…Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” That’s a statement of faith! When all else seems to fail us, surely God is present.
I left the family to bury their dead and was driven back to the funeral home in a 1950’s hearse. Conversation with the driver was light. We had witnessed something so difficult that we welcomed mundane topics. I had little time to reflect on the service. I headed home with just enough time to change out of my black dress into casual clothing bearing the insignia of the Detroit Tigers. We had made plans months earlier to take a family trip to Comerica Park before the season ended. So, like flipping a light switch, I journeyed from cemetery to Tigers’ Stadium. Time with our grown children is precious. It takes effort to coordinate adult schedules and arrive at one location all together. One daughter had unavoidable commitments but seven of us made it in time for the first pitch.
I offered to wait outside the park since my daughter and son-in-law hadn’t parked yet and I had their tickets. People-watching at a major sporting event is its own form of entertainment. Folks hawking tickets under false pretenses lurked. Children practically skipped, holding hands with doting parents. As I was waiting by the main gate I saw a bride and groom making their way toward the entrance. With orange as the feature color, they made a striking entrance!
Someone called out to the crowd to make way for the happy couple. Folks looked in his direction and began to clap for them. Everyone in line to have their picture taken under the enormous tiger statue ceded their rights to the couple of the day. They and their wedding party posed with much laughter. The crowd borrowed their joy. Their love represented hope—amazing hope that people still commit themselves into the care of another person for a lifetime! Who do we think we are to make such a pledge! “Surely our love will carry us through the ups and downs,” we exclaim. So we make vows of undying love and throw a party from which the whole world derives hope. At one point the photographer made a genius suggestion. Addressing the crowd that was in rapt attention he said, “Why don’t you all get in the picture?” That’s all it took! We became a flash mob that took their places haphazardly and screamed out with joy. The couple strolled back to their reception site and I settled into my upper deck seat with my family, enjoying variations on a theme of ballpark delicacies. My head was spinning with the events of the day. From tearful hugs at a gravesite to cheers for a couple at a ballgame.
In the memorial service I chose to end my reading from Romans 8 with verse 28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Really? ALL things work together for good? When a college coed who has shaped such an inspirational life is taken? When a man has to say goodbye to his young son after losing his wife when he was in this 30’s? When a daughter becomes an only child and four grandparents find themselves sitting on folding chairs at the edge of an earthly chasm that will soon hold their grandson? ALL things work together for good for those who love God?
The father told me that his son felt peace in the last months of his struggle. His mother’s faith had stayed with him all those years in spite of her physical absence. He had battled cancer with a courageous determination that came from relentless hope. Even as he breathed his last, leaving a heartbroken fiancée behind with unfulfilled wedding dreams, his mother reached across our green earth to a place where the Spirit blows the freshness of eternal life. As painful as the funeral was for the family, across the state another couple was blessed into a lifetime commitment of love. A struggling ball team won the game and our family rejoiced in precious time spent together.
Faith in God is not for the faint of heart. There will be unanswered questions and dark nights of the soul. There will be losses you can’t imagine surviving. But there will be joys far greater than anything you could have dreamt. The gifts of the faith are there for the taking. It takes a Relationship to claim them. A dying young man offered his loved ones hope. A couple brought a bunch of Tiger’s fans joy. God, who holds our world tenderly in balance, never leaves us, gives word to our prayers and LOVES us. Loves us. Loves.