I’m sitting in Wegman’s café drinking a cup of their dark roast coffee. It’s a little to much for me, actually. I am a consumer of very large quantities of coffee. But I have to admit that that strong, dark roast coffee is sometimes just a little too much for my mouth. I want very much to like the strong, dark roast coffee. It seems more masculine — even macho. But I honestly don’t like my coffee that way. So, at fifty years of age, I believe I’m secure enough to make that admission here. And it seems to me that if I’m going to pay a couple bucks a cup for the coffee, I ought to get the kind that I like. Still, there are times when I like to go with the heavy stuff.
There is a wet snow falling outside, coating the trees and cars. It’s been a draining week, and I’m feeling pensive. I always carry a portable CD player in my backpack along with a collection of twenty or so music CDs. [I’ve advanced to an mp3 player since the original writing of this piece.] Some might consider my taste in music to be a little quirky. Only one of my CDs is in English. The songs on that one were all written before 1700. The rest of my CDs are all contemporary and range over such linguistic powerhouses as Xhosa and Zulu, Swedish, Bulgarian, Portuguese, and Greek. I’m currently listening to one of my favorite ensembles, Värttinä. I have three of their CDs. They sing in Finnish. And, yes, by the way, I am the one who chooses the songs for Sunday morning worship. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?
With my earphones and reading glasses on, my world sort of closes in on itself. Just me, the pen, and the paper (with an incomprehensible twitter of Finland’s Uralo-Altaic language in my ears). An ideal situation for reflecting on the past week’s events and their meanings.
During the past four days, it has been my task to commend the souls of two of my fellow human beings on to God and commit their bodies to the ground. One was eighty-five years old, the other seventeen. The circumstances of their lives were very different, as were the circumstances of their deaths. The consequences of their deaths will also likely be quite different.
The eighty-five year old, I knew. I’d conversed with while she was still able to do that. I’d held her hand, prayed with her, looked at her family photographs. I had expected to be doing her funeral before too much longer. In fact, I had been forewarned a few days earlier that the end of her life was quite near, and so it proved to be.
I saw her two days before she died. She was deeply asleep at the time, and I didn’t try to wake her. She had been for the past few years all but deaf. So, I knew that, if I was to try to wake her, I’d have to shake her awake. That just seemed like the wrong thing to do. Instead, I just laid my hand on her head and prayed for God’s nearness and peace. I asked God to ease her passing whenever he deemed the time right. I believe he did just that.
Her funeral was small and simple. I try never to take such events lightly. Each is enormously important in its own way. And each such funeral will be, in certain respects, as unique as is each life that is remembered and celebrated in them.
I have not kept a running tally of the funerals that I’ve presided over during the past twenty-three years. But a rough estimate of something like 200 seems about right. (In 2005, for example, I oversaw eight funerals). I no longer find it to be especially taxing to prepare and preside over the funeral of someone who has reached the natural and normal end of a full life. I often feel sadness and a sense of loss, especially if I knew the person well. But it is rarely challenging or taxing for me to prepare and preside over a meaningful and appropriate funeral service in such cases. (It is always more meaningful and appropriate if you yourself talk with your pastor about what you want your funeral to be like. I, like most pastors, keep those advanced plans in my files until they are needed.)
The funeral service for the seventeen year old was an entirely different case. That task was emotionally wrenching and fraught with uncertainties and anxieties. The age and circumstances of this death (He took his own life.) made it so. This was a death that touched an enormous number of young people, their parents, and a wide array of the community’s adults.
What did it all mean? How can one make sense of such senseless and unnecessary tragedy? How can we cope with the writhing emotions pressing, pushing, competing in the bowels of anyone who was even brushed by this terrible thing?
I made some faltering, imperfect efforts. But in the end, I realized that in the face of such evil as the untimely and entirely unnecessary death of a healthy, potential-filled seventeen year old human being, the answers, such as they are and there are some, are not sufficient. Healing, redemption, and hope are not ultimately founded on good logic alone.
Healing, hope, and redemption are in the end the work of love – God’s love, which is a robust, muscular, emphatic, and gentle love. What I saw, as I looked out on that sea of broken faces during that wrenching funeral, was a desperate, frightened, aching need for an assurance of love – not a syrupy, pale, limp sort of love. Whether they understood it or not, what they longed for was the powerful, world-making love that spoke the universe into existence, the surging, unrestrainable love that burst out of the tomb on Easter morning, the persevering, pursuing love that simply refused to allow us to escape, the conquering, completing love that declares, “Behold, I have made all things new.” (Rev. 21:5) Where will they ever see the reality of that kind of love? They won’t ever see it, unless they see it in us.
Dear God, lover of your people,
you hold dear all you have made.
You understand our terrible fears,
our deep depressions, our hopeless moments
Our lives are shattered, Gentle Shepherd.
Lead us to peace, forgiveness, and hope.
Deliver us from guilt and bitterness,
and heal our broken hearts.
Help us to see beyond both our friend’s pain and our own
to the wholeness of your kingdom
when we shall all gather
in your presence,
and every tear wall be wiped away,
and every wrong made right;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
© 2010 Gary A. Chorpenning
[The above piece was originally written in January 2006.]