I could come to terms with loss,
if good-bye only meant see you next summer;
if the cold sting of death’s winter was blunted by whispers of spring’s tiding.
But this past year heaps snow upon snow, loss upon loss;
I feel like it is always winter and never Christmas.
On April 11 we held a large memorial service for all of the members of Summerville First Baptist who lost a loved one this past year.
So, I find myself still musing over death: the impact, the loss, the sorrow of never seeing precious loved ones again.
What bothers me is the finality of it all: the final haircut, final meal, final Christmas together. Worse still, the final Easter. Drumming up a grateful chorus when death marches down the isle is difficult. The hope of an unseen resurrection feels paralyzed by death’s never ending refrains: never again a father’s good morning, never again grandmother’s how are you, never again a brother’s familiar smile, never again a mother’s loving voice.
I find each funeral makes me meditate on my own death as well. With over two dozen funerals, a year long convalescence from viral pneumonia, and the family dog getting hit by a car, thoughts of death creep through my house at night and wake me up early morning.
Here is how my 3am musings play out: Verus (9mo), my son, will likely be a grandfather one day, but I will never be around to see it. The future generations of my family, infants whom I would love so dearly, care for so powerfully, regard so highly, will not know me. The grave swallows up my love so entirely that my great grand children will only wonder, ‘who was he,’ if they care to ponder at all.
And my thoughts threaten to swamp me certain days of the year. I wake up every year on January 28th realizing I don’t share a birthday with my great grandfather any longer. Two and a half decades flew away without him; now only two or three people even remember the connection.
Only one of my grandparents knows I got married; only one knows and cares that I was born. My father’s father never saw the man I’d become, because he never even knew I was born; 40s-something is far too short a time to see saplings grow into fruit bearing trees.
Amidst these thoughts, I read a tweet from one of my highly regarded mentors that simply says, “love never ends.” Out of the wells of my grief, sarcasm threatens to reply, “what a beautiful sentiment for romantics.” I want to scream at him, of course love ends! Almost every week from April to December, I buried love in a box under six feet of dust and ashes.
Then another person tries to comfort me by saying, “they live on in your memory.” I ache for the hale stalwart strength of my grandfather’s hands embracing me, not the reanimated Frankenstein of my ever decaying memory. I yearn to hear voices at the door, not echoes in the dark! “They live on in your memory” offers so minuscule a comfort, I’d rather it not be said at all.
I know the comforting words the Bible gives us. And most days I can jump right to the page of Romans 8 and declare, “death cannot separate me from the love that is mine in Christ Jesus.” There are just some days that if I jump too quickly to this chapter, I find it lacks some potency.
There are days I just need to weep bitterly, days when triumphalism resounds on deaf ears.
Thankfully the book of Lamentations validates those days.
“How lonely sits the city that was full of people!” Lamentations 1:1.
Yes! That hits the nail on the head. I see children playing outside on my way back from burying someone’s father and say, “is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.” Doesn’t anyone understand that today isn’t normal! Everyone goes about like its a normal day. It isn’t a normal day. Normal was when all the picnic tables at the family reunion were full.
I don’t always think about loss, death, and sorrow. But something always snaps me out of the haze of that dream. “Remember my affliction my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me,” I lament to God.
Lamentations teaches me that I cannot skip the lessons learned in the valley of the shadow of death. That “it is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
When I wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord, the keenness of cross of Jesus Christ cuts through my sorrow. Then the cross is not nice sentiment, not merely a symbol, a piece of artwork, a fabricated necklace. The cross of Jesus must mean the Son of God’s humiliation unto and sorrowful identification with death. Isaiah’s verse, “He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” speaks to me.
Then I read, “Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust– there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his stead fast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.”
Death hunts me like a bird of prey. Sorrow flings me alive into a pit. Despair like water closes in over my head. But God does not willingly afflict or grieve me without purpose. God did not wound the Son without purpose either. The cross, the cross of Christ, is where God answers the cries of human sorrow. He replies to me, “it is finished.”
Yes, the triumphant picture of Jesus the Lion of Judah help me avoid despair. But the slain lamb, the crucified God, the resurrected Jesus, I identify with these days. Him I hear say, “behold, I make all things new. Write this down for these words are trustworthy and true. It is done! To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.”
When I read these words I realize just how thirsty my tears make me. Through anguish I realize something I didn’t before. I thought the desires of my heart longed for my loved ones to return back in this life. I was wrong. I do not want them to come home to suffering, decay, and a second death. No. I want the new earth. I want my tears stored in forgotten bottles, relics of an ancient past age. I want all things new! I want the resurrections, the love that never ends.
The cross of Christ crucified death. His resurrection promises new birth. Yes, that is what the miseries of my heart desire, all things new. Jesus alone suffices to give me hope.
In the bleak mid winter
frost wind made moan
earth stood hard as iron
water like a stone
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow
in the bleak mid winter
long, long ago
Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign
In the bleak mid winter
a stable place sufficed
the Lord, God, Almighty
Pastor Summerville First Baptist, married to Danielle, father of four, PhD student @SWBTS, MDiv SWBTS 2012, BA Theatre OSU