13 July 2011

Speaker for the Dead

I had one of those odd pastoral experiences yesterday - a funeral for someone I never met.

A colleague was in West Virginia on a service trip and had arranged for me to preach while he was gone.  Unfortunately, a young man who'd grown up in that congregation died suddenly over the weekend, and they asked me to officiate the funeral as well.  It was a sad, sad story - young man with developmental disabilities who had found a home with friends at AmeriServe in Council Bluffs.  There's more to the story which I won't go into here, but the family was incredible: supportive and honest as they were grieving, laughing at memories of C and joyfully recalling their life together.  It was impossible NOT to feel honored to proclaim the gospel in that circumstance, and yet again I felt a certain kinship to Andrew Wiggin's Speaker for the Dead persona.  Unlike Ender, though, there wasn't a need to speak this death with devastating honesty - this family had done so already.  After a few weeks of work that have been far less than rewarding, it was good to feel as though I could actually do something to help someone.  You might be surprised how often our work takes us away from doing what got us into it in the first place: the desire to speak a word of hope into troubled hearts.

            If the psalmist tells us anything, it is this:  C was made exactly the way he was supposed to be made. 
            Some might have insisted differently.  The categories people might have assigned to him were many:  special needs – differently-abled – low-functioning – what have you.  We would do well to remember that those are humanity’s categories.  They are signs of human limitation, not on C’s part but on ours, that we are limited in our ability to see the beauty of God’s creation in all of God’s children.  The psalmist sees that beauty, however, and ascribes it to its proper source:  God the Creator of all good things.  “I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  C was fearfully and wonderfully made, knit together in his mother’s womb by the gracious hands of a loving God – just like you, and me, and all of God’s precious children.
            You have called this day a celebration of C, and well you should.  All of God’s children deserve to be celebrated.  As we sat around the table yesterday and talked about this time of remembrance, it was obvious that I missed meeting a very special young man.  I’m sorry our paths never chanced to cross, but I am grateful for the life he lived and for the lives he touched.  It is obvious to me that there was much to genuinely love in C.
            We didn’t read much of Psalm 139 as we planned yesterday, so I’d like to take a minute to reflect on some of the earlier verses in this wonderful song of praise. 
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
   and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
   it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in the land of the dead, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you.
The psalmist tells us that in this life, when we feel most alone, when we feel most un-wonderful, when we feel most abandoned, that we are not alone, that we are wonderful, that we are not abandoned.  Wherever this life may take us, it is known by the mind of the Creator of all things, our God who sees the whole of creation in a heartbeat and knows its innermost workings as well as the back of his nail-pierced hands.  Wherever we go, whatever may befall us, we do not wander beyond the reach of our loving God, and nothing in this life can overcome that love.  Hear again the words of the apostle Paul:
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose… I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul reminds us of this truth we desperately need to hear:  nothing can take us away from God’s love.  The promise of the cross is not the promise of a sacrifice – it is the promise of love stronger than death, in which the love of Jesus swallows death forever and makes us his own children, just as we are, exactly as wonderfully and fearfully as our Creator has made us. 
            One of you mentioned yesterday that C had a thing for keeping scores and statistics.  You described it as a gift, and I’m sure that it was, but think of your own lives and how many times you’re forced to keep score.  You flew out here on airline miles you’d accumulated over time.  We drive cars based on what mileage they get.  We keep track of our salaries and the size of our houses and our retirement accounts.  In all of those things we are constantly measuring ourselves against standards we can never hope to completely fulfill.  And at the end of it all, will any of those statistics matter?  Is C measured today by the wages he earned?  Will any of you?
            I mention this because our loving Creator, the God who has claimed us as God’s own, doesn’t keep statistics.  God is not Santa Claus, checking a list to see who’s naughty and who’s nice.  God has no underwriter – no risk assessment manager – no case worker.  The psalmist insists that God knows the whole of all of us, inside and out, so much so that any statistics cease to matter in the face of the overwhelming love God has for all of us.  God never cared if C could read or write, if he could carry a tune, if he could balance a checkbook.  God made C just the way he was and loved him with all his being, and God has done the same for all of us.  The way you talked about C, it seems to me that C’s gift was to understand that love and forgiveness have very short memories and a very large capacity to begin anew.  That’s a gift many of us should want to have.
            I was amazed yesterday at the smiles on your faces as you remembered C.  There is no shame in mourning with a smile – as Paul says in 1st Thessalonians, “we do not mourn as those who have no hope…”  Your call for today is to celebrate the life C lived in whatever way seems best – in sorrow and in joy, with tears and with laughter.  The God who made you knows your hearts ache with the grief that comes with death, and God also knows that laughter and continuing love will heal that ache in time.  My prayer for you is that you may feel the presence of God’s Spirit in these days, that you may know that you are never beyond God’s reach, and that C now rests in the peace of the same God until the great day when you will meet again.  The love of Christ and the comfort of the Holy Spirit be with you all.  Amen.

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