My grandmother wasn’t heavy. Not like I thought she’d be. She’d always been portly and so I guess I assumed that she would be heavy when it came time to lift her and take her for her final stroll. Of course she looked much larger in my memories because she was most present in my life when I was a child and when I was three feet tall, even a woman only five feet tall loomed much larger.
I took my place around the coffin with my much taller and much younger cousins and we carried Kathryn from the Shalonis Funeral Parlor to the hearse waiting outside. We all shuffled a little after we’d stepped back and let the ones behind us continue rolling the casket along the rails into the back of the car.
We shuffled some more as we figured out who would ride in which car as we went to the cemetery and we continued shuffling until we again lifted the casket out of the back of the hearse and carried it, a step at a time, to the grave.
Shuffling nervously is a part of how we react to grief, I think, especially when it is second hand, or at some remove. I don’t think I had the time to process My grandmother’s death yet and so I was still trying to reconcile it, that woman lying in the casket and the woman who used to whup me so bad at scrabble years earlier; or any of the other memories, thousands of other memories that competed for my attention on that morning in Marysville, PA. Once ordered by time and by circumstance they had come unglued from their places on the walls of my mind and were scattered and confused.
I think that’s why grief is so difficult and so unpredictable. We have a life and we are living it and everything falls into place, each new memory stacked carefully, added at the end until suddenly we are at the end, the actual end and once we realize that there will be no more, the whole structure falls apart, it was meant to be dynamic, alive in every sense, an now we have to put a back cover on the book, close the door on the vault and realize that it is static now, unchanging and un-moving.
It is the bittersweet moment of finishing a book, a really good book. You have loved the journey that it took you on, you have reveled in its complexities and its twists, you have laughed and been too scared to leave your chair and too moved to understand entirely what you are feeling and while the finishing is satisfying, it is also a little unnerving.
Where do you go now? What on earth will make you laugh and cry and thrill you and charm you in the same way?
Who will ever make the molasses cookies like grandma? Who will ever be as glad to see you?
I often wonder if it is the fact that our earthly lives come to an end that gives even mundane moments a sense of importance, I mean, I didn’t enjoy sitting in a loan officer’s office signing a stack of paper to get a mortgage to buy a house and forge a life in Santa Rosa, but that moment, the first house with Debbie and Caitlyn living in it, the beginning of that adventure is still shinier than I thought it would be, more important because I know that it will fade and disappear into nothingness once I am gone.
Caitlyn will not care about that moment. She will have other favorites, and Debbie as well, still others.
We are each writing this book of our lives with the back cover in mind, more and more as you grow older to be sure, but still with the thought that you will not live forever, that this is perhaps not the epic for all time, but a nice pastoral novel, with love and hope and loss and everything else real in it.
Or maybe it is the epic for all time, I’m not writing your novel, you are.
But every moment is precious when there are only so many of them. Our earthly lives are bordered by the events of our births and our deaths and maybe you get a full four score years in between but you do not know, can not know because it is not ours to know, it rests solely with God and God is not tipping the divine hand just yet.
In a lot of places, and it is regrettable in this day and age how many of these places there are, the days of our lives are not spent in wine and roses, beer and skittles or any other cliché for the good life, when Isaiah was writing even less so.
Very few lived into what we might call old age, infant mortality was high, heck, mortality was high when you carried and lifted and toiled for your daily bread. The day when this might all end wasn’t an end to the party, like it might seem with us and our much richer lives, it was seen as a day when God would swoop in and lift the burden of this life from our shoulders.
I don’t recommend that as a counseling tactic. Despite the number of times I’ve heard it spoken, especially when a painful diagnosis was in play, that the person was “in a better place” or had “been released from their pain,” it always seems hollow in this era of cures and treatments and the promises of modernity to say that this life isn’t enough.
But when the lifespan was pretty much as old as I am now, and the years were hard and the resources scarce, the promise that Isaiah makes this morning must have sounded like death was a cruise ship ride to paradise, where the toils would cease and the ease would begin.
Almost like life begins when you die instead of the other way around.
All tears will cease and all pain and all want, it will be just like this only with all of the rough edges sanded off, all of the things that mark us as creatures and not the creator. It kind of sounds like Rick Warren’s image of heaven from the Purpose books he made so much money on. It’s like this only so much better.
But you have to keep upping the ante, don’t you, when you are pointing toward heaven and painting a picture that will entice people to care about what happens to them after they die. Since this world we live in now is the paradise that Isaiah was preaching, what picture do we paint for people to aspire to? How can we make the next world look so good that we give people comfort that their loved ones are “in a better place?”
I think John did a better job in the revelation, but it still falls a little flat to jaded twenty-first century ears. John weaves the story of the blessings of God’s presence among us, God’s intimacy and tenderness toward humanity and its failings and torments. When the home of God is among mortals then we will see God at work in everything around us and blessings will be the streets we tread upon and joy will be the air that we breathe and there will be no more room in us for despair or tears or sorrow, only love and the glory of God.
I think that maybe it’s because we are not willing to wait anymore, and for once perhaps, I think that this impatience is a holy thing.
Maybe it is because we live fuller lives, maybe not more filled with faith but fuller in the richness of the blessings of God. Singers who have that gift can exercise it instead of having to become a factory worker and so the gifts of God might be a little more real to us. Our lives are seldom marked by hunger and so we can feel the blessedness of the earth as it has been redeemed from God’s curse upon it to Adam that he would earn his food by his toil, our food is to be found at the grocery store and so we are richly blessed.
We are more apt to live out our days in hope of a brighter tomorrow, to desire to see our children live to old age in the world we are giving them. Even if that hope is a little tarnished these days, we are still living in a world where living is the goal, and not what comes after, we are writing more hopeful books of our lives because it is hard to paint a picture of the afterlife that sounds so fantastically better than the lives we already lead that we are willing to set aside the joys of this life to work toward the next.
Like I said, I’m not at all sure that this is a bad development.
I don’t think Jesus had it in mind that we should spend our days looking every upward toward some heavenly home we will only reach when we die, after all, Jesus spent precious little time thinking about it, He was too distracted by the poor and the orphaned and the widowed.
I get the impression that Jesus wanted us to see the Glory of the Lord, not in some far off image, some horizon just beyond our mortal sight, but instead in the workings of the Lord that are visible to us each and every day.
In the world we live in, in the books of our lives that we are writing, are we looking toward the horizon, dreaming of a day when all of this <wave arms to indicate everything> will fade from sight and we can at last really live the way God wanted us to live or are we going to just get on with living that way?
Jesus raises Lazarus even though Lazarus will once again die, otherwise you’d see Lazarus walking around these days. Jesus showed that the power of God is alive and working in all of our lives every day and is not just waiting for the day that we die to get to work.
But Jesus is also showing us that this life is important. Living it, finding the hand of God in it, finding ourselves in God’s story for the world, all of these things are important and we will miss out on what God has redeemed for us if we are so intent on the next life that we forget to live this one, abundantly, richly blessed within the body of Christ.
Over the past ten years I have buried a fair number of people and from time to time you can find me in one or another cemetery walking the aisles and pausing at their various markers. I am not communing with the dead, they are not present in the ground or the niche; their bodies are not them.
Their lives have fled but in visiting I try and remember them, try and summon back a bit of each of them so that their lives, the rich tapestry of them can teach me something, can keep me grounded in my own faith, can remind me of things that I have forgotten.
One thing they all share in common is that I simply cannot imagine that any of them would want me to remember them as having sat and hoped for a better life tomorrow instead of living that better life, redeemed and blessed by Christ in every day that they walked this earth.
Do the good you can, love the ones you meet, smile a lot, risk a little something from time to time, waste some time with someone you just met, tell bad jokes and don’t get offended when nobody laughs, drink while there is wine, eat while there is food, work with a song in your heart and it will never seem meaningless or like toil.
Live the life that Christ has redeemed for you and you won’t be wasting your time looking for the blessings of God in the world around you or in the world to come; you will be the blessings of God in the world around you and the world to come will still be there when your time comes.
My grandmother wasn’t heavy because the life had gone out of her. Ten thousand great recipes, and meals and trips to the Hunting Camp and dinners at the VFW Hall and two strong sons and six fairly decent grand-kids and before she passed, a couple of great grand-kids as well; all of that had been lived and embraced and squeezed for all of the joy that each day could wring out of it and at the end, all of that wringing had left her empty, her life had gone on to where she knew that it would in the end, at the back cover of the book of her life and so she wasn’t as heavy as I’d imagined as we took that last walk together, she and I, she had moved along, had found her way through and now, when I am in Marysville, I tend to stop and pause there in the cemetery where we lay her down at last, and give thanks that she lived.