Below is the text of the most difficult and necessary instance of public speaking I have ever had to do. It is a homily at the memorial service of a dear friend, AMS, who died in a car accident three years ago today. I’m not going to add much further comment, except that I am still learning to sing, and the song still sounds dissonant. But that is okay, because it is our enemies and not God who expect us to sing before we are ready.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
1 Thessalonians 4.13-18
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
A few months ago, I was for one reason or other talking to one of my friends about our yearly summer trip, on which A was going to join us. This friend thought it was a good idea for her to come, but wondered if we might not be a little tired of her, seeing that she lived next door and was over at our house practically all the time. I replied that “we don’t mind; once one knows her well and that she only pretends to be obnoxious, she is rather pleasant to have around.” Somehow or other A happened to come across our Facebook exchange, and read what I said, and rather than being offended, she turned to me and said, “Can you explain me to people?” Today, I am honored to be able to attempt this task, but deeply broken about the circumstances under which I am doing it.
There are three parties involved in a service like this: A, we who are left behind to mourn, and God. And I’d like to address the roles of these three parties. The first two are of course very familiar – we know A, and miss her deeply, and we know our own mourning and loss of her. The third party, God, is one we probably think less about depending on our background. When we come together like this, we believe that this is not simply a celebration of life, or simply a time of mourning – though it is of course both of these –but we also believe we are coming before God in worship and prayer. And I would like in what follows to briefly reflect on what some of the passages read today might have to say regarding each of these parties.
Regarding ourselves, left behind to mourn, I want to begin by dispelling a common misconception about the passage from 1 Thessalonians. We are told at the beginning of this passage that we are not to grieve as those who have no hope. Yet this is most emphatically NOT the same thing as not grieving. There are many sentimentalized interpretations of Christianity that try to claim that because we have hope and resurrection, we should therefore simply be optimists and skip over the mourning part to the hope that we have in Christ. Even for those of us who are not from church backgrounds, our very culture is largely set against the state of mourning which brings all our efficiency, plans, and ideas to a halt – culturally, we would rather suppress tragedies such as what happened to A because they threaten our sense of security, our sense of the way things work.
Yet one of the things I think we most appreciated about A was that she would have nothing to do with such cheap optimism – she was palpably frustrated when she saw something wrong in the world or in the church. She was frustrated, not because she was simply bitter, or cynical, but because something deep inside her had hope that the world could potentially be better, and she was frustrated when it did not live up to that potential. In Romans 8, Paul describes nature groaning in expectation for the day when the world will be made right; A’s frustration came out of a similar yearning for a world made right.
She could not mask this yearning, ignore it, gloss over it, or cover it up, and in doing this she was following a very Biblical precedent. This yearning is particularly striking in Psalm 137, written by the Israelites mourning their exile in Babylon:
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
3 For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
The question posed at the end of this passage is the question before us, and one that A asked often when she saw the world about her in exile from the goodness of its creator: How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? How do we mourn as those who DO have hope, without glossing over the brokenness of a world in which people like A are unexpectedly taken from us in inexplicable and unpredictable ways?
One thing we must do is be careful to take time to mourn the loss of her life, and not too quickly turn the doctrine of resurrection into mere sentimental escapism; indeed, we must cling to a full doctrine of the resurrection because it removes the need to explain and understand at the present moment. Without this doctrine, we are left trying come up with weak explanations about how we might put a positive spin on her death, how we might explain it as something that ultimately works for the greater good, how we might redeem it in the present moment. Yet Christianity insists neither on giving us such answers immediately, nor allowing us to redeem tragedy simplistically – this is precisely why we look for the resurrection of the dead, why we wait, often without understanding, for the day when God will conquer the last enemy that is death. Any answer less than this ultimate overthrow of death and suffering by God can only seem trite and partial – and so we wait in expectation rather than just trying to “make the best of it” or coming up with explanations that reduce A’s death to a mere instrument in the greater good of God’s plan. We cling to the resurrection as a refuge from false and glossy hope, and, as the Thessalonians passage goes on to say, we speak of the resurrection and encourage one another with these words. This is how Christian mourning works.
But of course as mourners, we are not simply mourning something vague, or general – we are not mourning death as an abstract concept or idea – but rather we are mourning someone very particular we have lost in this world, A M S. And I know exactly the question A would ask me if she were to talk to me at this moment; she would ask why, in a Christian service directed toward God, we should bother talking about the lives of particular individuals such as herself. The answer I would probably give her is that, in Christianity, we believe that there are a variety of ways that God reveals himself to the world. The primary ways of course are through scripture and the life of the church. But one of the other ways that God speaks to us is through the individual lives of those who live their lives into His.
One of the books A became interested in over the past few months was the Life of St. Antony – in a number of our theological conversations she would ask me about this, and about the tradition of reading and meditating on Saints’ lives. The life she was reading is one that was rather important in Christian history, as it was through an encounter with St Antony’s biography that St. Augustine of Hippo – another great figure in the tradition of Saints’ lives – became a Christian. The life stories of both these saints among others inspired subsequent Christian interest in personal biography, not out of any modern sense of individualism or cult of personality, but because Christians believed that by scanning the lives of people who were following Christ, they could discern in these people the life of God as Christ worked in them. And it is in this way that I suggest we should understand A’s life, as she herself might have hoped – indeed, one of the things she had posted on her Facebook info was SDG, standing for Sola Dei Gloria, to the glory of God alone.
In this service, there are included a few passages that are helpful as we consider A’s life, and look for Christ’s life in hers. The gospel reading speaks of Christians being lights to the world and cities on hills, and this is a passage that is often misinterpreted, with people assuming that being a light or a city on a hill means being particularly loudmouthed about one’s faith and good deeds. Nothing could be further from the truth. Light illuminates things not because it is trying extra hard or going out of its way to draw attention to itself, but rather because it has the God-given nature of light. Similarly, it is not as if the city on the hill goes far out of its way to be noticed – it simply cannot be hidden. And the more I talk to people about A’s life, the more I realize that she embodied these verses.
She did not go out of her way to draw attention to her self – if anything, she went out of her way to deflect attention, particularly when it came to her beautiful enacted faith. Indeed, most of us can probably imagine what her sarcastic response would be to my description of her at the moment. Yet even while maintaining this resolved humility, she kept following Christ in her life, preferring concrete actions over potentially hollow words. One of the Biblical texts that we in our Bible study kept thinking of as we were planning this service was the Magnificat, the song that Mary sings when she is given the news that she will be the mother of Jesus. The tenor of this song is that God is not on the side of the great, the mighty, and the powerful, but rather on the side of those humble persons who invest their lives in “small” things –things that don’t officially matter. We all know that A was a living example of this investment in small things – we can all remember the thoughtfulness that she often put into gifts, the willingness to help with mundane tasks, the readiness to offer an encouraging word even when she was herself not particularly cheerful, and her thoughtful love of children. Her concern for “plain” or “ordinary” things was evident to us as well in her faith. Some of us in our Bible study – and here I refer particularly to myself – have a bad propensity to use big words and ideas without bothering to be clear what we are saying. And A would never let us get away with that. Whenever real meaning began to get lost behind ethereal abstraction, one could usually expect A to halt the discussion and press the point until she understood it. This was not of course because she could not understand complexity, but rather because she had the humility to say when she didn’t, and work through it piece by piece until she did. And this perseverance in understanding scripture was itself a testimony to another of her amazing qualities, her living hope. Even in some of the more difficult things she went through, she embodied hope – a fierce but often unspoken hope propelled her to care for others and keep loving small things even during times that were difficult for her. And in all these things she gave us a pattern, quietly showing us what it means to “sing the lord’s song in a foreign land.”
This past week, I was talking to my friend S, who was also a good friend of A’s. I was driving him home, and he asked me how one should live one’s life in consideration of the fact that any of us could die as instantly and unexpectedly as A. I suggested that maybe we do indeed need to live each day as if it could be our last, not in a glorified or idealized way, but simply by pressing slowly and steadily ahead each day, following Christ and loving others in the best way we can amidst the difficulties we face – living in such a way that, whenever we die, we will have died well, as pilgrims faithful to Christ. Simon turned to me and said, “That’s how A lived, wasn’t it,” and I said, “Yes, it was.” A S, sola dei gloria, we miss you as fiercely as you loved us, and thank God that the grace of your life could not be hidden, despite all your attempts – and we look for the resurrection of the dead, when we will meet you again in Christ, to whom your life pointed, and in whom you now live. Glory be to the father, and to the son, and to the holy ghost/as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.