A few times lately I have made reference to the fact that my mother passed away in September. Actually, I despise that phrase: passed away. Makes it sound so benign and innocent. She was peacefully at rest when she “passed away” but I do not believe for a moment that death itself is sweet, innocent or benign. She had finally been removed from the heinous machine that forced air into her mouth and demanded that she struggle to exhale in some sort of epic battle designed not to torture the patient or family, though it certainly seemed to do that quite well, but to reduce the amount of CO2 in her blood. She had been given anti-anxiety medication to keep her from panicking as her body became increasingly powerless to provide itself with adequate air. She’d also had enough blood thinner to give her hands and arms cruel maroon gloves; marks of the battle. At the end, it was the most peaceful I had seen her in years but I do not believe it is death itself that gave that gift.
My mother was a United Methodist. Even though she’d not attended a UMC church in, oh, decades, she always said she would be a Methodist till the day she died. And she was. Yet, she had been very active in the Presbyterian congregation I grew up attending (I was the only PCUSA in my family as a child and I’m the only Lutheran now, though my family as a whole is an ecumenical movement in its denominational diversity) so when it was time to plan her funeral, it was this Presbyterian congregation that was the only reasonable choice.
I did not envy the pastor’s job for that day. I’ve always thought it would be hard to preach for another pastor’s family member’s funeral, but to complicate matters with the various traditions involved could only have tangled matters further for him. When my aunt and I went to visit his office and plan for the funeral service, I felt a great deal of compassion for him. He was ordained only a few months before I was and he, too, is in his rookie call just like me.
At the meeting, he asked all the right questions about scripture and music and details of her life. He used really good pastor magic tricks of getting people to tell stories of the life of the dead. It is the stories, after all, that breathe life back into memory and image recorded in the brain and provide us with cords tying us to those who have left us behind. He made notes but not obviously so and though I do not want to critique, I cannot help it. It comes with the territory. But then, he asked perhaps the best question ever.
“On the day,” he asked me, “the day of the funeral, what do you need to hear?”
It was the very best question he could have asked me.
“Speak to me of the Resurrection,” I said. That is, after all, what gives me hope. In the Resurrection, my mother will not struggle for breath, she will not worry about having a bad hair day, she will not have such anxiety that every muscle in her body is as tight as a rubber band stretched over a too thick newspaper. In the Resurrection she will not be afraid of identity theft because her identity will be secured forever. In the Resurrection she will not worry about how to get her books from the library or whether or not someone will call during her nap.
In the Resurrection I will not cry and if I do, God will wipe away every tear.
I do not like funerals where we spend all our time hearing about how great the person was or how amazing and unique and strong and honorable they were. My mother was all these things and much more, but I do not need to hear that from a pulpit and I do not need to hear that when I sit, alongside my family and friends, slain from the reality that is pain, loss and death. No amount of fond memories can stand against such realities as this. No amount of happy thoughts or melancholy reminiscences or funny stories can ultimately be anything more than mere wraith before the blast of permanence that is death and is unavoidably, arrogantly staring at us in the shape of a coffin. Do not tell us she “passed peacefully”. This is all too real and those things too fragile, fleeting and foolish. Do not tell us she is “in a better place” or “this was God’s plan”.
Death was, is and never will be God’s plan.
The pastor was a good Presbyterian and the service was probably only about twenty minutes door to door. He spoke about my mother’s fortitude, her love of football and NASCAR, of reading and Sudoku, of me and the rest of her family, of her strong political opinions and, well, opinions on about everything. “I have hope for Jeanne,” he said, “not because of her strength or anything she did but because of the hope of the Resurrection.”
“Loss is real. Pain is real. Death is real. But hope in Resurrection in Jesus Christ is a far greater truth than any of these.”
Now that’s what I needed to hear. It is not a truth that stops tears…yet…but it is a truth that can withstand death.
“On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.” Isaiah 25:7-8