We were walking up to the place where we would soon bury his daughter when the grieving father stopped in his tracks. “Ron” stood a few yards away from the casket that held his daughter and her unborn son. “Alice” was a beautiful young woman, in her twenties, expecting her first child after only a few years of marriage. Tragically, she was suddenly taken from her husband, her family, her friends, due to a stroke that claimed her life. It all happened so fast. One day she’s calling her mom and dad on the phone, excited about the plans she was making for the new arrival. The next day her parents are summoned to a hospital, arriving just in time to watch their daughter and grandchild die. Life changes like lightning flashes. So it didn’t surprise me when Ron wasn’t ready to say goodbye to his sweet, wonderful daughter on the day of her funeral. I walked up beside him, put my arm around his waist, and didn’t say a word. His gaze never shifted away from the casket, surrounded by chairs and flowers, resting in the shadows, shielded from the sun by a tent. Then, as if he owed me an explanation for the delay, he said with deep sadness in his eyes, “I just need to take it all in. I want to stand here and take it all in–the moment, the pain, the sorrow, the heartache–all of it.” After several minutes of standing in silence, soaking up the dreadful moment on that beautiful sunny day, we walked up to the tent, said prayers, read Scripture, wept and sang together….
When I think about Alice’s death, it seemed like a horrible ending to a difficult life. When she was a toddler, she tipped an urn filled with hot coffee all over her chest and arms. Years of surgery and therapy brought constant pain and agony for this beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl. When she was an adolescent, an airplane crash nearly took her life-insomnia accompanied “survivor guilt.” Eventually things got better. It seemed like her life was just beginning–married, expecting her first-born. Then she died. I couldn’t believe the news. Alice was a sweet, quiet, kind young woman. My first thought was, “Why would you do this, God? She’s had it so hard. She’s such a good person. Why all the trouble? Why all the heartache? And to end it all like this? This isn’t right. It’s not fair. She didn’t bring any of this on herself. She wasn’t a reckless person. She wasn’t some hardened miscreant asking for trouble. All she did was try to quietly live her life. And this is the thanks she gets? It seems to me you owe her an apology–one big apology.”
Sometimes, in my darkest moments , I pray some very heretical prayers. But when the family gathered around her casket the day we buried Alice, all I could think to pray was how much we needed God’s grace. We confessed we were brokenhearted. We confessed we were wounded. We confessed we were perplexed. But in our weakness we tried to find the strength of God. Then, after the final amen, with the scent of carnations filling the air, I walked away from the tent only to hear the deep, heartfelt notes of a familiar song. Looking back I saw the whole family, father, mother, sister, husband, grandparents, all surrounding the casket, holding hands and singing defiantly, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrow like sea billows roll…” A sacrifice of praise. A sweet aroma of joy and sorrow, song and lament, life and death mingled together. On one hand, to those who are perishing, such praise sound foolish; our faith reeks of weakness–the “opiate of the people,” as Marx puts it. We believers, on the other hand, call it the “fragrance of Christ”–the power and wisdom of God.
Rodney Reeves, Spirituality According to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ, 40, 52-53.