Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Where is thy sting?


Whenever I feel something really bloomin' human in the words of some biblical writer, I get the chills. Strange. Really, Holy Writ is brimming with humanity. Without question, it is God's Word, but it often comes to us, as did our Savior, in a suit of human skin.

The psalms are full of us. To be sure, they're full of the divine, but it seems clear to me--and to Calvin, by the way--that the world's most precious poetry is, well, peculiarly and powerfully human. Here's John Calvin:
I have been accustomed to call this book [the Psalms], I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.
Yesterday, at a funeral, I couldn't help thinking about the pulsing humanity in a familiar New Testament headline--"Death, where is thy sting?" First letter to the Corinthians, 15th chapter, one of the passages of sacred text that was repeated gloriously at thousands of Christian funerals held just yesterday, I'm sure. 

Not for a moment do I doubt that line's sacred truth or its divine glory. I'm a believer, and because of the risen Christ I know Paul the Apostle and "Sosthenes our brother" weren't whistling Dixie when they told the church at Corinth what they did. That line is not sweet talk or wishful thinking.  It's God's truth.

All of that I know.

Still, when the preacher stands up front and you know there's a huge hole in people's lives, as there was yesterday, and when that preacher repeats the in the deepest voice he can muster, "Death, where is thy sting?" my faith wants to shout it out too; but my humanness still feels a loss for which, in this world, there will be no compensation. Someone is now gone, someone very much beloved. "Death, where is thy sting?" is the divine bromide we take only when we've already suffered great and bloody loss.

But they're all different, just as we are. Every death that occurs opens scars or lays them in different ways. Some deaths, like this one, held a touch of mercy because the man's last breath occurred about a week before anyone qualified to judge such things reckoned it might--a week that would have been misery. His abrupt going--this fine man, loving husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandpa to two or three entire pre-schools--was its own kind of blessing.

But still. "Death, where is thy sting?" is medicine you just wouldn't pull out of the drawer if something searing hadn't rent your heart, you know? It covers real wounds.

Yesterday's committal was done in a wind-whipped tent where the family sat before the casket bedecked with flowers above a hole in the ground thoughtfully covered. A cold rain fell over the place, and some of six sturdy grandson pallbearers, unmoving, caught the run-off over their shoulders and necks. Nothing about that exercise out there in the cold cemetery was pleasant, but then no committals are. They're what we do because we have to.

When the preacher ended his readings, he kindly offered the family a flower from the bouquet on the bier, and just about every one of that multitude of great-grandkids pulled one from the bundle before heading back into the rain, some in their parents' arms. Those kids and those solitary flowers in their little hands cast an image I won't quickly forget.

And then we all left. Someone else, someone paid to do the dirt work, lowered the body into the ground.

And left it there. 

Death, where is thy sting?

There is a sting and that's why the line has such heft and poignancy and relief.  The sting is very real, but so is our hope, our faith, and God Almighty's great Easter triumph.

When my father died a few years ago, Scott Cairns sent me this poem of his, written when his father own died. I've sent it to countless others since, but I couldn't help think of it time and time again yesterday afternoon through the ordeal of remembrance we fashion ritually and call, in general terms, a funeral.
I don't think Scott will mind my sharing. It's a poem in human skin, but its promise is eternal.  

Words for a Father

And this is the consolation:
that the world doesn't end,
that the world one day
opens up into something better.
And that we one day
open up into something far better.
Maybe like this:
one morning you finally wake to a light
you recognize as the light you've wanted
every morning that has come before.
And the air has some light thing in it
that you've always hoped the air might have.
And One is there to welcome you
whose face you've looked for
during all the best and worst times of your life.
He takes you to himself and holds you close
until you fully wake. And it seems you've
only just awakened, but you turn and
there we are, the rest of us,
arriving just behind you.
We'll go the rest of the way together.

Scott Cairns

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