(The following is an abridged and much edited version of the funeral message I delivered on Saturday to honor the passing of my wife’s mother.)
We have gathered on this brutally cold afternoon to praise God and witness to our faith as we celebrate the life of Anna Kathryn Armand. We come together in grief, acknowledging our human loss. May God grant us grace, that in pain we may find comfort, in sorrow hope, in death resurrection.
There’s a lot that could be said at a time like this, but really, very little needs to be said. What we end up saying in death depends on what we believe about life. Buechner writes that funerals are important because they state “something precious and irreplaceable has come to an end and something in you has come to an end with it. Funerals put a period after the sentence’s last word.” Services like this do far more than commemorate the dead, they remind us that you and I are still alive. There’s still time, time to remember or discover for the first time that this life is enormously important, and that life consists of days, and days are comprised of moments. We abide best in our Heavenly Father when we extoll his grace that benefits this breath, and when we embrace the exhilaration of not living in the wake of what we once were. What happened or didn’t happen yesterday pales in significance with what I do right now; life does count, and this very moment matters enormously. Mercy is at hand in abundance when I allow myself to detect the weight of God in the mundane and ordinary. Grace is always present tense; grace in present tense means release from remorse over the past, and freedom from fear of failing to have tomorrow.
I enjoy waking early, but rarely do much more with the stillness than accompany morning coffee with prayerful meditation. These are not moments for doing so much as being; reflection fuels the later doing. This winter morning I shoved aside the sermon that insisted on intruding and allowed myself to settle on daydreaming about heaven. It feels somehow natural to think about death while peering through glazed windows at weighted skies and naked trees. A grey and barren horizon makes it suddenly a strain to remember warmth and light and green and hope, as recent as yesterday. What complicates such mornings for me is that considering the endlessness of days causes honest turmoil initiated by a barbed question– will life end with death? Although years ago as a youthful pastor I meticulously recorded funerals officiated in a massive blank-lined volume printed for such a purpose (perhaps thinking that by writing names in a book I might grant them immortality), I’ve long since lost count of how many times I’ve stood behind podiums and near coffins pronouncing hope that we are presiding not over an ending but endless beginning. Reciting dog-eared scriptures for the comfort of those lagging behind in the run to see Jesus, I deliver discourses on the eternal sincerely but always with a twinge of wonder. Can such platinum hope prove true? Will I one day blink my eyes in darkest death only to find myself transfigured? Is it possible that my own grey horizon might yield to light grander than anything I’ve read about or imagined? Don’t consider me a skeptic. Instead, number me in the company of those who cannot honestly declare we have no questions but journey with confidence that we are embraced by the Answer.
None of us will fully understand death until we die and then it will be too late to do anything about it, but what we can say is that what matters most is what we do before the end comes. Who did we love? How did we love? What difference did it make? Who will continue to tell our tale and what will its color be? For better or worse, our story never ends with us.
On Monday afternoon, Jo and Brenda and I were standing just over there, deciding on burial plots and working out the logistics of being buried; I was thinking about all the last business — funerals and where do you want to be buried — and I thought if anything were to be inscribed on my tombstone other than “He finished well,” let it be that, “Our story never ends with us.”