The Thirty-Fourth Letter: Where, O Death?

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Dear Daughters,

We live a few blocks away from a funeral home, so I’m reminded every other day or so of the reality of death and suffering. On long walks, we pass by cars full of mourners, with you two happily in the stroller eating your snack, oblivious to what’s going on. On our way to head out to eat for dinner, on the way to Lowe’s for a quick construction run, on my way to reading group, heading to a playdate, picking up your dad from work when it’s raining: those who have experienced recent loss are nearly always present. I drove by black-clad mourners on my way to get a soy latte this morning.

I have always found this reminder of death in the midst of life helpful. It’s a proverbial wake-up call each time, that whatever is on my mind or burdening me at the moment is fleeting and that there is real suffering all around me.

I love our church’s Easter tradition of carrying lilies down the center aisle in memory of loved ones who have passed away the previous year. The preschooler carried one this year, in memory of my grandfather who died on Christmas Eve. The plant swayed as she walked, but she made it safely to the altar.

As the lilies pile up in the front, filling up the absence left when the altar is stripped at the end of the Good Friday service, our congregation stands and sings “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” I can never sing the song, of course, because as I watch my friends carrying down lilies–or those years I’ve carried them down myself–I think of all the loss we’ve experienced as a community. I think of all the meals we’ve delivered. All the prayers we’ve prayed.

My throat catches, and I don’t sing. Our loved ones die, and we feel so much pain.

The lyrics to many of the great Easter hymns, including “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” have a line or two echoing the sentiment of 1 Corinthians 15:55: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (sometimes the King James Version just says it best).

I counted at least three references to that verse in the songs we sang Sunday morning. And, I’ll confess, it kind of annoyed me each time.

A friend of mine who lives many states away texted me an update about her dad, who is having significant health problems and was in ICU. She was travelling back from visiting with him, and she concluded with, “I’m exhausted and sad. But He is risen, so there’s that.”

So there’s that.

Where, O Death, is now thy sting?

One of my strong and beautiful friends lost her husband suddenly last year. She carried a lily down the aisle at church.

Where, O Death, is now thy sting?

A vibrant 26-year-old mother in our town was diagnosed with two forms of terminal cancer this week. She was given three to six months to live.

Where, O Death, is now thy sting?

I can tell you where. It’s right here.

Right.

Here.

People are hurting all around us, girls. It is hard to live in this world and know pain and love people who know pain. And we get numb to these words of Scripture–O death, where is thy sting?–and it kind of makes us, okay, me, mad. Or sad. Or frustrated. Or helpless.

All of it.

Sometimes I think we sing Where, O Death, is now thy sting? followed by Alleluia (adding a little salt in the wound) without remembering that many among us don’t feel encouraged by the creeds. And I’m talking about those of us who do have faith in eternal life, who do sincerely believe that eternal life brings relief from suffering. We know it intellectually, and we might even know it on a deeper level, but it doesn’t always ring true to experience.

What we feel is the very real sting of death.

The very real sting of our loved ones being diagnosed with cancer. Of babies dying. Of marriages crumbling.

I have faith, girls. Most days, I have it in spades. But I have faith alongside a healthy dose of reality, which is that life in this world hurts a lot of the time, and I don’t want to pretend that’s not the case.

I am careful when I write condolence cards because it’s too easy to be trite.

Of course, Easter reminds us that death does not get the last word. I appreciate that message. But I think we need to be careful where we go from there.

Easter does not tell us that we won’t feel the very real pain of losing loved ones in this life.

We can believe and have hope in eternal life and in the good God whose own creation sings praises, while we also say, no, I’m sorry, there is a sting of death.

Part of me hopes that you feel the sting of death a lot, girls. Because that means you’re really living in the world and loving people.

And I hope when you see full parking lots at funeral homes, you are able to pause and reflect on the death and suffering that coexist with your own lives, that trump your own annoyances and frustrations and pride and self-centeredness.

But I also hope that when you see Easter lilies, you remember why we carry them down the aisle on Easter morning. I hope you remember this little nugget of the truth of Easter that sometimes gets buried: even when we’re sad and exhausted, He is risen.

Because there’s that.

Love,

Your Momma

 

The Twenty-Seventh Letter: Funerals, Faith, & 2015

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Dear Daughters,

My grandfather died on Christmas Eve. He was 92, a decorated World War II veteran, and an overall former badass.

Yes, I can say words like that even though you aren’t allowed to.

In my memory, he was a calm, pinochle-playing, itchily-mustached, white-haired handyman who, right on cue, hollered “What?” whenever I declared “Red” was the color I wanted to play in Uno. I never knew the tough guy he used to be: the red-haired, hard-drinking, angry, physical beast he was before he met Jesus. Those were a lot of the stories we heard at the funeral—stories that woven together spoke of a life of transformation.

During the service, some of my cousins shared poems they’d written about him, and afterward an old friend of the family approached me. “I was surprised we didn’t hear anything from you,” she said. I hadn’t shared anything because I hadn’t written anything.

The truth is, I haven’t written much this last year.

I’ve painted and colored and brainstormed and blogged and read lots of really good novels, but my own creative writing has been a struggle. It’s been a difficult year to be present and attentive, to cultivate the practices necessary for introspection and revelation and seeing the world sacramentally.

Whew. This last year. It was a doozy.

I’m sure it was a beautiful year, too—your first school year, first haircut, first flower girl dress for the eldest; first words, first steps, first birthday for the baby—but it’s hard to remember all those moments of grace. As much as I hate it, the beautiful moments are not the ones that stand out in my memory. It’s the heartache I most remember, I most carry with me. It’s the sobbing on the phone with friends and family who are hurting. It’s the texting conversations about mental illness and unspeakable pain, the sitting in doctors offices to try to share burdens, the taking food to friends who have suffered so much this year. It’s the insomnia and what-if’s and not understanding how yet another person in my close circle of friends could possibly be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, could possibly be carrying this pain for so long, could possibly…could possibly…could possibly…

That was what 2015 felt like to me, girls.

And then Pappy died Christmas Eve and I went back to Pennsylvania to be with my family, to give hugs, to be present. And in the midst of mourning, I heard stories of hope and transformation, stories of courage and Coca-Cola, stories of heartache, loss and love, fatherhood and forgiveness.

These were stories of faith.

Of faith.

I hear those stories and I’m a little bit jealous.

It’s not that I don’t have faith. I do.

And it’s not that I find it harder to believe in, say, the tenets of my faith or God’s faithfulness or the redeeming narrative of scripture, when I am confronted with the world’s pain, with my loved ones’ pain. No, my instinct is still to believe.

It’s just that, well, some days it’s hard to remember how to have faith. Hard to know what that looks like.

Sometimes, I think it simply looks like surviving the day.

Sigh.

2015 was full of a lot of those days. Days of mere survival.

And that’s okay. We made it through, girls.

We made it.

Love,

Your Momma