Last year, during bitter cold days that seemed no longer to call for school cancellations or delays, I attended a funeral for a man I’d never met. It’s a little unusual, but it’s not unheard of. The deceased was the husband of someone I am acquainted with. His children are generally the same ages as my younger three, and they know one another, though they are really just acquaintances as well.
A few days before, providentially, I had shared on Facebook an article by Dee Sullivan, originally posted at NPR, titled, “Always go to the funeral“. Sullivan’s father was the one who instilled in her the weightiness of the gesture, “You can’t come in without going out, kids. Always go to the funeral.” The author recalls a time as a teen attending the visitation of a former teacher, and how that was forever remembered by the woman’s mother. The weight in the chest that she feels even to this day I think I can understand. All I did was show up. It doesn’t take anything to do that, so please don’t thank me or make me out to be a good person. All I did was show up. It’s so uncomfortable being thanked for attending a funeral, but as Sullivan says,
“‘Always go to the funeral’ means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.
In going to funerals, I’ve come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life’s inevitable, occasional calamity.”
At this incredibly well-attended funeral, where love was pouring out from all corners of this family’s lives into their souls and hearts, it was nigh impossible even to approach the bereaved. My son’s schedule had not allowed him to attend the afternoon service, but he had gone to the funeral home in the morning. He told me later he’d not been able to speak to the family because of the crowd.
But the widow, seeing me at the reception, came to me and said, “I saw Tommy this morning. Thank him, please thank him for coming. I wasn’t able to talk to him, but I don’t want him to think we don’t appreciate his being here.”
The small stuff, the little inconveniences that make a difference.
During the service, which was for a man whose adult life had been broadly and deeply touched by the community of Christ—including his wife and children—and yet who had never professed any faith in the Savior, much was said about the gift of his life to those who knew him. The pastors who spoke—the pastor of the church he and his family attended, and his brother-in-law—never compromised the Scriptures by positing that a good man could go to heaven based on his goodness. But this man clearly was a good man in the kindest way that common grace can allow. (For when God grants good things to nonbelievers, His children are resultingly blessed as well.) He evidently was a selfless man, who listened to others, who devoted his life to his family, who was a man of integrity and a hard worker.
These virtues were gifts to the souls left behind, it was said, the ones who are just now beginning to pick up the pieces, because in the gapingness and the vastness and the emptiness of his absence, what is remembered about his full and loving life is as big as Texas, as bright as an explosion, as poignant as a heartbeat. His brother-in-law added, “I can’t imagine life without him being a part of it.”
This broken confession jostled me as I sat there in the crowded church, in the midst of the emotions of friends and family, co-workers and acquaintances.
Whom would I feel this way about if I were to lose them suddenly, as my friend had lost her husband and this pastor had lost his brother-in-law?
Who takes up residence in my heart and my life, whose departure would leave such a hole, a void, that I would be at a loss for words? Whose place is so integral that the whole is unimaginable unless it’s complete?
My husband? who arrived late on the scene, and yet the past 20 years with him are definitely more the norm than the previous 33—and are as close to completeness and perfection as there can be in this life. My children? each round out my life with uniquely shaped pieces of the puzzle known as Laura. My mom and brothers and their families? Friends? I dearly love so many brothers and sisters in Christ, but would I say “I can’t imagine life without him/her” at their exits?
And in whose life would my exit cause a whirlwind of confusion? Who would say that my death makes them feel unimaginably lost? Am I that big an entity? Or am I a big empty? Do others devote space in their hearts to me? I fear I am too small in my heart to fill another’s. There is a Grinch-like meanness and leanness in these chambers—that “narrow, suspicious, censorious, and selfish spirit” that John Newton refers to, not love or selflessness or consideration or any of those things that made people say those wonderful things about the deceased at that funeral. I am a pathetic lover of others.
Newton again: “It is well that we are not under the law, but under grace; for on whatever point we try ourselves by the standard of the sanctuary, we shall find reason to say, ‘Enter not into judgment with your servant, O Lord.’ There is an amazing and humbling difference between the conviction we have of the beauty and excellence of Divine truths, and our actual experience of their power ruling in our hearts.In our happiest hours, when we are most affected with the love of Jesus, we feel our love fervent towards his people. We wish it were always so; but we are poor inconsistent creatures, and find we can do nothing as we ought, but only as we are enabled by his grace.”
How huge the chasm is between the love poured out on me by the Savior and what I show others! How huge also the love instilled in me by my Savior and what I show others! And yet it is possible for me to be a conduit of Christ’s love, for 1 Peter 1:22-25 says:
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for
“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
And this word is the good news that was preached to you.
There are people walking around in the world with holes in their hearts. Some have ragged, gaping pits ravaged by a pain that detonated in their lives like an explosion. Some are experts at hiding the holes. It may have been death, divorce, neglect or abandonment. Perhaps it’s less obvious a cause such as silence, distance, derision, or betrayal, but the resulting phantom ache left by the loss is no less severe. It may be it’s been such a long time since the hole was created, that many think it’s less devastating now, or that it’s better left untampered. In truth, it is the essence of Christian love to care for the orphans and the widows, the poor in spirit and the impoverished in heart, the sick in soul, and the discouraged (James 1:27). Now is the time they need to be remembered, now when the ache is most pronounced, when the holes seem to echo. You might say it’s a holey season for them, during these weeks, when Christmas memories are triggered by smells and sights and sounds at every corner, when every occasion seems to highlight the invitations not sent, never received, because mail doesn’t get delivered into the next life.
I note what John MacArthur said in a sermon on this passage. “To love then for a believer is natural, or maybe I ought to say supernaturally natural. It is natural to our new state. In fact, John says if we don’t love one another we are not the children of God.” In our natural, unregenerate condition, we are stone cold and unresponsive and untouched by this divine provocation to love. Sure it is that we may have love for others that feeds the self or is a convenience or allows us to resonate with those who are likeminded, but do I have a supernatural love, one that doesn’t regard the worthiness of the other but the excellency of the One who has saved them as he has me?
Supernatural love compelled the Father to send his Son to serve as the spotless sacrifice. Supernatural love led Jesus the Savior to take on the frailty of humanity, live a perfect life under the law, and willingly go to the cross for us. We celebrate supernatural love at Christmastime. In whatever ways the Lord sets it before us, let’s show supernatural love to those who need it to fill their holes this season.