Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a day when we remember those in our nation’s military service who have lost their lives serving this country, doing their best to defend and protect the ideals as set forth in the U.S. Constitution.
The tradition of going to decorate graves on Memorial Day—which early on was called Decoration Day—is actually part of an ancient tradition of honoring those we loved and lost across time. There is evidence that the memorial grew into a more formal practice in various parts of the country—in the North and the South—during the Civil War, and it spread across the nation after the death of Abraham Lincoln. By that time, in April 1856, more than 600,000 lives had been lost during the Civil War. Death and mourning must have touched every home, every family in some way. And now even the leader of the nation—the one who spoke so beautifully of faith and unity and vision—was gone as well. The nation plunged into grief.
Today we are in a similar moment. In our modern society we don’t know how to grasp the idea of 100,000 lives lost in just a few short weeks to the coronavirus. It may be hard to imagine—if our own lives have not been touched directly by this tragedy or if we have not yet suffered a devastating loss in our own lives—the extent to which families all over the country are right now shattered by their grief. We might not have a context to know how hopeless and helpless they are feeling, how much of a struggle it is to get up in the morning, to go through the day, to function in the midst of all this uncertainty when your life is fogged in by despondency and despair.
If our lives have been touched by this tragedy—or others that took away someone we love—we have learned first-hand that the grief that takes over our lives is a force unlike anything else we experience. When my father died back in 2007, even though I was already a trained chaplain, I was shocked by the force of my grief. I described the feeling as “a volcano going off inside.” It took me weeks to begin to deal with it—the heartache, the replaying, the once-sweet memories that now brought a fresh wave of pain. I never knew when I would be hit by a wave of feelings—tears, anger, upset, hopelessness, sorrow. Dad’s death came suddenly—he died of a ruptured aorta—and part of my longer-term grief work involved coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t there to say goodbye, to be with him and do what I could to bring some small measure of comfort. Today I feel a sad solidarity with so many, many families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 and were unable to be with them in their last hours.
We do on some level realize as humans that our lives are finite and that sometime, somewhere, grief and loss will touch our experience if it hasn’t already. When we are young, the likelihood of this seems remote and far off in the distant future somewhere. That kind of feeling is what gives younger people the confidence to go to beaches and bars and other public spaces right now while the virus is still among us. As we get older, grief moves closer for most of us, encroaching on our lives in meaningful ways. We lose a friend. A beloved pet. We know of deaths that shouldn’t have happened, illnesses that came out of the blue, plans left unmade, lives impacted forever.
As grief seasons and tempers us, we come to understand how true these verses from Ecclesiastes (3: 1-4) really are:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance
Our experience as we grow older and the reality that for many of us, the end of life may now be closer than its beginning, tenderizes us to the realities of the risks we navigate each day. We wear masks. We stay home. We observe social distancing. We do what we can to stay connected. In our meeting, we’ve been talking to our members about when we feel clear to reconvene. We want to be smart, and safe, and balanced about it. We proceed cautiously as a lived-out aspect of our faith, which teaches us that not one precious life—those we know and love nor those we’ve never met—is expendable. There is that of God in everyone.
Today, the headline on the cover of the New York Times reads
“U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss”
The subhead is
“They Were Not Simply Names on a List. They Were Us.”
On the entire front page—and continuing inside—the text lists the names, ages, and something poignant about the person who died, something they will be remembered for. These tiny snapshots say so much about each life—and they are heartbreaking.
“Carl Redd, 62, Chicago, squeezed in every moment he could with his only grandchild.”
“Minette Goff Cooper, 79, Louisiana, loved big and bold people and she loved them all the time.”
“John Schoffstall, 41, Terre Haute, Indiana, volunteer youth football coach.”
Jesus was off teaching in another town when he learned that Lazarus, the brother of his dear friends Mary and Martha, was very sick and near death. He told those who delivered the news not to worry, because this situation wouldn’t end in death. We understand from the way the story is told that he knew full well that Lazarus would die, but that he would be able to raise Lazarus and all would be well. He knew this was a teachable moment when his power and divinity would be fully revealed to those gathered.
His disciples cautioned him against returning to Bethany because when he’d been there before, he’d almost been stoned to death and had made a narrow escape. But Jesus calmed their worries and headed back to Bethany on his own timetable. When Martha heard he was returning, she ran outside the town limits to meet him. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she said.
Soon Mary heard also that Jesus was coming and ran out to meet him. A whole host of mourners followed along, thinking she was going to the tomb. When she saw Jesus she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you have been here, my brother would not have died.”
We need to stop a moment here and realize the heartbreak in that statement. Both sisters were saying to Jesus, “This didn’t have to be!” They are heartsick and grieving and probably on some level upset with Jesus for not returning sooner. He had let them down. This one who they loved so much had not made the life of their brother a priority.
As Mary wept—she had a tender spot in Jesus’ heart and would be the one later to wash his feet with perfume and wipe them dry with her hair—all those gathered around her also wept. The scripture says that as Jesus saw this he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. He asked where Lazarus was now, and they said, “Come and see, Lord.”
As they all walked along the road together, Jesus wept.
Various commentaries explore this tender moment in the story in different ways. It’s interesting to note that the word used in the original Greek is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. It describes the silent shedding of tears, quiet anguish, not a loud wailing that might be done as part of public grief. Meyer’s NT Commentary on verse 35 says,
“Note the eloquent, deeply-moving simplicity which characterizes the narrative…how, before accomplishing His work, Jesus gives full vent to the sorrow which He felt for His friend, and for the suffering inflicted on the sisters….It is a delicate discrimination of expressions, unforced, and true.”
The fact that Jesus suffered alongside those he loved is an important point that we often miss today as we struggle to live out our faith with a hopeful eye toward life everlasting. Why grieve, some people ask, if we know the end of the story? We will all be reunited again one day. If our faith is strong enough, shouldn’t we be glad our loved one is no longer suffering?
The fact that Jesus wept alongside Mary and Martha and the group of mourners shows that both are true at the same time. Jesus keenly felt his love for Mary, for Martha, for Lazarus. He valued the moments they shared, the trust they held in common. He knew how little they understood, we understand, about the eternal mysteries surrounding us and how all this fits together. He wept for their broken hearts—and his own.
It is a fact of our humanity—and part of the beautiful way we’re made—that we love one another deeply, that our lives entwine, and that without us all, the kingdom of Heaven is not complete. When we are separated there is grief, loss, heartache. The pain in this earthly realm is real and the feelings that overwhelm us are often as powerful as the force of life itself.
Even though Jesus knew the end of the story—he was the end of the story!—he wept with true sorrow in those moments walking with his beloved friends on the way to the tomb. As he is with us today, mourning the almost 100,000 lives lost in this country alone as the pandemic continues to take its toll. As he has been with every mother grieving a child, every husband grieving a spouse, every child missing a parent, grandparent, and pet across time. With the families of the 600,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War. With the 342,000 families of people all around the globe who have died of coronavirus in the last six months. God weeps with us—not because there is no hope—but because the love that accompanies us is so vast and so perfect and so indestructible that it cannot be limited by time or space. It has no boundary. From divinity to humanity and back again, God’s love—and God’s tears—flow freely.
God weeps alongside us because who better than God knows the tender, precious value of a single life, the intricate and fragile makeup of these beautiful human hearts. God knows what comforts those hearts when they are broken, when our lives feel shattered and we have trouble imagining ourselves feeling hopeful and happy ever again.
God knows we will; and God knows the end—or perhaps I should say, continuation—of each of our stories. But along the way, as we stumble together through our experiences of this tragic time, the sorrow is real. The loss is unfathomable. And our faith calls us to weep with the sorrowing and affirm—continually, with reverence and purpose–the irreplaceable value of every single life.
Toward that end, I invite you tomorrow evening at sunset to join me, our meeting, Friends General Conference, and the Friends World Committee on Consultation in a time of shared mourning for all the lives we’ve lost the world over. They have asked that wherever we are, at sunset, we light a candle and go outside if possible, reflecting on the preciousness of each person and lifting up those who are grieving their loss. We need one another and we need God in order to move through this crisis with hearts that can heal. Let’s keep praying for our families, our meetings, our nations, and our world for the light and love that leads us forward, even while weeping with us on the way.
- Ecclesiastes 3: 1-4
- John 11: 1-35
- The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/