Wednesday was hard. It was the one year anniversary of the death of a dear friend. Melinda was in our small group for many years. On Wednesday, our group gathered to look through old photos, share our favorite memories, cry, and pray for her widower. And eat cupcakes.
I’ll explain the cupcakes later.
Death is never easy to talk about. It is always an intruder, always an unwelcome guest. I have attended more funerals in the four years since I became a pastor than I did in all my years before, and I can tell you there is something universal and instinctive to all people who mourn. They seek God. They ask big questions. And not just Christians. Not long ago, I officiated a memorial service in a back yard for a family of unbelievers. It was a touching and emotional remembrance — 30 people at a backyard barbecue remembering their family matriarch with tears and hugs. I didn’t know this family. None of them are Christ-followers, but all of them were reaching out for reassurance in matters of faith. They invited a pastor to speak. They organized and observed a holy moment in the wake of death. When eternity breaks in on our tiny, transient lives we can’t help but open up to bigger questions.
It is not Christian tradition or social conditioning that draw us to church for funerals. When death arrives, we know, instinctively, that we are dealing with matters beyond our understanding. In those moments when we stand at the graveside of a loved one under one of those temporary green tents that remind us of our own impermanent nature, it is precisely because Christianity makes such an audacious claim that it can offer audacious hope. After all, if the Christian story is true — if Almighty God has conquered death on our behalf — then no matter how dire and threatening death may seem — no matter how unlikely resurrection may sound — funerals are a temporary goodbye.
Our family loved Melinda. She and Corey are dear friends, co-travelers with us through life. Melinda battled brain cancer for seven years. We battled with her. We prayed for healing. We prayed for life. Every day for seven years, our small group prayed for Melinda to stay with us on this side of death. When she didn’t, when she finally went home, we were heartbroken. Deeply disappointed. We mourned many losses. The world lost a beautiful and vibrant life full of promise and kindness. Melinda was only forty-three. Corey lost a soulmate. Until the day of his own death, Corey’s life will be marked by loss, by that haunting shadow of widowhood come too soon. Corey is thirty-nine. We lost Melinda’s bright eyes. Her infectious, snorting laugh that was completely at odds with the rest of her prim and proper demeanor. We lost her email reminders to pray — those updates on her health and relationships that were charged through with Bible verses and unwearied faith. We lost so much.
In September, we celebrated Melinda’s birthday without her. Our small group had a party. We bought some helium balloons for the kids to release and think about things above. And we ate cupcakes. Melinda loved mocha cupcakes from a local shop called Sprinkles.
Death always brings mourning as sure as a wound always leaves a scar. It doesn’t matter what faith you practice. But our mourning and missing Melinda hasn’t left us hopeless. In fact, Melinda’s memorial was as much a party as a funeral. When her family and friends packed the church to remember her, there was laughter, beauty and hope. We weren’t left, finally, with only our memories and the despairing wish that we had her back. There was more — a parallel story — a feeling that this was the turning of a page, not the closing of a book. We feel that way because of one person, and it’s not Melinda. We feel that way because of the most outlandish, most promising, most unbelievable scene in the Christian story.
Jesus rose from the grave.
Jesus conquered death. And so the final enemy, that seemingly insurmountable shackle on humanity, is not to be feared. Death doesn’t get its way. The grave doesn’t win in the end. Death has taken Melinda, but it can’t keep her. And one day we’ll sit down with her again, Corey and our small group, and all those people who celebrated her life at the memorial service. We’ll gather at something the book of Revelation calls the wedding supper of the Lamb.
And we’ll eat Sprinkles cupcakes.