Welcome or welcome back.
In the old days, Memorial Day included cemetery tours. As a child, when we lived in Minnesota, we’d visit the family cemetery in Webster (WI), or the family cemetery in Big Fork (MN). When I was eight, we moved to Carol Stream, in the western suburbs of Chicago. Quick trips to the family graves weren’t possible. We’d visit when we could.
(BTW, I introduced Nancy to the family graves in Webster just before I proposed to her. She still didn’t know exactly what she was getting into.)
More recently, we took Nancy’s dad on a couple cemetery tours in Michigan: Rives Junction, Michigan Center, North Adams, Jonesville.
These days, we go to Greenlawn Cemetery here in Fort Wayne a couple times a year. It’s where our daughter, Kathryn, is buried.
Here’s the thing.
When it comes to cemetery visits, there’s not a right way or time, or number of times, or amount of time to stay or amount of sadness to feel.
Seriously. We’re each different in our history with the person, theological beliefs about bodies, accumulation of grief, and all manner of other factors. If you want to go every day, okay. If you choose to never go, okay. If you decorate, okay. If you don’t, okay.
Recently, I watched as the ashes of a grandfather were placed in a marker on a small rise. It’s across a cemetery pond from the place where the body of his infant grandson was buried a few years ago. Some of the family, including this grandfather, used to come to have “donuts with N___,” a way of remembering the little one. Now, some of the family will come to have “donuts with N___ and Opa”, telling stories to each other, sitting quietly, healing.
That’s not been my story. And there are too many mosquitos in the family cemetery in Wisconsin for more than a bite of a donut anyway.
But it’s possible that I’ll visit with Opa sometime, this man I only met once, alive. And maybe we’ll talk about cemeteries and the role of geography in grief.
(This is me in the old family cemetery)
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I had the privilege to talk to Opa’s family next to the grave. He had died suddenly while living ordinarily, including coffee and Bible reading that morning.
Here’s a bit of what I said.
We’re here to leave his earthly remains, and to carry with us stories and commitments and memories.
The last words we know that he read from God’s word were these from Psalm 18:
He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
he drew me out of deep waters.
He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
from my foes, who were too strong for me.
They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
but the Lord was my support.
He brought me out into a spacious place;
he rescued me because he delighted in me.
These are a different David’s words, written, we read in the psalm, on the day that he was delivered from all his enemies. It’s not clear what specific day that was, on that the scholars agree.
What is clear is God’s awareness of David’s situation, his appeal, and his relationship.
He was close to death, we read in this psalm. His enemies were overwhelming him.
He cries out to God.
God comes with passion. Smoke streaming from his nostrils, fire from his mouth.
And God rescues him, grabs him, pulls him up.
It feels less like a theology lesson and more like Tolkien.
And, as we read (King) David’s words, it could feel like it was because of his faithfulness to God, because of his right living, that God attended to him.
The words from Bob Goff’s devotional from that day seem to echo David’s. And it’s what Opa wrote down:
Grace isn’t just waiting for us, it’s reaching for us. When we fall overboard, God goes fishing for us and lifts us up, if we are willing.
That’s a really hard thing for us to read, actually.
Because though Opa wasn’t perfect, he was faithful, resting in and respecting God. Constantly measuring each step against God’s direction.
And for all that, he wasn’t rescued from death. From our perspective, what was true for King David on some day wasn’t true for Opa on that day.
But, and I don’t say this lightly or trivially, on that afternoon, Dave was lifted up.
And I have to wonder whether God came with smoke streaming from his nostrils.
Because the image we have in John when Jesus was reflecting on Lazarus’ death was that same kind of passionate, almost angry, response. Not directed toward any person. In John and in Psalm 18, this seems to be directed at death itself.
And with passion and affection, Dave was rescued from death and lifted to Christ.
Leaving behind traces of the last words from God that he would ever write in his journal. Words from 1 Samuel, “Speak, Lord.” Words from the back of the boat after a calmed storm: “Where is your faith?” In the phrase from John 14, “Jesus is truth”. And those words of rescue from Psalm 18.
I don’t know what Dave’s words to you are.
But we know what God’s words to Dave were. He rescued me because he delighted in me. He delighted in me. And that is where our hope rests.
Psalm 18 starts with words of affirmation:
I love you, Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
And that’s where I’ll end.
It’s been a sudden month for you. Everything changed. Things are not going to stop.
I’d invite you to think about some questions to reflect on, some resolutions to consider.
What do I want to walk away from here remembering that my dad was committed to?
What do I want to walk away from here knowing that I want to do before I come back here?
What makes me laugh most when I remember him?
What have I realized about him that I didn't know a month ago?
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Thanks for stopping by. If you ever have to lead a funeral or memorial service, I did write a book about it. I use it regularly myself.
Be careful this weekend, if you would. My coworkers and I in healthcare will be working all weekend long. We’d prefer to not have you visit us because of preventable choices.
Enjoyed reading what you wrote and your story. And I am glad to have found you. I think it is a funny thing to type “social media chaplain” into a search engine and land on something very relevant. (I wanted to say a treasure). All because someone asked “What are ways that the use of social media can enhance chaplaincy and spiritual care practices?”.