(Note: the featured image came from this website. It’s not my kind of music, but I want to make certain they get credit where it’s due.)
I’m writing this for my own catharsis because I love my friend Matthew. It’s not a funeral sermon per se because this is a lot longer than any funeral sermon I’d ever preach. Even so, it is some idea of what I wish I might have said if I’d had the privilege.
So Close and So Far
My friend Matthew.
It’s been many years since that friendship could really be stated in the active voice, if I’m speaking with candor. We were close in college, we were pretty close for several years after that. I think I saw him once in the last decade. I thought about him often, but it was so frequently with a distant concern. When I heard he died a couple days ago, I received it with such an immediacy of grief — sadness, disbelief, disappointment, anger, frustration. I’ve been pondering how this immediacy betrays the facts of time that this person who occupies a sincere Present Space in My Heart is in all truth someone from whom I’m estranged by time.
I suspect, maybe I just hope, that I occupy a similar space in his.
That’s the funny thing about life, time, and distance. Their physical reality is coldly factual in once sense. Life is what we have till we don’t; time moves along undaunted and unbothered by our perception or non perception; distance grows and shrinks physically, emotionally, and in time since last connection. They’re also all so conceptually relative in how we experience them.
In my heart, Matthew and I are close; we haven’t spoken for years.
Matthew and I are friends; we never really hung out together after our mid-twenties after he drifted apart from our mutual friends.
Matthew and I play music together; we haven’t played even a single song together since around 2005 or so. This one’s oddly present and biting, because I remember him holding his Ovation in my mind’s eye, the guitar that sat next to his coffin and may as well be buried with him. Even so, our friendship included this so frequently. Fett’s Vette (MC Chris) is sung in Matt’s voice for all time. Ripple (Grateful Dead) is a duet between the two of us, despite that neither of us played it as often together as we did separately. The memories of music are grounded in the dank and drink that punctuated so many of our weekend relationships back then. For me they’re memory, for him they became somewhat more definitive of his lifestyle.
These contrasting ideas are all equally true.
Love Lasts Longer
My love for Matthew outlasted our relationship. I find this tragically beautiful.
It’s this way for a lot of our relationships from our younger lives, I guess. Time moves on and so do we from and to towns, groups of friends, and all the things that we consider definitive of our core identity when you get right down to it. There’s probably very little in who we think we really are that persists in our later years when they’re so deeply set that we don’t actively remember why.
As an ontological statement, I offer this: the strongest force in any life is the loves of our younger years. Music; friends; faith; romantic attitudes; political foundations; all of these are formed and forged before the age of twenty-five or so in ways that no individual will likely be able to fully abandon without great personal upheavals.
As a theological statement, I offer this: the strongest force in any life is loving relationships with people God puts in our path along the way.
Notice that these are strikingly similar. You can understand how deeply ingrained the concept of relationship really is in my own cosmology and theology through this similarity. Ultimately, when I look at Existence Itself, what I see is that Existence Itself is defined in relationships rather than any single thing simply existing in its own right. The Universe may be a singular reality (or multiple singular realities), but it’s a reality defined by what resides therein. The universe is, yet it contains galaxies. Galaxies exist, but contain solar systems; solar systems, planets; planets, the accrued matter; accrued matter, molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, and so on down to what I suppose is the most fundamental subatomic Principal Material that’s probably somehow simply energy itself. Even this only seems to exist in relationship to itself through these larger expressions.
Existence Itself is an expression of relationship created not out of nothing, but out of whatever single Substantial Thing exists. I define this to be God. Somehow, because I believe to my deepest core that this Substantiance is Ultimate Reality, I therefore believe that to exist is to be in relationship, making relationship the most sacred thing I can possibly imagine.
Now then . . .
A friend attended my friend Matt’s memorial service at the funeral home, preached by his pastor from Calvary Chapel. Their report of the service was one that haunts my heart because it’s reminiscent of many funerals I’ve attended over the years.
At these funerals, the prevailing theological move is “Sure, we’re sad. But — and hear me out — we should really be happy that they’ve died. After all, here we are schlubbing along in the doldrums of this life, and we just know they’re now slow dancing with Jesus at the pearly gates where streets are paved with gold, chocolate flows in fountains, and the number of increasingly exclusive heavens is so great that they seem procedurally generated! We should really be sad for ourselves!“.
I believe in God. This is not a god I believe to exist, but a false god designed to sell guilt in the guise of grace. It’s the heretical snake oil of dualism, stating that flesh is evil and only the spirit is good. If this is true, and we believe God is creating all that is, seen and unseen, then we believe that what God is creating is largely evil, contemptible, and doomed to dramatic destruction. If this is what we believe, then our present suffering is an essential part of The Plan, so there’s really nothing we can do about it other than try to be good people.
I don’t believe in this false god.
I don’t believe in a god who mocks grief by telling me to rejoice in this loss. I don’t believe in a god who needs the deaths of people to be used for some odd counting of souls “won” by some preacher. I don’t believe in a god whose capricious creation is simply intended for destruction according to whatever whim exists.
I. do. not. believe. in. this. false. god.
I don’t believe in this false god because I believe relationship is the sacred foundational principle of the universe, and that Existence Itself calls together order and chaos as agents of the persistent dance into which we are being created. This also means I have no clue why we’re here other than that somehow it pleases That Which Exists, that which I call God, an eternal mystery to whom I remain devoted and grateful. This also means that I give up on pretending any knowledge of what happens when I or anyone dies. That said, there are some places in which I rest that provide context for my grief and existential angst.
Purpose, Even Unknown, Is Still Purpose
Jesus doesn’t talk about streets of gold, pearly gates, or an Eternal Tango with him and his faithful.
Jesus says I am the Resurrection.
Jesus says I am the Gate.
Jesus says, I am the Good Shepherd.
Jesus doesn’t say I am the resurrection, and here are ten easy steps to following it; or I am the Gate, and it’s your job to guard it; or, I am the Good Shepherd, and I really prefer happy sheep. Jesus engages every single person in every single encounter with his presence and caring concern — and a disturbing habit of speaking the truth without regard for whether we actually want it.
I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.John 11:25-26
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.John 10:14-15
I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.John 10:9-10
It’s a little seductive to believe we’re all some sort of cosmic accident. Somehow there’s an ease in belief that all of it’s just an accident. It would be easier because then I give up everything to mystery, but I don’t believe that. Every person I know, the evidence from writings throughout time, and the evidence of the human inclination to ponder with purpose our existence all points me back to the fact that we share an intrinsic need to engage The Mystery as deeply as we can. We seek the heart of creation’s core purpose, and in so doing, we seek to understand our own hearts as well. I invest my exploration in Christ because in Christ, I hear the Inviting Voice calling me to my own exploration of The Mystery. Christ is puzzling, offering riddling parables and probing questions. Jesus offers very few answers and I find this oddly comforting.
I think of the story often called The Raising of Lazarus.
To Martha, Jesus answers her demand that if he’d been there her brother wouldn’t have died with a reminder of God’s promise for the mystery of the resurrection. Notice that Jesus never says to be happy that Lazarus is dead, to feel better, or that she shouldn’t feel bad. To Mary, Jesus accepts her invitation in saying if he’d been there her brother wouldn’t have died with an invitation of his own, “Where have you laid him?” Saying this, Jesus joined her in weeping.
This isn’t a story of metaphorical death, but the reeking reality of recent death is something that lingers in the nostrils. Death’s acrid putrescence takes up unwelcome residence because very little invades our conscious mind like smells do. The whole point of this story is that death stinks, and so does everything about it.
The miraculous resurrection of Lazarus isn’t the miracle to my way of thinking. Lazarus went on to die a human death again, just as all human beings do. The miracle is Jesus’ commitment to loving these grief-stricken women where they were, not with the cheap grace of grief ignored, dispelling it with a hasty miraculous bandaid. To love these sisters where they were, and providing them the comfort of loving presence, is the comfort of God.
When they opened the tomb, the story makes mention of the stink of death’s truest reality. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God is with us even as Lazarus lay stinkething in the tomb. The miracle doesn’t happen at the resurrection, but as it would in John 19, it happens at the foot of the cross as these and other women stood by Jesus in his suffering too. The truest, most miraculous truth of this faith in Jesus is that this relationship cuts both ways. In the same way we aren’t alone in our suffering, neither is Jesus and neither is God. The lingering marks of nails in hands and spear in side bear witness to the utter reality of death’s embrace. Death still stinks even when the body’s no longer cold.
Grief Stinkeths because Love Persists
Grief’s odor lingers beyond momentary relief.
There’s very little we seem to hate in our culture more than this simple fact. We do everything we can to controvert its reality, but its stark realism is hard to avoid when we meet it face to face. I think this is why there are so many shitty funeral sermons preached about golden streets, pearly gates, and fictive fandangos with Jesus for all time as angels play harps. Snake oil religion sells happiness, not joy; relief of symptoms, not recovery even in suffering; mistaking miracles for bodily comfort — and missing entirely the miraculous made manifest in the relational reality of God With Us. The miracle isn’t that Lazarus was dead but then was alive again.
The miracle is that where human hearts are broken, God is incarnate among us.
In our pain, in our hurt, in our broken hearted laments, in the seemingly endlessly meaningless suck of it all — God. is. with. us.
You can keep all that noise about how Jesus is tap dancing with my friend Matthew and about how that’s supposed to make me feel better. I don’t want the cheap grace offered in the bad news that my grief is meaningless just because eventually we might see a new tomorrow.
I want love.
I demand love.
I will not settle for less than God With Us, because only that love could be strong enough to endure and embrace my grief when I suffer. Anything so fragile that it can’t bear my tears is incompetent of any authority in a world where suffering remains an ever-present reality. Anything so fickle to demand I fake being happy rather than embracing the wounded joy I have in knowing Matthew and all the others I love and have lost has no capacity to create anything — seen, unseen, or otherwise; unless it’s the spite with which I spit it out of my mouth.
Love isn’t the cure to death’s stink, it’s the embracing of it as reality so we can, in time, release it as a friend. I believe to my core that the deepest mystery of our faith can’t be anything other than this idea that Existence Itself is an expression of relationship created — not out of nothing — but out of the single Substantial Thing: love. Love is energy, and somehow I define this to be God because I see this revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Because I believe to my deepest core that this Substantiance is Ultimate Reality, I therefore believe that to exist is to be in relationship, making relationship the most sacred thing I can possibly imagine.
It’s to this sacred reality that I commend my friend Matthew, and to whom I commend all the people and possibilities I grieve in my heart. Trusting that the miraculous reality of love will meet me where I am, I find it possible to say that my joy is far greater than my sorrow even when it stinks too bad to be happy. Amen.