Friday, March 21, 2014
The day of my cousin's funeral was by far the very worst day of my life to date. For months afterwards, I would have a PTSD/anxiety type reaction at the memory of walking into our church lobby -- the very place where I had seen him last, alive, vibrant, strong, brave -- and seeing memorial photos of the one for whom my heart once leaped with pride and joy.
Up until that point, I had lived in a state of voluntarily suspended disbelief. Maybe they had been wrong. Maybe, if his name wasn't on a list, he hadn't really died in Afghanistan. Maybe our "I love you" and "Thank you for your service" and hug goodbye hadn't been our last. But those photos were there, in my face, telling me that the stories I had heard were true. Right there in my face. This was real. This was really happening. And the crush of well-wishers threatened to swallow me whole. So my husband wrapped his arm around me and hustled me like a linebacker through to a seat where I could sit and shake and clutch at tissue papers and try not to lose my mind.
At the very end of the service, one by one a somber line approached the flag-draped casket to pay their respects. My feet were lead, but I willed myself forward and forced my hand to stretch out over the casket. My mouth could barely form the words. "Goodbye, Ryan," I whispered.
I turned as I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. It was my Aunt Carolyn, the gold star mother, dressed in black from head to toe, wan with grief. "Katherine," she said, soft and low, yet almost a reproof. "He's not really there, you know." She locked her sad eyes with mine, and a small smile crept across her face. "You and I -- we know where he is."
Up until this point, I had never known my aunt to be a practicing Christian. God was not often mentioned in their home, unless by kooky relatives like me. But Ryan had broken out of that, and had given his life to Jesus Christ. And now, here was my Aunt, reminding me of the faith that my husband and I had shared with her son. She was right to rebuke me. In that instant, I had been grieving as one who had no hope. But my hope -- Ryan's hope -- and now, apparently, miraculously, my Aunt Carolyn's hope, was in Jesus Christ and His resurrection power ... in his life and death and atonement on the cross for our sins, so that we could have eternal life with a Holy God.
That's not to say that we didn't grieve. Or that my heart didn't collapse inside of me as I watched my Aunt clutch that folded flag to her chest and sob. For weeks afterwards -- and TEN funerals later (ten! In just a few short months!) -- every time I stared at the communion table at the foot of our church's stage, all I could see was a coffin. Ryan's coffin. Or Gene's. Or Brian's. Or Anna's. Or ...
But then, one Sunday, I stared at that wood and glass communion table. It's rectangular shape. It's notched edges reminiscent of casket handles. I remembered Ryan's coffin -- the young Marine who had traded his San Diego sunsets and young marriage and dreams of fatherhood so that I could live safe and free and happy with my own little family. A man who had laid down and sacrificed his blood for mine. And I read the hand-carved inscription on the front. "This Do in Remembrance of Me."
Ah. So it was a coffin after all. A coffin that sits there every Sunday reminding me of the ONE who laid down and sacrificed His sacred blood, His precious body, for a sinner like me. And instead of fearing that coffin, I fell in love with it all over again. Because this coffin, like the cross above it, was empty. And because it was empty, I knew where Ryan really was. My beloved cousin and friend Ryan was no longer physically here. He was with my even more beloved brother and friend Jesus.
In just a few hours, I am going to face another one of the worst day of my life to date. I am going to go and be faced with the memorial photos of my friend Shawn. But this time, I'm not going there to say Goodbye to Shawn. Because as cheezy as it sounds, I know that Shawn is not really gone. Not at all. And I'm just not saying some pie-in-the-sky platitude about it being a "Celebration." Because that's what it really is. A place to remember Shawn's earthly life, and to remember how God used that life here for His glory. And to CELEBRATE the precious, precious time we had with such an amazing Light, and an earthly job well done.
But I can't say goodbye to Shawn forever, because soon enough, before I even know it myself, I will be with him again. Because it is true that he is not here, not physically. And neither is Ryan. Or the fifteen other friends and loved ones I have said a quiet Godbewithye to in the past two years. But as time goes on I'm not really as convinced anymore that they are as far away as we seem to make it out to be.
Because they ARE here, somewhere in that fourth dimension of time and space where God intervenes in the hearts and souls of men, and the great cloud of witnesses cheers us on. And now that I know that Ryan and Shawn are in that dimension with Him -- well -- it seems like a place I really, really want to be too. Even if heaven isn't as Colt so wisely said, "Like a fun house without all the bouncy stuff, but everyone's soul is like a 7 year old so they can just play and have fun."
Those guys didn't just putter through a meaningless life. They RAN THE RACE marked out for them, in joy and parties and life and in suffering, too. And through it all, they ultimately trusted that Jesus was waiting for them at the finish line. And in the end, from our earthly point of view, we can see it all come together so clearly. It is my life's work to study the lives of others. Who is wise? Whose lives have meaning? And over and over and over again, in the micro of real life and death, am seeing it. Fifteen friends in two years and more besides ... those that die in Christ, well, many of their stories make sense. Not just later, but now. I don't like the endings -- I HATE the endings -- but the endings make sense. And they are beautifully, masterfully written.
So write my ending, Lord, and cheer me on, my dearly beloved boys who have gone on so far ahead of me (and all those loved ones in Christ beside -- I miss you all terribly!). Today's earthly race marked out for me is a brutal stretch for my heart, but I will face it with courage as I follow your examples. I will grieve deeply, but grieve with the greatest of HOPE in the One who walked this path before us, with our cross upon His back, and conquered death so that we all might truly live.
And when my own race ends, and I finally set down this cross I bear, I hope my friends and family say of me in hope and with a smile on their tear-streaked faces, "She is not here ..."
"The angel said to the women, 'Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: "He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’" Now I have told you.'" -- Matthew 28:5-6