Looking back, looking forward

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of officiating dozens of weddings and memorial services. Unfortunately, living under a pandemic has added a new and unwelcome wrinkle: never before have I had to officiate anything while wearing a mask. Let’s just say that I don’t prefer it. It is awkward and uncomfortable, a poignant and tangible reminder that things are not as they should be.

When I was younger, I looked forward to doing weddings and almost dreaded doing funerals. How much more hopeful, I used to think, to be able to celebrate beginnings rather than endings!  Weddings are, by their nature, supposed to be joyous events. Memorial services, on the other hand, are expected to be much more somber affairs.

Given a choice, who wouldn’t opt for joy?

But the older I get, the more my perspective has shifted (I wish I could say that I’m “older and wiser,” but I suspect that only one of those things is true). Memorial services, much of the time, have actually been a joy. The key is this: when the person being remembered lived well, in a way that reflected the character of Jesus and brought love and laughter to others, memorial services are amazingly blessed events.

It might sound strange to say that funerals can be places to rekindle our hope. But listening to stories of otherwise ordinary people who lived with integrity, who cared for others and made an impact on their lives, is always uplifting — and frequently hilarious.

I remember one service I officiated a few years ago: the person had been the victim of a senseless murder. But he had also been a dedicated Christian, and quite the practical joker.

One after another, his friends took to the microphone and regaled us with two kinds of stories: the man’s boldness in sharing the gospel, and his dedication to hare-brained, elaborate pranks. The most memorable example of the latter involved pretending to be bitten by a rubber bat (as in vampire bat, not baseball), sending hundreds of tourists fleeing for terror in all directions.

I guess you had to be there.

The man whose life we celebrated a week ago didn’t pull any stunts like that (as far as I know). But the stories told by his family and friends reminded all of us of his larger than life presence, his faith, his love for the Lord and those around him. In the months before he died, he struggled through one failed medical procedure after another. But through it all, he kept alive a spirit of hope.

His faith was such that he could see heaven from his hospital bed, and it freed him from the self-absorption that so often comes with intense suffering. The hospital staff that cared for him discovered that he cared about them, and even prayed for them. Over the long months of his stay, they all became like one big, diverse, extended family.

How often does that happen?

Sharing memories of a life like that can give us hope. The Psalms teach us a similar lesson: looking back and remembering what was helps to imagine what could be. We will struggle with our own pain and suffering. But if we can see or hear how others have persevered and even transcended their troubles, it empowers us to think: If this person could live that way under such difficult circumstances, maybe I could, too. 

Such stories of hope are all around us, if we pay attention, if we look for them. We don’t have to wait until we’ve been invited to a memorial service to find them.