Remembrance and Hope

“Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh that with an iron pen and lead
they were engraved in the rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!”

—Job 19:23-27

The following post is a transcription of the funeral homily for my dear friend Lisa, shared with permission, in the hope that it will bring hope and faith-strengthening encouragement to those who read it. Soli Deo Gloria.


We are gathered in this sacred place this evening for two reasons. We’re here to remember the life of Lisa Marie W__, and we’re here to kindle some hope. To be sustained in our grief we require both of these things. Memory links us to the past, and hope is our expectation that the future might be a little brighter than we might otherwise believe.

I’d like to speak about Lisa by relating her life to the lesson from the book of Job. A lesson which highlights both memory and hope. The first theme is that of memory. Job says in this passage, “O that my words were written, O that they were inscribed in a book, O that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever.” As Job struggles, lost in the thickets of pain, he cries out with a reasonable request. He wants to be remembered. He doesn’t want to be another statistic. He wants his story to stand the test of time.

Now, you may be familiar with the story of Job, and some scholars believe it to be one of the oldest books within the Hebrew scriptures. In the story, Job is a healthy, well-bred member of the aristocracy, with a loving wife and adoring children. That is everything which defines success for an ancient patriarch. But then, piece by piece, Job loses it all. His money, his health, his progeny. Even his good name. And now, the weeping wailing Job finds himself encircled by very flawed friends who can’t abide his grief and who mutter bad advice.

And in this place he cries out. He wants his words, his pains, his complaints to be remembered—presumably by God and by everyone else too. Human beings are made for memory and we are imperiled without it. We all know the true but clichéd saying, “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” We learn from and rely upon the collective wisdom of those who have gone before us.

Scripture itself is a memory book of sorts. Its pages are a collection of life-altering interactions between God and God’s people. These interactions were recorded so that they would shape the lives of those yet born. By its nature scripture umbilically connects us to the past. And tonight I seek to honor with you that biblical pattern of memory, of remembrance. With words, and prayers, and hymns we memorialize a treasured sister, a beloved wife, an attentive mother, and a compassionate friend. While it is not possible to summarize a life, especially a life like Lisa’s, in a simple funeral homily, permit me to mention three important things about Lisa.

Lisa’s Love For Others

First consider the depths of Lisa’s love for other people. I realize, even as I say that, that it sounds like a cliché to describe someone as ‘loving,’ especially in a funeral sermon. But it’s not a cliché. Because as you know from bitter experience, very few people love well, or love others deeply. Because, frankly, it’s too costly and too risky. But Lisa was devoted—from her core. She was a devoted wife and mother. She loved her college sweetheart and husband, Randy, who cared for her—and I wish to underline this—emphatically—who cared for her with earnest and exemplary devotion.

She cared for her own children with a wonderful combination of motherly affection and motherly anxiety (laughter), fretting constantly over their well-being. Anxiety, friends, is often a masked expression of love—how people show concern. Lisa expressed her love for her kids even at personal cost. She would attend Josiah’s and Matthew’s soccer games and Gabrielle’s tennis games even if it meant she had to spend a week secluded in her house before the event, storing up physical strength so that she could attend.

Regarding compassion, Lisa was acutely attuned to the suffering of other people, no doubt because of her own suffering. People would often say, “I feel like Lisa ‘gets’ me,” because she did. I remember having a conversation with Lisa, in which she expressed criticism of some people in my personal orbit. And a few days later I received a three-page handwritten letter from her apologizing to me for her words. I myself didn’t believe her to be at fault. But she, while managing her own pain, was more worried about my pain as a reaction to her words. So she cared more for me than her own self. That’s amazing. That’s a person of depth, and a person of deep, deep love.

Lisa’s Liveliness

Second, consider Lisa’s liveliness. To put it simply, she was a lot of fun. Most of you know that Lisa had a very intelligent mind. And along with it, a very well-developed sense of humor and good repartee. She could keep up with the best of them. She was great with a zinger or a one-liner, and sometimes her words were rather abrupt. But they’d always make you either laugh heartily, or reconsider the validity of your existence (laughter). Both were probably good for you. She loved games; she loved board games with her family, and competition with her new son-in-law, Ross. She was cerebral and literate, and when she was no longer able to read easily, Randy would read to her. She was a fan of the author George MacDonald, which says a lot about her credibility. She was also a very talented person. Lisa taught dance for many years. In fact Randy met Lisa while playing piano accompanying a college dance troupe which included Lisa, as he led them in the song, “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” from “Annie.” Lisa was lively, she was vivacious, she was full of zest and energy. And I suppose everything I just said underscores the tragic elements of her own life.

Lisa’s Struggle

So finally, let us consider Lisa’s struggle. She endured nearly 20 years of inexplicable, chronic illness and depression. Along with Randy she sought out numerous medicinal helps. But neither cure nor long-lasting reprieve was ever found for her. After becoming ill, Lisa was no longer able to easily visit friends and family, to read, to spend time in dry climates. Everything was impacted. The day-in and day-out struggle took its toll on Lisa in ways that are very difficult for me to imagine.

She also struggled spiritually—existentially. Particularly with how her chronic problems and an all-loving God could possibly exist together in the same universe. Sometimes we speak about that abstractly, the problem of evil and heavenly benevolence. But for her it wasn’t merely theoretical, but deeply personal. At times Lisa wondered if she could belong to God when she was so angry with him, and at other times she had doubts about the whole enterprise.

But, she kept asking questions, she kept pressing forward, she kept reading and thinking and enquiring. I told her that she reminded me of the Old Testament patriarch, Jacob, which she thought was an insult and it wasn’t (laughter). I said, “No, Jacob was one who wrestled with God” —the name Israel—he wrestled with God, and that’s what you do, Lisa. And I admire that. And while Lisa felt there were times when she lost her grip on Christ, Christ—never for a second—lost his grip on her. We have this vow from John chapter ten. “No one—and in the Greek that means no one—will snatch you out of my hand.”

Remember

Lisa had a beautiful, and complex life, and it is a life worth remembering. And that is in major part why we are here. To remember. This was Job’s request. To be memorialized. Interestingly enough, this request was granted. Job’s words were written on every Bible ever printed. And chiseled into countless monuments throughout the world. He was never forgotten. And while Lisa’s name is not written on the pages of sacred scripture, it is tattooed upon the fleshy palms of a risen, living Christ. And thus her name will endure beyond the ending of the world.

My pastoral directive for us, is not to forget Lisa. Tell the stories, tell them frequently, and let the emotions pour. And do not forget to love those who love her. Her husband and children must now cultivate a life without Lisa’s immediacy, and they have no easy task ahead of them. And we cannot ease all of that pain, but we can ease some of it. The best thing we can do for the W__s is to be present, to weep with them, and to refrain from behaving like Job’s friends who attempted to explain away his pain. Rather than listen to it. So let us remember Lisa and those whom she loved.

That’s something about memory. Now something about hope.

Hope

Job turns on a dime. The first portion of his speech is fairly dark, but at this moment he has a breathtaking and transcendent insight. It goes against the grain of his current circumstances. And he says, in the very next verse, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself and my eyes shall behold him, not another.”

Though Job was schrapneled by suffering, he was not possessed by cynicism. His wife invited him towards cynicism. If you remember, early in the book, she said, “Curse God and die. Just embrace Nihilism. Turn your back on the whole project.” He refused to do that. In fact, he became something akin to a prophet. Job predicted that after he died, he would return to the world as a new man with new eyes—new eyes that would see God. Now, think about that within the framework of the Old Testament, which thought that no one could look upon the face of God and live. Too overpowering. But Job predicted that he would. And more than this, he would see God not as his capricious antagonist, but, as his Redeemer. That is, someone who would grant him a full and everlasting recovery from anything that life did to him. This is one of the few Old Testament passages that speaks of the hope of life after death. Job knew, even in his most pitiable moments, that he was made of more than traumas and ashes. He knew he would persist—even unto eternity.

But the key figure in Christianity and the treasure-store of our current hope is not Job, but Jesus. Yet, Jesus has a lot in common with Job. And, many things in common with Lisa. Jesus was a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief. A Man misunderstood. A Man treated unjustly. A Man who believed himself forsaken by the heavens. But in the grandest of paradoxes, this Jesus was more than a middle-eastern peasant or another sage. He was, as the creeds, and the scriptures before them testify, the Infinite made flesh.

The Christian contention is that, in Christ, God suffers. God cries out. God drinks the poisoned potion of human mortality. Yet this same God-Man overturned our inevitable mortality by his tangible and historic resurrection. The poet W. H. Auden said it best, “Nothing can save us that is possible, for the pilgrim way has ended at the abyss. We who are doomed to die demand a miracle.” Christian scripture agrees with Auden. We need something unusual. Something to unmake all that is darkly ordinary. And that’s what we have, an Ever-Living Miracle. And this Miracle has ramifications for all of us. After all, this Miracle-Christ said, “He who believes in me, though he die, yet, shall he live.”

The effect of a risen Jesus is that the Jobs of the world won’t be Jobs for very much longer. They will pass through the thickets of this life and inherit a thorn-less world. They will carry on unhindered, unencumbered, from strength to strength.

The effect of a risen Jesus is that the Jobs of the world won’t be Jobs for very much longer. They will pass through the thickets of this life and inherit a thorn-less world. They will carry on unhindered, unencumbered, from strength to strength.

You may know that John Adams, the founding father and President, died on the same day, the fourth of July, as his sometimes friend, President Thomas Jefferson. It is rumored that on John Adams’ deathbed he began to speak to unseen guests. His father, his wife, people who had died years earlier. He was addressing an unseen realm. And immediately before his dying breath, John Adams is said to have beamed a broad smile, and triumphantly shouted words about his friend, Thomas Jefferson, who died mere moments before Adams. John Adams’ final words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives!”

What do we make of that? I don’t know. They sound like words of apocalyptic hope to me. They sound like words of reclamation. They sound like words of reunion. And whatever we make of that story, we, tonight, can profess without timidity, and with some measure of triumph, that because of the sure and certain hope of a tangibly risen Jesus Christ, that Lisa W__ survives. She was grasped by a living, breathing, risen miracle.

In the midst of her thickets of acute and chronic suffering, Lisa wanted to understand the purpose of that pain, or why her prayers for relief weren’t frequently answered. At times, Lisa felt like she wasn’t receiving any heavenly response to her cries. You may recall that Job’s charges against the heavens were never really addressed by God. But, Job did meet his Redeemer. And all his good fortunes were returned to him, and then some. In the end, Job got more than an answer. He got God. And that’s really the point, after all. In the midst of suffering we need more than data. We need the transcendent to reach us in our beleaguered place.

In C. S. Lewis’s novel, Till We Have Faces, the protagonist is a deformed queen named Orual, who wishes to confront the god Cupid for permitting her to suffer so terribly in life. In a vision, Orual was granted the role of prosecutor in the heavenly court. And she spoke her complaint about Cupid. “You never answered me. You never answered my cries for help, or told me why I suffered so.” And yet after she’s done speaking, the gods grant her a behind-the-scenes vision of the mechanics of heaven, and she is able to see for the first time why things happened the way that they did. She was utterly undone by this new perspective. And at the very end of the book, right before she passes away, the queen says these words. “I now know, lord, why you uttered no answer. You, you yourself are the answer. What other answer could suffice, other than you?”

Similarly, Lisa needed more than words, more than theology, more than answers. She needed a miracle. She needed a risen Jesus. And Lisa is now in the presence of The One, the Miracle Christ. And he is God’s answer to the suffering of the world, and the suffering of Lisa W__. She has sped on ahead of us, toward this hope, to another shore, and in a greater light. Her Job-like experience is over; this Lenten life is past. Tolkien said it well. “There is a place called Heaven, where the good here unfinished is completed, and where the stories unwritten and the hopes unfulfilled are continued. We may know we shall laugh together yet.”

You Are On your Way, Dear Friend

I have some parting words for Lisa that I would like to offer in front of all of you. You are on your way, dear friend, what you left is behind you now, and God will take care of it all, together with the people whom you loved so much. There were four, especially. You are going to where you will always be understood. Nothing you did, and nothing you suffered was ever not understood. Every trip, and every kiss was part of the plan. You are going straight there in the blink of an eye. Perfect love casts out fear. Remember what old man Simeon sang while holding the new-born Jesus, “Now let me depart, for my eyes have seen. . .”

Lisa sees. She sees her scarred and smiling Redeemer. She made it. Lisa Marie W__ survives. And so shall you.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

—The Reverend Ethan Magness, Rector
Grace Anglican Church of Grove City, PA

April 5, 2019

 

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