Funeral for a Friend
On Sunday morning, October 6, my friend Sue died of cancer. I heard the news a little after 6:00 AM as I was getting ready to head to the church to begin my weekly routine of set-up, rehearsal, two services, and tear down. Sue was first diagnosed with her cancer a year ago. I remember that I found out on a Tuesday – I always get bad news on Tuesdays. I remember that I sat at my dining room table and cried into my cheerios when I first heard she was sick. It seemed unfair, like Sue was the last person in the world who deserved to get cancer. Sue was wonderful, like the embodiment of home. She always had enough love to go around, and with Sue there was always more: more food, more time, more hope, more laughter. There was always more with Sue.
The treatments came fast and mean, an aggressive regimen for an aggressive cancer. I watched as Sue’s body began reacting to the treatments, as her hair fell out and she dropped some weight. She was never more beautiful than that season, when her face was full of hope even as her body was full of poison. She fought bravely – it took more than a little cancer to get Sue down. She was a relentlessly positive person, considering she was watching her body make war on itself. She kept talking about a man named Jesus and how she wouldn’t hurt forever and how one day everything sad was going to come untrue.
I remember sitting in my office one day, and working through an old hymnal. I read the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” and I got angry. I read this trite, nice old hymn about how all of creation is singing praises to God. I know it’s true. But I became angry, because I was watching one of the most beautiful parts of creation I had seen suffer, and suffer painfully at that. I was watching the result of sin. I was watching creation break down. Creation, that God made good, was breaking down. People, people that God called very good, were breaking down. It isn’t supposed to be that way. People aren’t supposed to say goodbye. And they certainly aren’t supposed to be ripped from the embrace of their family by pain and sickness. So if we were going to sing about all creatures lifting up their voices and singing, then we had to also sing about all creatures lifting up their voices in disbelief, in shock and awe, in pain and heartache, because they are under futility and sin. There is a real sense in which exile has permeated our very being, and we are marred by sin, all the way down to the molecular level. We are broken people with a broken biology in a broken world, a people living in exile, far from home. Something has gone very wrong. So I took out my pen and started re-writing. I only like to sing songs that are about real life.
But Sue knew something that many of us do not: Sue knew that one day, all the evil would come undone. She knew that cancer could mar her body, but it couldn’t take her. Her days were numbered, but not by cancer. They were numbered by an all-powerful, all-caring, all-compassionate, all-loving, always-good all-the-time God. And even though sin had entered the world, and had corrupted Sue’s body with cancer, God held her firmly in His hand until the very end. God gave her power, and the work of Jesus on the cross gave her a guarantee of new life. She held on to that in a way I have never seen. She was literally preaching the good news of Jesus on her death bed. She wanted to be with her King.
And she is.
Sue died shortly before our church service that Sunday morning. It’s too bad too, because Sue loved to worship. Her whole life was worship, in fact. She worshipped at church, yes. But Sue worshipped all the time. She worshipped when she loved her husband, Kevin, and her beautiful daughters and her caring son. When she hosted people in her home, she worshipped Jesus. When she held her grandchildren, she was worshipping. Her grandchildren will inherit blessings she prayed for them, and will marvel as we tell Sue’s life story at dinners and at holidays. Sue worshipped when she prayed, and she worshipped when she worked, and she worshipped when she studied, but more amazing was this: Sue worshipped while she suffered.
Sue suffered well. Sue’s faith in Jesus was strengthened every moment she endured affliction. She believed the good news of Jesus: Sue believed that when her last breath was taken, she would be safe in the arms of God. She knew that death was but the entryway to life. That her passing was just that: a passing – a passing from this sin-soaked, broken, backwards world to a land of peace, joy, and most of all worship. Sue loved to worship.
Sue loved to worship so much that, when she knew she was getting to the end of her life, she asked her family if they would put together a service of Jesus-worship in her honor. Little did she know that as we would gather for worship in the same room she sang in for years, she would be partaking in a much more powerful worship service. She would be in glory, she would be worshipping in the very presence of God. And we missed her. Every second of that night we missed her. Every second of singing, praying, and sharing we missed her.
But Sue did not miss us. Sue was too busy being overwhelmed with joy. Sometimes people say things like, “just know that Sue is looking down on you from Heaven.” Does anybody actually believe that? I sure don’t. I know that Sue is way too preoccupied to be looking down on my sadness, on an empty chair at a table, on those who loved her who are mourning a very real loss. We can’t help but miss her. Even as we are learning to live without our dear sister for a little while, Sue is partaking in the joy of Heaven, in the most passionate worship imaginable. She is enamored with her Lord, Jesus. Sue loved to worship.
And so we did our best to share in Sue’s experience on that Thursday night at her funeral. Sue had asked for a night of worship in her honor, but I feel like that doesn’t even begin to describe what happened. We sang all of Sue’s favorite songs, and many of her family’s favorite songs. But let me tell you this: while we missed her every second, we felt a joy that transcends all understanding. We danced. We sang. We clapped. We laughed. We cried. We hugged one another. We prayed together. We jumped around, and made a scene, and caused a commotion, and we really freaked out the people at the funeral who didn’t get it. Because we knew something they didn’t: we knew that Sue was healed. That she was with her Jesus. That she was doing exactly what we were in those moments, although she was doing it closer to the throne. We had a night of worship where the Gospel was preached. We had a celebration of Sue’s life that acknowledged reality: that Sue loved to worship, and she was doing what she loved right now.
And those people we freaked out, who didn’t get it? They heard the message of new life in Jesus over and over that night. We couldn’t shut up about Jesus, about his life death, and resurrection. We couldn’t stop talking about what He had done for us, and for them. In that way, we were just like Sue. Sue never could shut up about Jesus.
I never lost anyone I loved before Sue died. I guess I will have to wait until the next one to find out what a sad funeral feels like. This funeral was one of the happiest nights of my life. I was overwhelmed with joy, with hope, with praise. For an instant, we glimpsed the glory of heaven. We felt the joy of our tears being wiped away. There will be a day when the tears don’t flow anymore. Right now they feel like forever.
We sang a song at the funeral, “Absent From Flesh,” a song that Sue really liked. We played it for 10 minutes. We were jumping around the stage and crying and laughing and then crying again and then laughing again. We ended the service with it. There is a part of the lyrics that I really like, and they go like this:
“I go where God and glory shine, to one eternal day. This failing body I now resign, for the angels point my way.”