Good bye (finally)

March 31, 2017

The story I want to mention today is true to the extent I can remember it. I don’t recall dates or names so they will have to be fabricated.  This was actually written 7 years ago but is as fresh to me as if it were yesterday.

It was sometime in 2000 I received a call from Karen. I didn’t know her, nor did she know me.  Her unusual request that day came as a result of the following story.  It’s the story of Karen, her father Thomas and the search for her grandmother and his mother.  Thomas was the oldest of 5 children.  When he turned 10 his mother gave birth to the youngest of the clan and within a few months took her own life.  Her death (likely from post-partum-depression) took place in 1938.  Because Thomas’ father was financially unable to care for his 5 children, they were placed in orphanages.  Thomas did not see or hear from his younger siblings again until he was in his 20’s.  He was transferred from one Foster home and institution to another, while the younger children were kept together in a single orphanage.  Because of the stigma of suicide in the 1930’s and the age of the children, there was no viewing, funeral, or public burial.  As a matter of fact, Thomas was never told where his mother was interred.

Thomas married and his wife gave birth to Karen in the 1960’s. When Karen grew into adulthood she became curious about her past and began to question her father.  He told her the above story.  They made a vow together to find his mother’s grave.  Tragically, Thomas was diagnosed with cancer and died before they discovered his mothers’ resting place.  Karen continued the search.  She knew her grandmother was buried somewhere in the McKeesport PA area, but that includes many cemeteries.  Eventually she called Mt Vernon Cemetery in Elizabeth Pa and was told her grandmother was in fact buried there.  This brings us to the phone call between her and I.  She called me because our church is beside the cemetery.  She asked me if I would do a “funeral” for her grandmother who was laid to rest in 1938.  She said that it was possible that only she and her sister would attend but they would like to pay their respects to their grandmother and have some closure on a painful time in her family’s past.  We agreed to meet at the gravesite on a Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m.  I honestly had no idea how to do this service.  I arrived at 9:45 and Karen and her sister were already present.  She mentioned to me that she had told other relatives about the funeral but she did not know if any would attend.  At 9:50, a car pulled up to the site and 6 people got out.  Karen gasped.  “That’s my cousin from West Virginia.”  A few minutes later another full car arrived.  Again Karen was dumb founded.  “That’s my cousin from Erie PA.”  By 10:00 there were 20 of us gathered for the service including the last living child of the diseased woman; the daughter born in 1938, months before her mother’s death.  The part played by the minister was not particularly novel, but eventually the family was given the opportunity to share thoughts.  Karen told of her vow with her father.  But there wasn’t a dry eye when the lone remaining child of the deceased woman slowly approached the grave with tears running down her face and said, “I never really thought I had a mother, but now I know I did.”

There was nothing to be said after that. I am deeply grateful to Karen for allowing me to be a part of such a significant time in the life of her family.  Honestly if I never have to do another funeral in my entire life, I will be good with that.  I’ll be VERY good with that.  I don’t know how funeral directors do it; always surrounded by grief.  But I do know this – sometimes funerals are healing.  Sometimes they bring relief.  Sometimes they are a celebration.  And I know that pastors are deeply privileged to be a part of those moments in the lives of families.  I hope I never forget that or take it for granted.

Below is the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians written by the Apostle Paul.  Take a few moments to read it.

1 Corinthians

The Resurrection of Christ

15 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

The Resurrection of the Dead

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? 30 And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31 I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink,     for tomorrow we die.”

33 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” 34 Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.

The Resurrection Body

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?     Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

Celebrate Easter! He is Risen!

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4 thoughts on “Good bye (finally)

  1. I really enjoyed this, Bill. I am so glad that you were chosen to be the minister for that occasion. I am sure you were the right one to do it.

    It reminds me of a story. When I was running BCI, the program for the homeless in NYC, we ended up holding a memorial service for the parents of one of the homeless men in our program. His name was Tim.

    When Tim was a young child, his parents disappeared – vanished. Relatives told him they did not know what happened to them. Like the people in your story, he went from one relative to another, from one foster home to another. And all the while, he felt like he had been abandoned by his parents, feeling as if he had somehow done something to drive them away.

    It was only later, as an adult, and well into his drug addiction, that he learned that his parents had been killed in a car accident. His relatives – those same ones who told him they didn’t know what happened to his parents – had lied to him, thinking somehow that it would lessen his grief if he thought his parents had just disappeared rather than been killed. (Hard to imagine).

    Rev. Moira, my Program Director, decided to hold a memorial service for his parents in the church, with the other homeless men and women present to share in his mourning. It was one of the most moving events of my life, to see his joy and gratitude that someone would do that for him (and for his long dead parents), and to see how his peers cared for him and joined into his mourning. It turned out that everyone there could easily enter into the ceremony, for many of them had similar stories. There was so much rich Scripture to apply to the occasion, about the overwhelming love and grace of God, the love found in community, the opportunity to turn tragedy into hope and rebuilding. It was one of the most God-filled services I have ever attended.

    To top it off, although we only discovered this later, that was the turning point for Tim in his recovery. He never returned to drugs after that service.

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