gather up the good
Sometimes life strips us clean of words, and we sit together, quiet. And maybe it’s that way so we’ll stop to listen.
We walk through the rain and into the funeral chapel, gathering damp hugs on our way through the door. We sit first, and then we stand, winding in long lines past photographs and video, awards, and hats still dingy with soil and sweat, dropped on top of a polished piano as though this cherished man just left them there and walked into another room.
A week of words twisting, words sharp, words missaid and misunderstood, and I’m carved out, hollow of things to say. I wear the quiet like a blanket, like a shield. Sometimes I wish I could get through without touching other lives, without brushing up against your shattered places, without cutting into you with mine. Sometimes, it’s awfully tempting to protect myself. But, that’s never really been the way with Him. And oh, I love Him.
It’s quiet until we get to the family. Quiet, but not silent. I feel sore and bruised, tender enough to hear, open enough to see, because oddly I feel hidden, like an angel-led traveler to another place, another time, another life. He does promise to hide us—our lives (Col. 3:3), our tattered souls from trouble (Psalm 27:5), our weary bodies from wicked enemies (Psalm 17:8). But He’s pretty clear that when I want to hide, it’s Him I should run to (Proverbs 18:10, Psalm 143:9), not all the other things behind which I tend to cower. God does all the hiding of me, sheltering me carefully, when I need it.
From where I stand in line, I watch people touch each other—a gentle hand laid on top of another, a clap against broad back, a time-lost embrace. On a couch against the wall, some women dab their eyes with tissues, jerking new ones from the crinkly packet to pass over and beyond each other. They say nothing, only carefully placing their warm bodies close. They sit behind her—the suffering wife now widowed, close enough to reach, close enough that she can feel them. I watch them reach for her and squeeze her hand. Yes, it’s quiet until we get to the family, and all it takes is I’m so sorry, and the son, his eyes start filling. He clears his throat and steps away from his grief.
And I listen. I hear sorry and sorry and sorry and anything at all I can do and we’re here. We’re here for you. I hear so quickly and can’t believe and missed. Really, really missed. I hear love. I hear laughter and stories about remember when, and it’s all history and relationships and the journey shared that matters now. Now, when it seems as though this man left his hat on the piano and disappeared from the room. Surely all these people weren’t happy with him all the time, surely they sometimes bruised each other badly, surely sometimes he made them angry. But now, it’s only the good collected and kept, gathered up in clasped hands and wrapped arms for safe keeping. Why does it sometimes take loss to make us gather up the good in each other and hold on to it? Word says love keeps no record of wrongs, and love isn’t self-seeking, and and love does not dishonor others (1 Cor. 13:5). It’s so like the enemy to convince us to justify the way we collect up our pain and build walls of unforgiveness and judgement around the living, the breathing, the stumbling. Because it doesn’t take a sacrifice to love someone who’s gone. Don’t speak ill of the dead, we say, but what about Don’t speak ill of the living (Matthew 5:22)?
I hug some more of this precious man’s family, people I don’t know, and some I’ve known so long we’ve had plenty of time to forget some of the details about each other. It must be twenty years since I’ve seen one of the women, and I can tell she doesn’t remember my name, but she knows my face, and that’s enough. She hugs me hard and nods and talks about how quickly her kids have grown—and mine—and I can see the thought dancing behind her eyes Come on, why can’t I remember her name? And I can also see that she’s trying hard not to let me know, that this grieving and loss she feels are more than enough for now. She doesn’t want to bruise me with her forgetfulness. But I am clear carved of words and knowledge too, and what I see and hear is that we share motherhood and the feeling that time comes and they grow tall and we look in the mirror at older versions of ourselves and we find unity over what we have in common. And so, Paul pleads with Euodia and Syntyche, their names like different chords of the same song, to be of the same mind in the Lord (Phil.4:2), because when we stand awkward and carved and unsure in front of each other we always have that to agree on. We can replace our self-protection with His sacrifice, with His refusal to defend Himself, with the way He laid down His life for us. That kind of unity changes the tone of forgiveness.
When at last I reach this dear man’s wife, standing lonely of him at the end of the room, she’s all stripped of words. She shakes her head and clutches my arms and looks around because she’s lost a part of herself, and she says, “I don’t know. I just don’t know.” We are not so puffed up of knowing when life has humbled and crumpled us, and the truth is that we all carry something hobbling. She can only place her hand flat on the casket and look at me solid and say, “This, this was the love of my life.” I see that the love of him is the only thing she still knows, the needing him, the wanting to be right beside him. And I see that this is some dim shade of what it means to love with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; to trust with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; to be devoted.
In the Old Testament, when something was devoted it was destroyed, that it might not be secondarily used or kept for another purpose. And Word says I’m to be wholeheartedly devoted to God, and also devoted to you, to honor you above myself (Romans 12:10). Every kind of holy devotion still means the sacrifice of self–the destruction of me and me-living and me-focus and me-protecting—that my life might not be used secondarily for another purpose. And that means that I’ll stand stripped of words and knowledge, shaking my head and tender-lost, and I’ll say to you, “I don’t know, I just don’t know.”
I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong.
I don’t know what you should do.
I don’t know what I should do.
I don’t know more or better or absolutely.
I don’t know how to see well when I’m crying, or how to hear well when fear clamors, or how to keep from falling down when I’m weak.
I don’t know.
And then, I’ll look at you solid, and I’ll say, “But He, He is the love of my life.”
And on the basis of knowing only that, I’ll open my arms up to love you, and maybe we’ll share the pain we carry and learn to gather up the good in each other.