Walking the Yard: Raindrops and Tears

This morning I saw that the New Year’s forecast for my area is for rain and storms–not unlike some of the storms we’ve seen throughout the months of 2020.

Rose of sharon blossom dripping in the rain

This year has brought numerous flash flood warning pop-ups on my mobile phone, days of rain that have left the ground with pools of standing water and with wind gusts that have rattled the windows and scattered broken branches on the driveway and yard.

In a figurative sense, most of us would describe the year 2020 as a storm that has left a trail of debris and casualties in its wake. It’s been a tough one for most of us. But sometimes the storms we’ve experienced this year have been internal where the tears have fallen like rain in the dark of the night when no one else is around to hear the sobs muffled by our tear-dampened pillows. We cry alone and wonder if anyone knows or cares.

But then I step out into the yard after a rain, and I see collected on every leaf, petal, and blade of grass the evidence of the storm–evidence in the form of raindrops sparkling like diamonds, bedazzling the blossoms and trees that have gathered them.

Iris in the rain

As I see those raindrop collections shining from the leaves in the yard, I know that my teardrops too are seen and known. I am reminded of the words of the psalmist: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book” (Psalm 56:8 NLT). Jesus, our Savior, who himself wept, cares about our burdens and sorrows. We are not alone! He holds our tears, precious to Him as diamonds. Sometimes it is in those “dark nights of the soul” that we learn valuable lessons about trusting even in the dark when we cannot see what lies ahead.

Years ago Gordon Jensen wrote the song “Tears Are a Language” that expresses how much God does see, know, and care about our grief and tears.

Often you wonder why tears come into your eyes
And burdens seem to be much more than you can bear
But God is standing near, He sees your falling tears
And tears are a language God understands.

Japanese maple leaves bedazzled with raindrops

God sees the tears of a brokenhearted soul
He sees your tears and hears them when they fall
God weeps along with man and He takes him by the hand
Tears are a language God understands.

When grief has left you low it causes tears to flow
When things have not turned out the way that you had planned
But God won’t forget you His promises are true
And tears are a language God understands.

God sees the tears of a brokenhearted soul
He sees your tears and hears them when they fall
God weeps along with man and He takes him by the hand
Tears are a language that my God He understands.

If we flip to the back of the Book, we can know the conclusion even as some of the details of our individual stories are still playing out. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true'” (Revelation 21:3‭-‬5 NIV).

Someday the crying will cease, the tears will be wiped away, and we will be forever with the One who has forever been with us even on our darkest nights. Oh, what a day that will truly be!

Raindrops on roses

Instruments of Christ’s Peace

by Rebecca D. Higgins

Charity Toys for Christmas

Sometimes when your own heart hurts, volunteering to help others brings with it a sense of peace and healing. Yesterday afternoon after one of the shopping sessions at Lexington, Kentucky’s Faith and Community Christmas Store, one of the volunteer personal shoppers came back with her empty cart to the starting point. She was in tears. When asked about it, she shared that the woman she had just helped find gifts for her children was celebrating being clean and sober. For the first time in three years she was going to be spending Christmas with her children. Stories like that are what make ministries like the Christmas Store worthwhile.

At the end of the shift, I was thanking volunteers for coming and giving their time and love. As this woman started to leave, I commented on the story she had shared earlier and thanked her for being a blessing to that mother. We talked about the busload of middle school kids who had helped during that shift, and she remarked on how important it was that they learn to share with others. “I took my son a number of years ago to help at something like this,” she told me. “When we got home, he wanted to clean out his closet and toys and donate them.”

“That’s wonderful!” I exclaimed. “Allowing children to be a part of these kinds of ministries helps them develop a greater appreciation for what they have and a generous heart to share with those in need. You’re a good mom for teaching your son that.”

Suddenly, her voice broke and tears gathered in her eyes. “My son passed away a few years ago.”

“I am so sorry!” I exclaimed as I instinctively wrapped her in a hug. We talked for a few more moments before she went on her way, and I oriented the new set of volunteer personal shoppers for the next shift.

Last night I replayed that conversation when I got home. I found myself praying for two mothers. One mother was grieving the loss of her son and not being able to spend any more Christmases with him. Even though there was an empty place in her heart, she didn’t hesitate to share the joy of another mother who, after the messiness of her life, was finally being reunited with her children for Christmas. Somehow I believe that sharing that other mother’s joy was healing and a good way to remember and honor her own son’s generous spirit.

No matter what problems or pain we may be experiencing this Christmas season, may we find healing and joy in allowing ourselves to be instruments of Christ’s peace for others who are hurting.

Insights on Death, Dying and Funerals from The Undertaking

by Rebecca D. Higgins

(In my final year of seminary I took a class called Preaching for Special Occasions. One of the occasions which we discussed was funerals. As part of our class requirement we were assigned to read Thomas Lynch’s book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Lynch offers important insights on death, dying, and funerals. The following is my reflection paper on the book.)

 

An ethereal, black-caped creature points menacingly into the darkness and a man falls trembling to the ground in terror as he reads the words “Ebenezer Scrooge” etched in the granite stone. Such is the movie rendition of Charles Dickens’s timeless tale depicting the inherent fear that the living have of that unknown quality we call death. And yet, as Thomas Lynch, professional undertaker and son of an undertaker, reminds us in his book The Undertaking, death is an inextricable part of living. “Where death means nothing, life is meaningless” (Lynch, p. 117). In order of us to make our lives meaningful, we like Scrooge need to be reminded of our mortality. We cannot be memorialized as a dead saint if we have not lived a life that matters.

Unfortunately, too often we have developed habits of pushing anything unpleasant from our consciousness. In our “progressive” society, we try to sanitize and hide the mess of life by over the years installing flush toilets inside our homes and moving our sick and dying outside—away to sterile environments to be cared for by professionals. In so doing, we have attempted silently to sweep away those things we view as “unpleasant.” They become embarrassments to be avoided.

Lynch, however, has another view—a reverent view toward death, dying, and memorializing. Death is the inevitable conclusion of living. Funerals, then, are not something the living should avoid or rush through unthinking, but rather something to embrace with solemnity and respect. “If the dead are regarded as a nuisance from whom we seek a hurried riddance, then life and living are in for like treatment. McFunerals, McFamilies, McMarriage, McValues” (p. 25.)

In MemoryWhy do we bother with funerals and memorial services? The dead no longer care after all. Lynch poignantly observes that “we need our witnesses and archivists to say we lived, we died, we made this difference. . . .  We remember because we want to be remembered” (p. 117). As Lynch’s friend Milo phrased it, “One hand washes the other” (p. 11). We honor and remember the dead, burying them with the realization that one day we will join their number.

Through his observations and stories, Lynch invites us into the sacredness of his profession. While many would shudder at the thought of preparing a body for burial, Lynch and his compatriots view their undertaking not so much as a service to the dead but to the living, caring for the living by treating the bodies of their departed loved ones with dignity and honor. Lynch tells the heart-rending story of a girl raped and brutally murdered, whose body was further damaged by the autopsy. The mortician Wesley Rice could have urged the family to have a closed casket. Instead, he spent hours preparing the body tenderly so that the family could see and have closure. Through his kindness he had snatched the body of the girl back from the brutal clutches of the one who had killed her and returned it to the tender caresses of her loving, but broken-hearted family. Having that visual connection helps families say goodbye. This fact is underlined by the stories of many parents who have had a child become the victim of violence but whose body was never recovered. The agony of the unknown and the inability to lay the body of their child to rest make it difficult for the minds of those parents to be at rest and find closure.

After reading Lynch’s book, I have an even deeper appreciation for those who serve as undertakers. While all such workers demonstrate honor and respect for the bodies of the deceased and to their remaining loved ones, I have personally noted a marked difference between some Christian funeral directors who regard what they do as ministry for Christ and those for whom it is a business in the “service industry.” Such funeral directors provide Christian care in addition to that of the clergy.

With his lifetime of experience in directing funerals, Lynch has pertinent insight for ministers who conduct funeral and memorial services. While the overall programming tendency in some megachurches has been to “entertain rather than inspire, to wow rather than to worship” (p. 87), this should not be the atmosphere of a funeral service. Life and death are sacred and must be treated with proper solemnity and honor. Funerals nudge people to face the inevitable reality of their own death.  We all need to be reminded that our dying will only be as good as our living. Clergy members have a responsibility to include such reminders in the funeral service. They must be cognizant of the fact that just like those to whom they offer comfort in their time of sorrow and troubling questions, they too do not have all the answers. Ministers can, however, humbly offer the comfort and the grace of the One who knows all things. They can direct people’s attention and worship to God, the Giver of life. Lynch reminds us that the gospel message is for those who gather with heads bowed beside a grave. After all, “Easter was a body and blood thing” (p. 21). The comfort that ministers extend to the living is inherent in the gospel:  “for every death there’s some redemption; for every loss an Easter out there with our name on it, for every woe, a return to wooing” (p. 72). That comfort and hope is found in God himself.

There is a difference when conducting the funeral of someone who was old and that of an infant or a young person. “When we bury the old, we bury the known past. . . .  Memory is the overwhelming theme, the eventual comfort. But burying infants, we bury the future, unwieldy and unknown, full of promise and possibilities, outcomes punctuated by our rosy hopes. The grief has no borders, no limits. . . .  Some sadnesses are permanent. Dead babies do not give us memories. They give us dreams” (p. 51).

Ministers stand with the bereaved families as they say goodbye to their loved one, old or young. It is appropriate for members of the clergy to remember the deceased in their remarks. Any life lived has had value. Even if it may seem that the individual lying cold in the casket squandered the life given to him or her, words acknowledging their families and even the minutest of accomplishments are important.

Lynch urges people to think carefully about the type of music used at a funeral. It is for the living rather than the deceased and should reflect the sacredness and solemnity of the occasion. There is a difference, he says, “between a funeral with a few tunes and a concert with a corpse down front. Avoid, for your own sakes, anything you’ve heard in the dentist’s office or the roller rink” (p. 126).

As one who has participated in countless memorials, Lynch gives helpful advice—advice of which ministers need to be mindful. Rather than comforting people with empty platitudes and ignoring the very human emotions that rend their hearts in two, ministers must encourage people to feel whatever there is to feel, to find someone to whom they can entrust their questions, anger and tears.  “The only way around these things is through them” (p. 199). While some individuals wrongly urge people not to ask their questions, Scripture reveals that Christ himself understood the humanity of asking questions. Ministers can provide a pastoral presence of care to these vulnerable and hurting persons that will move them toward healing within the grace of God.

Lynch concludes his book with instructions about his own funeral, summarized with the words, “All I really wanted was a witness. To say I was. To say, daft as it still sounds, maybe I am” (p. 199). And there in the nuance between the past and present tense lies the sacredness of this business of life and death—a recognition that a person is so much more than flesh and blood that grows cold and subject to decay—a recognition that our souls stretch beyond the realm of this present time and space into eternity.

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Lynch, Thomas (1997). The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. New York, NY:  Penguin Group.