A Lenten Meditation
As Miserable as the Day
Last Sunday, after church I went up to Indianapolis, driving through the snow, to officiate a funeral. All funerals and memorial services are sad, but this one especially so. We were laying to rest a 34 year-old man who had essentially drank himself to death. I’ll call him Chris. His mother sat in the front row, and when I asked her how she was doing, she said, “I’m angry. I’m angry at my son. I’m really mad at Chris. This is his fault. This didn’t have to be this way.” At the end of the service, she walked up to the casket and said these words again, this time directly to the face of her deceased son. There were a lot of people who were miserable that day.
During my message I told them something that had dawned on me as I had sat preparing before the service. I realized that it was almost 40 years ago to the day that I had officiated by first funeral service as a pastor. I will never forget that day.
The funeral was for a baby who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I remember that it was at my first board meeting as the new pastor of that church that the father had come in and passed around cigars, proudly telling us of his new son, his first baby. Now, just a few months later, the baby died.
I was a wise old pastor, all of 22 years old.
Welcome to the ministry.
The day of the funeral was as wretched a day as I’ve ever seen. We lived in Vermont at the time and there was about a foot of snow on the ground. It was cold and windy with the kind of damp chill that went right through a person. And from the sky there was a steady downpour — a piercing wintry mix of snow, sleet, and rain.
In Vermont, unless the ground was too frozen to bury someone, funeral services were held outside, at the graveside. So there we were. Almost everyone from our little village had to trudge through knee-deep snow, bundled up in winter coats, scarves, hats, and gloves, holding wind-blown umbrellas and hanging on to one another, being careful of the ice that was everywhere, shivering and shuffling until we all reached a canopy that was barely big enough for us all to fit under. And there I preached my first funeral sermon.
We were as miserable as the day was. What could be sadder? What could be more heart-wrenching? To lose a child and then to have to say goodbye on such a day!
I told this story to Chris’s mother and those who filled the funeral home this past Sunday. It was the same kind of miserable day. And another mother was mourning the loss of her son.
The word “Lent” simply means springtime. Here in the northern hemisphere I think it is particularly fitting that we should mark Lent at this time of year, when the weather is unpredictable and messy and often miserable.
Because, you see, that’s what Lent is all about. Lent is the time when we remember that our lives and the human condition all around this world of ours can be messy, unpredictable, and miserable too. Human beings — you and I included — have often made a mess of this world.
Now, don’t just think of that in terms of large scale messes — wars, unjust societies and groups in which people are treated with discrimination and cruelty, the ecological damage we’ve done to this planet. Think also about the small choices we make every day that are selfish and inconsiderate of others, the laziness that keeps us from extending ourselves to serve others, the unwise and hurtful words we speak, the bad attitudes we harbor when things don’t go our way, the grudges we hold over hurts we’ve received.
Think of this young man for whom I did the funeral, who destroyed his own life and broke the hearts of others when he refused to deal with drinking and dissipation.
Think of the hard roads many others find themselves on because they find themselves behind the eight-ball from the beginning because of their poverty, their ethnic background, the color of their skin, or their sexual orientation that leads others to bully them or keep them in “their place.”
Think of those who suffer abuse or neglect in childhood, who must survive broken homes and family relationships, who lack friends and mentors who can give sound moral guidance, and who struggle with their own inability to curb destructive impulses.
Life can be messy and cold and bitter and miserable, just like the weather we often see in spring.
However, I told those people at that funeral on Sunday that there’s more to springtime to that. The light is beginning to increase. Colors are starting to poke up from the earth. Buds have begun to appear on stark branches. There is a general trend toward warmer, sunnier, more pleasant days. Winter coats will give way to jackets and, on some days, shirtsleeves. The grass will begin to green. Even in the midst of miserable days, we get glimpses of hope and grace and renewal popping up around us everywhere.
That was true in Chris’s life too. There were signs of God’s grace and beauty. He loved the outdoors and relished every opportunity to enjoy this world. He was a devoted fisherman who honed his skills and became a master at catching fish. He was an artist who delighted in beauty and symmetry who created memorable designs and pictures. We mustn’t forget or ignore those and a hundred other evidences of goodness and mercy.
And so, this is Lent. This is springtime. This is life. We weather all of it by the grace and mercy of the God who made us, the Savior who redeemed us, and the Spirit who renews us. Lent reminds us of our limitations, our weaknesses, our sins and failures, and our ultimate constraint, our mortality.
But Lent also sets before us a path of hope, marked by glimpses of a new creation that is on its way. Our limitations, our failures, and our mortality — the mess we find ourselves in — this is not the end of the story. As I told that mother and Chris’s family and friends last Sunday, in the words of Frederick Buechner, with God the worst thing is never the last thing.