I had a graveside service today for a young man whose death makes no sense. Oh, I could offer the medical explanation, and note the rarity of genetic conditions, but at the end of the day, such explanations do nothing to touch the heartache of the family members gathered by a tomb in the ground beneath a grey sky and shivering in the cold rain. The medical answers might provide ample logical clarification, but the mourners at a graveside don’t really care about such matters. All their hearts know is that they have lost someone they loved, and their world will never be the same again.
Later this week, I will be conducting another memorial service, this time for a gentleman who lived a good full life. While I suspect that while his family may not be suffering the same acute sense of tragedy as the family whose son I buried today, still the heart’s sense of loss, sorrow and emptiness will be no less. One widower once commented to me that he knew he should be grateful for the more than fifty years he had had with his wife, but he wanted still more. She meant everything to him, and it felt like half his heart had been amputated. Every death comes before we are ready to release those who are precious to us, and every death confronts us with questions of why, and what now.
Certainly at the graveside today, I had no answer to give that would make sense to wounded hearts. This side of heaven, we naturally grapple with all the “unknowables” of why tragedies occur, but heaven rarely gives any meaningful, specific responses to the “whys.” A couple of weeks ago, I had a funeral for another young man who died from a drug overdose after years of being clean. Again, all sorts of declarations could be made about the horrors of addiction and difficult battle to remain clean. Lots of comment could be given about the hurts and wounds of life that together with poor choices can lead to drug use and addiction, and that set a person up for that one disastrous slip. One could talk about the evils of the drug trade but again, at the end of the day, all the theories, blaming or explanations mean little in the face of the grief and loss and tears being wept by the folk left behind. We simply are never ready to release to death those we love.
Rarely is the challenge of ministry so sharp as at the time of a funeral, when so often the heart cries out its “whys?” when there are simply no answers to give. Because the challenge is not to try to answer the “why” question. The challenge is instead to shift to the “what now” question and point to those promises from scripture upon which alone we can rely in the midst of grief. The challenge is to point to Christ’s invitation to come unto him in our weariness and with our heavy-laden hearts (Matthew 11:28) and receive the rest, healing and grace he offers. The challenge is to remind broken hearts that they can take all their confusion, frustration and rage to God (consider the expressions of outright anger in the book of Job or in the psalms of lament), and the Lord not only patiently receives our most unholy venting, He lovingly and compassionately receives us. The challenge is to point us in our tears to the hope that God’s mercy is greater than our worst mistakes. His tenderness is far more vast than the abyss of our pain and His care for us is more powerful and lasting than even death itself.
Standing at a graveside, I am always acutely reminded that there are no good answers to give to why? But the gospel of God’s love given in Jesus is an answer that always has been and always will be more than sufficient for the question, what now?