I made a lot of older friends when I was a kid at church. At first there was just the one couple, but then, truth be told, I had trouble telling the difference between heads of curly gray hair. In my quest to spend the church service sitting next to my friends, I ended up with more friends.
The problem with knowing a lot of older people, is you don’t get to keep them very long. I went to one of the first funerals when I was a teenager. I sat up close to the front, facing memorial flowers and black and white photos of a pretty young woman I didn’t recognize. We sang her favorite old hymns, and in the middle of “In Christ Alone,” I closed my eyes and saw the monster.
There’s a reason why people are so terrified of death. It’s strong and absolute. It looms at the end of every relationship, every life; it hangs over every moment with it’s inevitability. There is no winning against it. The most we can hope for is a life of delaying it.
Death really is the Great Enemy.
We come up with lots of comforting ways to talk about it. We talk about life being a circle. We talk about carrying the people we’ve lost in our hearts. None of that takes away the dread though. It’s not that those things aren’t true, they just aren’t strong enough. They don’t change it, that big, dark, looming end.
I had another friend named Stella. She lived in a retirement home by herself. She had no children, but she loved her nieces and nephews. And they loved her. The nurses adored her too, but I think theirs was a knee-jerk reaction to the way she adored them first. But then, I don’t think you could not love Stella. She was like sunshine, and the warmth would get down into your heart after a little while.
Through my years in college, and life in Mexico and Asia, we kept in touch. I’d send emails to my mom for her, and Mom would take her laptop to the retirement home and read them to Stella. When I got home I’d go see her, and we’d sit and talk for hours.
She’d often say, “I keep telling God I’m ready to go anytime now, I don’t know why God keeps me here.”
“I’m glad you’re still here, Stella,” I’d say, and every time I left I’d beg God to let her stay until I got back.
And He did.
Until one day I showed up to see Stella, and the nurses told me she wasn’t doing well. I walked into the dining room, and the others at her table looked sadly down at their dinners as I walked in. Stella looked up at me, after a moment, and for the first time since I’d met her, she didn’t smile. She was confused. She decided after a moment that I was her sister, who had died years before. She wanted me to get her out of the nursing home.
“It’s okay, Stella,” I told her, “They love you here.”
I went to see Stella every day that week. When she lost the ability to walk, I pushed her up and down the halls in a wheelchair. When she couldn’t leave her bed, I sat next to her and held her hand. A week later, her nurse called. I still have the voicemail saved on my phone. “You don’t have to come in today,” the nurse said, crying, “she’s gone now, hunny.”
So in the end, it was Stella gone on an adventure and me left behind for a while. Because that’s what it seemed like, for Stella--an adventure.
Sitting in my car, listening to the nurse’s tear-filled voice, I remembered Stella’s sunshine. And I realized suddenly the quiet, earth-shaking victory--how the sunshine didn’t grow dim when Stella talked about dying.
This is what God does.
He fights our monster, he defeats it, but for now, he leaves it there. It’s defeated, yes, it’s power, chained, but it looms over us. The shadow of it is dark. Sometimes it steels over us, heavy and heart-shatteringly sorrowful.
But there’s that sunlight still, right there on the other side of the shadow.
Ultimately we pick the pieces of our heart up. We turn around, and we face the monster, and we hold our sunshine and sing in the monster’s roaring face.
This is what God makes; sunshine victors singing in the face of our greatest enemy.
And it’s beautiful.
Years before, there at that first funeral service, I blinked at the flowers and I looked up at the church lights, the cross on the wall, the sad, light-up faces shaping the lyrics of that song.
“No guilt in life, no fear in death—“ they sang, “This is the power of Christ in me!”
And I saw us as we really were there, in the face of the monster, singing into it’s gaping jaws.
There was our greatest enemy, and we sang, victorious.
My friend Stella. She was born October 6, 1913, and passed into the sunlight on April 18, 2011.