Celebration of a Life

(The other day I received a call from the local funeral director, asking if I would lead a service for an elderly man who identified as Congregational but had no church home. Yesterday I met with his son, and we chose this passage for his dad’s service. It’s a tricky assignment, to meet for half an hour or an hour with the family members of someone you never knew and make something out of it, just as it is a challenge for them to put the life and death of their loved one into unfamiliar hands both for burial and remembrance. I trust the Holy Spirit gets involved. Here is the result.)

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, King James Version)

These ancient words of wisdom feel fitting for many occasions in life, times of both joy and sadness, of beginnings and endings, of greetings and farewells. Every life holds its contrasts, and every person living may look back and question a particular choice or action, wondering how things might have been different if we turned left instead of right, woke up at 6 instead of 7, or ran instead of walking.

A long life, at its end, causes all of us to reflect on our circumstances, our choices and the things over which we had no control. We know a lot more today than anyone wanted to acknowledge 60 years ago about how war affects a person. Joe received a purple heart for injuries sustained in battle, and he survived 28 months in a German P.O.W. camp. These experiences marked him in ways beyond the visible and impacted the rest of his life.

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes asks us to take the long view, not to simply say “Joe was a hero,” or “Joe had troubles,” but to take both together and to see the beauty and the sadness, the light and the darkness in the whole of his life.

At his best, and there was much of that, his son Rick tells me Joe was a person who wanted to put a smile on your face, who let you know he was feeling good by his playfulness. His love of play extended to a love of games, and his love of his sons extended to a love of his whole family, including the children of his 10 brothers and sisters.

As you remember Joe today, I hope you will give equal importance to stories that make you laugh and those that might bring a tear to your eyes, for it is in his completeness that Joe lived and died, and it is in his completeness that he is loved, forgiven, and received by God.

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