This previous week, my wife’s grandmother, Onalee Anderson, passed away. She was a remarkable woman who loved the Lord with a fervor that I hope to catch just a fraction of. Words must be pulled and stretched to attempt to capture a personality as big as Grandma Onalee, but alas I had the honor of speaking at her graveside service – below is the transcript of what I said.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
– 1 Thess. 4:13-18
I only knew Onalee, relatively speaking, for a short amount of time, so my perspective on her is limited. I am an outsider who has married into this family, so the halls of memories lit by the many experiences, quirks and personality traits that you all are so familiar with, are mostly dark to me. The songs she hummed while peeling carrots or sweeping the floors; the smell of her favorite perfume; the weird things she, but no one else, found funny – all of these little seemingly insignificant things, that now seem so important and precious, sadly, are lost to me. And while that leaves me less familiar with who she is, in a way, my absence of knowing all these numerous little idiosyncrasies that made Onalee, “Onalee”, actually communicates a great deal to me about her character. First, I know that Onalee, like a great matriarch of old, was fundamentally important in shaping and influencing some of the most important people I know and love (you all), and she must have been something special to help create this family. Secondly, though I did not have the lifelong bond, forged through the sometimes sweet and sometimes hard crucible known as “family”, that most of you had, the time I spent around Onalee led me to feel like I did. Grandma had an incredible talent of making you feel welcomed and loved, like you had already earned a place in her heart, though you had really done nothing to deserve it.
Onalee’s warmth, hospitality, and joy flowed from her the way water does from a stream. Whenever I visited or spoke with Onalee, I always left with a sense that her life was “full” – whether that was the fullness of her house, which seemed to quite literally be overflowing with things she thought would be useful to hang onto, or a table full of food for family and friends, or a schedule full of meetings with friends, grandchildren, and church activities. This was all mostly do to the fact that Grandma’s heart was full; full of love for those she cared for and full of joy in the Lord.
Onalee was not a perfect woman, not at all, but that isn’t what we are here to celebrate – in fact, it was Onalee’s awareness of imperfections that made her so wonderful to be around – anyone who thinks they are perfect are always the nastiest kind of people. When you spoke with Onalee, she had a simple talent of always being fascinated with everything but herself. You can tell a lot about someone by what their conversations typically drift towards. Grandma loved making someone feel like they mattered a great deal, because in Grandma’s eyes, other people actually mattered a great deal. And all of this, Onalee would testify, was not a product of her own moral superiority, but a product of knowing and loving Christ supremely.
When Hillary and I heard that Grandma was sick, we planned a trip to return home to spend time with her before the cancer began to take over. We, sadly, never got to make that trip. Grandma died three weeks before we were planning on coming up to see her – and that was heartbreaking. Why we were robbed of one more opportunity to spend time with the laughter and effervescence of Onalee Anderson is frustrating and confusing to me. I once heard someone say that when a great person dies, it always feels like they died too soon. We are grateful that Grandma is no longer in pain, and has now been reunited to Wayne, but it still feels like she died too soon. There was so much we all could have benefited from having more of Grandma in our life. There is something all of us experience at the grave, an inner-revulsion and anger that says through tearful eyes and gritted teeth, “This shouldn’t happen.” But, if this material world is all there is, then there is nothing more natural and normal than death – our species got here through eons of life and death, so the materialist tells us. But if that’s true, why do we feel like we shouldn’t have to say goodbye to our loved ones? Death is so commonplace and normal that one would think we would have evolved beyond grief. Why do we feel like it isn’t right to be deprived of one more chance to talk and laugh with the mother, grandmother and friend we loved so dearly?
Perhaps we are childish fools who can’t face reality, escaping pain through wishes and hopes. Maybe. Or perhaps death feels so jarring and unnatural because that’s precisely what it is; perhaps we were never made to die. Maybe our pain, sadness, and frustration isn’t just chemicals swishing around in our brains– maybe it is the DNA of our soul revolting against something it was never designed for. The Bible tells us that God created us to live forever, in union with Him and with one another, but sin, our decision to reject God and exalt ourselves to be our own gods, has now brought death into our hearts and into this world. Like an immune system responding to a flu-virus, our soul doubles-over, acknowledging that it was not designed for sin or death.
I do not understand why we were deprived of one more chance to be with Grandma, but I know that my sadness isn’t just sentimentality or naivety that can’t accept the hard reality of the world – no, it is something much, much deeper than that. Our sadness we feel, like the pain of a broken bone, is a pain that reminds us that the grave is not what we were intended for, nor is it our final destiny.
In the passage, the Thessalonians were hearing various strange teachings about what happens to someone when they die, and whether or not they would be left out when the King Jesus returns. Paul corrects the false teaching and assures them that those who die trusting in Jesus will be with the Lord, and one day with us. But it is Paul’s opening exhortation that is so comforting: We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
Paul contrasts a Christian’s grief as radically distinct from the rest of the world’s grief. Death is the ugly reality, full of inevitability and bitterness, that takes away all of our hope. If anything is the source of grief, it is death – slowly marching towards all that we love. But Paul says that in Christ there is a hope that can punch through the wall of despair that death brings. We grieve, but our grief is not bleak and hopeless – our grief, painful and sorrowful, is mingled with a joy and hope that buoys us up in the storm. Why? Because we know exactly what happens to us when we die. To grieve without hope is to not only lose those we love, but be left in a cloud of doubt and fear about what has happened to them.
Paul, very importantly, reminds us that in the emotional turmoil of grief, we must also think – we must remind ourselves of our hope, and remember the pitfalls of grieving with no hope. There are two kinds of people who grieve without hope. Self-righteous, religious people (including some who claim to be Christians) believe that their entrance into Heaven is built part-way on God’s work, and part-way on their own work. All of the good things they do put God in their debt, so now God must bless them. Irreligious, secular people feel comforted in their life and afterlife by being a tolerant, decent person. They don’t feel morally obligated to obey some God, but instead compare themselves with others, creating their own rules to obey for themselves, trying to be their idea of a “good person”. While very different, both of these things are actually just two sides of the same coin – they both center on being a good person. They are very different manifestations, but the same pattern. Christianity, however, is nothing like that. Trying to be a good person will never provide a hope strong enough to overcome the grave. Why? Whether you are religious or irreligious, your hope is built on you, and you are just not certain enough. How do you know that you are a good enough person? Are you being as good of a person you should be? Are you measuring up, even to your own standards? Those who “grieve with no hope” are those who have no idea what is waiting for them when they die because they have no idea if they have lived a good enough life.
Christianity, however, offers a very different route. A Christian is one who realizes that they can never trust in their own goodness, and acknowledges that they need help. Jesus did not simply come as a teacher of morals, but He came as a Savior for sinners. Ghandi, Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed – all of them came and said that they would point you towards the way to God – Jesus came and said I Am the Way.
Paul says, “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Jesus lived the perfect life that we were required, but unable, to live, and died the death that we all deserved to die. And Jesus Christ sets himself apart from all other religious leaders by not only making audacious claims, but by validating them by resurrecting from the grave! We can trust our lives in the hands of Christ because He has demonstrated that He has power over the grave, and therefore, power to cancel the debt of our sins. Now, with all debts cancelled, and inheriting all the wealth of Christ, we do not have to trust in our own goodness to earn our place with God. Christ already earned it all.
This is why we can have a rock-solid, unflinching confidence in Onalee’s outcome when she died – not because she was morally flawless or impeccable, but because she trusted that despite her shortcomings, Christ’s work was rock-solid and unflinching. We do not need naïve, sentimentality that closes our eyes and half-way believes “Grandma is in a better place now”, or some delusions about Grandma being some kind of saint. We can trust that the moment Onalee Anderson closed her eyes in her living room, she opened them before the throne of the living God, greeting her with a smile and a “well done”. And we know that if we acknowledge our own weakness, and look to Christ’s work on the cross, in faith, we too can have that confidence. One day, when the Lord calls us home, we shall not only meet Grandma, but meet our God!
“Therefore comfort one another with these words.”