I attended a funeral service today. My friend, only 51 years old, had struggled against an aggressive cancer for the last six months, receiving only minimal benefit from all that modern medical science had to offer. Though we were close friends during high school, and lived only six miles apart, he and I hadn't crossed paths since graduation 33 years ago – until last summer, when friends began calling me about his illness.
I tracked him down at the old family farm. He hadn't changed: strong, stocky, with a warm smile. He had a wonderful wife and two grown children, the same ages as my two oldest. There was much to catch up on, but we very quickly turned to issues of life and death, sickness and healing, God, Christ, forgiveness, and faith.
Over these months, my wife and I stopped by many times to continue the discussion, to encourage, to sing a hymn, and to pray. And every time we left in tears, overwhelmed by his suffering, but even more by his strong faith and the peace of heart he was given. Just two weeks ago, cachectic and darkly jaundiced, he lay at home in his recliner, and in a voice both weak and simultaneously strong, declared to us what I can only call his confession of faith: he trusted in the word of God as it is in the Gospel. He knew he would have to stand before his Maker and account for his life, but he also knew Jesus Christ had died for his sins. He knew he was redeemed and forgiven. He looked toward the reality of heaven.
Today, at the Canaan Church of the Brethren, here in the mountains on the West Virginia line, there were more pickups than cars. They filled the lot, were parked in the field and lined the road. Everyone gathered outside: farmers, coalminers, lumbermen, and others, all quietly exchanging their recollections of a friend now gone. There were a lot of tractor caps, some overalls, and those with a wad under the lower lip. These were real people: real in their work, their dress, their emotions, and their faith.
We filed in, overflowing the pews, with many standing in the aisles and in the back. The little organ played the old hymns. There were tears, lots of them: of grief, of loss and separation, but also from a deeply-felt challenge to one's own Christianity.
The preacher spoke of a life lived in service of others, centered on the church. Then he spoke of "church-community" as the answer to all our needs. But mostly, he spoke of Jesus, reminding us of how his suffering and dying atoned for our sins, brought us forgiveness, and opened heaven for each of us. We all stood and sang: "Amazing Grace", "Because He Lives", "It Is Well With My Soul."
After the graveside service and closing prayers, we made our way over to the church basement for a different sort of fellowship: the traditional dinner. Long tables were heavily laden with scores of dishes: roasts, casseroles, salads, desserts, wholesome country food like only country people can make. It was a celebration of church-community, of life and death, and of resurrection.
Inside most funeral notices there is a short, sentimental poem. Sometimes it's meaningful, but usually it's little more than an emotional cliché. My friend's notice simply quoted Timothy: "I have fought the fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith." He certainly did.