For the last 11 years I have owned only one suit. I bought it shortly after my phone rang in Spring 2005. Our dear friend Kathi was riding in a car from South Dakota to Las Vegas when it slid off the road and Kathi was killed. I was to officiate the funeral. She was about my age – a few years younger. We put our skills together and honored her in a beautiful and tragic ceremony in a local Black Hills church. JD and Kristi sang “Somewhere Down the Road.” Kathi was one of those larger than life people, very quick to laugh and a wonderful companion to her husband, one of my dear friends.
I was actively interviewing with Discovery Church when Kathi died, in fact I had to call Linnea the search team leader to postpone our application process. We joined this small, gritty church in September of 2005 and soon met Brad, one of the core members and a staunch follower of Jesus. He was in the later stages of battling cancer and on a few Sundays he was too sick to leave his car. I’d climb in with him during the music and we’d chat life. He died around Christmas and I put the suit back on.
Funeral. Jared sang, “Who am I?” Church next day.
Brad was about my age – a few years older and the father of two wonderful kids.
In 2007 during a snowy Spring, I was leading band rehearsal because our volunteer worship leader was away for his uncle’s funeral. My wife was also in the band so we left our kids with some friends while we practiced. Our friend Steve was watching our kids, so when he burst through the door of our rehearsal space with a look of utter shock, I knew something terrible had happened. Eric, our volunteer worship leader had been killed in a car accident. He was a young father of a beautiful family. Eric was one of those people who exuded life and in every wonderful way, he never quite grew up – always had a spark in his eyes and always ready for fun. He was good at everything he turned his hand to. Eric was about my age – a few years younger.
On went the suit. Funeral. Church next day. My friend Tom preached.
In 2008 my friend and chairman of elders Joe called to let me know he was experiencing a weird numbing in his legs and to pray for him. He feared ALS. He went in for tests and they confirmed: he had ALS. Joe was one of the most active people I knew: cyclist, rock climber, fly fisherman. But more importantly, he was an incredible friend to a young church leader because his own life experience gave him a calming perspective. Joe was a true overcomer, but was being overcome. The slow, cruel takeover of this brave man’s body was almost more than we could bare. On an early morning in Spring 2010, his wife called to let me know he had passed away. He was short in stature, but an absolute giant of a man in so many ways. Joe was about my age – maybe a little older. A young father.
I climbed into my suit. Funeral. We played Peter Gabriel. Church next day. I wept my way through a sermon on Psalm 62.
One month after Joe died in 2010, John was sitting on the carpet in our family room with his wife when he told a group of us, his good friends, that the unexplainable rise in his white blood cell count was a rare and aggressive form of Leukemia. 10 months later he was gone.
When you are spiritually and emotionally depleted, you don’t think logically. As I was putting on the suit for John’s funeral, I began to wonder if my arrival at Discovery had somehow cursed the church. I showed up and people started dying. Before seminary I had worked as a hospital chaplain and had served people through 250 – 300 deaths in that year. I don’t know the exact number as it is difficult to track when it is so frequent. Some days nobody died, and once in a while 4 or 5 people in a day would die.
So I am acquainted with death and grief. I know how to be present with people through that process. But with rare exception as a chaplain, I didn’t know the person dying.
But when people in your church die, when people you deeply love die, when people your age die, when it becomes annual, when you see good people suffer and those they leave behind suffer, that is an entirely different acquaintance with grief.
The doors slammed shut, the echo of steel slamming on steel ringing up and down the prison wing. Locked from the outside, the guard holding the key, I put on those black pants and buttoned that black double breasted jacket for yet another funeral for a friend. It wasn’t solitary confinement. That stupid suit was my cellmate.
John’s funeral was the largest I have ever officiated. It was an utter testament to the scope of his powerful life. John was a life giver to people. It was simulcast to California where John lived before. Everyone wore orange. He was a father of 4, about my age – maybe a little older.
Church next day. I don’t remember what I preached, but Mike and I led worship together. Standing near Mike was a great comfort. We were both close to John.
I’ve worn the suit on a few other occasions: our dear friend’s brave mother passing away after a difficult, fierce life. The troubled husband of a strong woman who loved him to the very end, a baby killed in utero when her mother was struck by a car. As we lowered the tiny casket into the ground, I felt that pang in the gut and yearned for the day when people no longer gather around a casket sooner than they ever imagined and ask “why?”
And that is when I decided: it is time to burn this damned suit. It is too tainted with pain.
Nobody tells you when you join a church that even after people die, they are still very much part of the Body of Christ. I remember these people through the course of my days, all kinds of triggers bringing a smile to my face, or an ugh in my gut. Is this what the author of Hebrews meant when he talked about the cloud of great witnesses? Setting my suit on fire is no reflection on the people I have buried.
I know I’ll need another suit. And surely there will be more holes in the ground.
But suit-on-fire is my protest against death and a declaration of stubborn hope that resurrection is real and thanks to Jesus, I will see my friends again.
A black suit and a hole in the ground is not the end of the story. I am not, in fact, imprisoned with a black suit for a cellmate. Jesus holds the keys to death. And he is in the unlocking business. Jesus is, if you will, The Great Locksmith.
Oh Death, where is your sting?
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed…then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”