A Toast to Rhonda. And to Jesus. (Foster’s Lager, please)

It feels like I write a lot about death. So, this time, I will write one little story about death, and an even bigger story about life.

It hasn’t even been two weeks since my sister-in-law Rhonda died from breast cancer at age 44. I don’t think there is a person who could illumine a room or make goofier faces than she could. I don’t think there’s another person who had more courage than she had in the face of something so awful. And I don’t think there is any other person who loved as deeply as she did, and was as deeply loved. (800 people at her memorial service on a cold, rainy day is one testimony to this. Standing room only).

The rawness of the grief has only begun to sink in, especially for my brother and her children. There’s that icky, desperate shadow, this hole left, from this person you can’t live without. It’s all the stuff the existentialists love to write about. But last week at Rhonda’s service, as people gathered in the sanctuary, her family spoke and the rest of us sang. And as our voices rose and fell, as people were cracked apart and sobbed, as people laughed at Rhonda stories (because there was no one like Rhonda), the sky split and like an Advent calendar, the light broke through the church windows.

Now, there are some people who say everything happens for a reason. I’m not one of them. There is no good reason for a young mother to die. But I am one of those people who believe that there’s far more than we know, horizons that we can’t yet see, and somehow in what is terrible and even tragic, Jesus is working, pushing away dirt, opening up heavens, creating a pathway for light, and every now and again, we get a glimpse.

After her memorial service that evening, Rhonda wanted all her loved ones to gather, with a ‘keg of Fosters’. And as night fell, something else besides sorrow broke through the darkness. I saw my brother laughing, really laughing, with people he’s buddied around with since kindergarten. I saw my niece and nephew welcoming strangers, and then offering them a sandwich. I saw a kid I used to baby sit pour my husband a beer. My daughter suggested several dating tips to my former boyfriend. (That could only be Jesus working.) I saw the past gathered – our pasts gathered – and it all pointed forward.

Now there are some people who say that heaven is like one big party. Maybe so, but I’m not one of them; Jesus knows how I feel about crowds. However the details play out, when we get a glimpse, I’m betting it looks more like a reunion. Because Christ, in the midst of our grief, brings together people and histories and time itself, gathering together the impossible and making it real. Now and then, we get to glimpse eschatology, our future together, a time when all of us are reunited, when our sorrows and burdens are lifted, when forgiveness saturates the darkness, a time when we are known and loved.

And so, this column goes out to Rhonda and Jesus. A toast, in fact, to both: Love ya, so much. Because our life, this life, is only the beginning. And though we wade through a muck of sorrow and loneliness and loss, even though we will die, Christ has gone before us, pushing back stone, speaking light, gathering green lilies and small leaves and the moments we’ve forgotten. And we glimpse — now only dimly – that what he’s ultimately doing is gathering around him the people we love.