I just emailed my cousin who lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Before I did, I checked the weather, and it is over 100 degrees there.
I was born in Arizona, as was my mother, and her parents who were cattle ranchers. And yet here, in the northern realms, autumn and cool weather are just settling in. When I was little and we’d go ‘into town,’ it meant Phoenix. At the time, it was a dinky city, its glory being a giant, lighted Coca-Cola sign on its northern edge, one of the first things to greet you as you drove in on Interstate 10. This was before anyone cared about the beauty of the desert or Native Americans, a time when motels along the side of the highway advertised in neon that their rooms were ‘air-conditioned.’
Today, Phoenix is a big, water-plagued, concrete gray mess with a tangled freeway system, stadiums and high rises. Phoenix is where my older relatives go to retire and live in mobile homes with small rock gardens, tiny poodles, white visors and liver spots. My younger relatives go because the colleges aren’t that bad, the bars are even better and you can be tan all year and get a beer with your Grand-Slam breakfast at Denny’s. Phoenix is also where all my people are buried so when I notice in the paper that it’s over 100 degrees, I think of sprinklers starting in the cemeteries, wet grass and someone watering the roses around the fence near my father’s grave.
In that ironic life sort of way, if my people are buried in Phoenix, my father’s people are mostly buried where I live, here, in the north. So, in death and life we’ve traded places. The city of Phoenix is named after an ancient, mythological bird that after five hundred years died, and out of its ashes, a new bird rose. Though my dad and I have not been taken by this particular mythology, we have still been grasped by this conviction that out of ash will come resurrection. This strange conviction is simply faith; we have been given the promises of Jesus Christ. And because of Christ, because of who he is and what he has done and what he has told us about God, once faith is given, space and time and sorrow are set aside. What side of the grave you’re on no longer matters. Now, because Christ has taken on our death, and in return gives us all life, out of sheer love, there is nothing, nothing at all, that is a barrier to Christ’s love for us.
I have already picked out my grave, and it’s not in Phoenix. It’s next to my father’s grandparents, in the middle of nowhere, off a dirt road outside Kindred, North Dakota. If you go there in the spring, the fields have just been planted and though the sun is beginning to warm things, the wind is terrible and cold. In autumn, the sunflowers and wheat are so tall around the cemetery that you measure things not by roads, but by buildings and sheds. Light grieves this late autumn. You can even watch it; in wheat, in what is soft and shadowed and golden, in the sunflowers’ heavy turn of the head. In the winter, this cemetery is flat and white and the days are dark. Nothing can live out here. The wind is so bitter, so frigid, flesh literally begins to die before the body does. At the graveside in winter everyone prays, but even the Spirit wants to rush. There is good reason northerners say short prayers and wear sensible shoes. Car doors open and quickly slam shut, and back in warm cars, everyone makes little comments, “That was nice,” “Hard to believe,” “I hope he didn’t forget to take out the ham,” “Do you remember…?” And of course, back in Phoenix, the cemetery gardener cuts the grass that never stops growing.
We work, this life, this earth, this gift, entrenched solidly in promise. Christ will not let you go; you are never forgotten. When you were given faith, it is the only thing you get to take with you after death. And Christ’s love, this love so strong, that death shrugs and sulks off in the face of it, beckons. In this love, the bird and the burdens, the roses and the lily, rise. In this love, demarcations fade, faith is given; all the living and the dead are near.