As the cemetery comes into view on this spectacular January afternoon, I feel as if I’m being transported back in time, because this little piece of geography is so ripe with memories that all the feelings attending those memories flood to the surface, unbidden. I see the canopy where the graveside service will take place, but we’re early; early enough that we’ve time for a little drive. I head out, a bit further from the center of Kingsburg, to the land my grandpa farmed, the place where we’d put grapes on trays to dry in the scorching sun when we were kids. He had grapes and peaches, but now everything’s gone. All the cropland has just recently been stripped of any vestige of tree or vine, so empty soil, ready for a new generation of fruitfulness, surrounds the house. The soil’s the same, more or less, only now empty, which is somehow fitting for the occasion.
Just down the road a bit more, is where my aunt had a peach farm. Her land, too, has changed. Where the farmhouse that felt ancient fifty years ago once stood, there’s a modern ranch home complete with a bevy of solar panels leaning up against the south wall. Beyond the walls of the cemetery, it seems that life goes on; new crops, new houses, new families…new.
Returning to the cemetery though, all that’s new on this day will be an addition: Betty Nadine Dahlstrom, who died just before Christmas, at the age of 95. There are a few family members present and the service is short, a bit understated perhaps. I can say that because I was the officiant. The gold of the day came after the service. I’d wanted my youngest daughter to see some of the other headstones of family members, but they were all covered by the cheap artificial astro-turf that’s placed, temporarily, under the canopy, in order to provide solid footing for guests as the pass by the coffin before it’s lowered into the ground.
“I didn’t come this far to miss showing my daughter her family story” I said to myself, and so asked the landscape guy who would soon be putting mom’s body in the ground if we could peel away the AstroTurf to look at the other stones. A strange request, no doubt, but he accommodated, and soon we were looking at all the names, with their year and month of death:
Oscar Stokes – February 1972
Lillian Stokes – April 1973
Romaine Dahlstrom – October 1973
Esther Dahlstrom – 1975
Dorothy Stokes – April 1976
I’d known the “what” of my own story quite well. Right in the midst of that dark time of losing all my grandparents, I’d graduated from high school. The festival of death that reigned down on our family plunged me into a depression and faith crisis, hidden from most, but nonetheless real to me. At the time of my dad’s untimely death I’d decided that nothing was nailed down, no meaningful relationship secure. The same thing happens, of course, when there’s infidelity, or abandonment, but at least then you can rage at the perpetrator. In my story though, God was the perpetrator (or so it seemed at the time) and I was in a church with precious little space for honest to God grief, as Sundays were filled with praise music that seemed absurd, or dishonest, at least for me in that time and space.
So, instead of getting angry, I got depressed, but determined, at the same time, to leave a mark beyond the brief matchlight of my life by designing cool spaces as an architect. I was running from God, as sure as Jacob, or Jonah, or Moses, or any of the other graybeards of old. We all had different reasons, but the results are the same. It’s my life, and I’ll do what I want with it, so leave me alone.
Ah, but it didn’t work out that way at all, because in my pursuit of autonomous plans, I made my way to a state school, so called secular, and there met Christians robust with joy who drew me into their circle through love. I was doubting, they believed. I had health problems related to my depression. They didn’t care. I was confused about everything. They had a faith that believed God changed lives, swapping out anxiousness and replacing it with peace, or despair with hope. You get the picture.
And then, already drawn to the light, I went to a retreat up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, solely because a cute blonde invited me. Looking back, I can see that the stars were aligned for a mega shift in my life. The Christian students in my dorm had loved me well and I was not only finding my way out of the depression, but was experiencing a strange growing longing to share this same kind of love with others because it was working such magic in healing my own soul.
Yes, but how? I was still angry with God for stealing my dad. Every time I thought about my mom, and the reality that she lost both her parents, her husband, and her beloved mother-in-law in the span of two years, the doubts and anger grew. “No loving God would steal everyone in that short a time, so maybe God doesn’t exist at all” was one line of thinking. I was caught between hope and despair, and honestly, being pulled in both directions.
Then it happened. At that winter camp, in pursuit of that cute blonde, I made my way into the chapel for the evening talk. It was on Jeremiah 9:23ff, about how the only thing in this broken world that’s worth boasting about is that we know God. The word had a ring of truth to it even though the God I thought I knew a bit about might not be worth knowing. Still, I knew enough to know what I didn’t know, and when the preacher pointed directly at me and said, “There are some of you in this room who need to make knowing God the number one priority of your life,” I knew that I knew that I knew God was speaking to me!
I didn’t know what would change by making knowing God a central goal of life. I didn’t even know if I’d like what I found. But I knew I wanted to know God better, and so after the talk I went outside on a starry night, and knelt down in the snow to pray. I told God that I wanted to make knowing Him the central priority of my life. I didn’t know what would happen because I prayed that prayer, but I didn’t think it would be anything dramatic.
I was wrong. Seven months later I was packing my red Ford Mustang with my few possessions and driving north to Seattle. Having never been north of Sacramento in my life, I was heading to Seattle Pacific University to study music, with an eye toward somehow entering ministry. What happened after that retreat was that the big deal in my life became sharing with other people that knowing God was worth the effort. This is because inexplicably, something started immediately inside me. I surely didn’t have all the answers to all the questions; still don’t. At the same time, the gaping void of loneliness in my soul was being filled with God, and more strangely still, a sense of companionship with God.
As a result, I found myself more interested in my role as piano player in the Sunday night bible study my friends were leading than I was in designing apartments for my drafting class. I was sleeping better, more fully engaged with people, less worried about the future. The poisonous introspection that had attended my depression and insecurity was replaced by a quiet confidence that, come what may, God would be my companion in this journey called life, and the reality of that gave me a joy, confidence, and peace that had been missing for about a decade. By the end of the school year, I knew that I needed to share this good news with others as much as possible, and so I changed majors and changed schools with an eye toward some sort of ministry.
The day at the cemetery to bury mom’s body was preceded by a day at the camp in the mountains, a pilgrimage of sorts, to thank the good Lord for the landscape of my life. It was the convergence of these two spots on the planet—Sugar Pine Camp, and Kingsburg Cemetery, that showed me that the life I live is precisely the fruit of new life born out of loss.
And this, dear friends, is the glory of the gospel. It’s not that we’re granted immunity from suffering. Far from it. The grand hope that is ours in Christ is that in this broken world, where loss in a thread woven into the fabric of everyone’s story, God’s wisdom is able to turn every loss into gain. It’s still loss; of that there’s no doubt. We can mourn, must mourn, because loss, and loneliness, and betrayal, is what happens in a fallen world.
But loss needn’t define us, because every loss opens a door for new facets of God’s character to be experienced in our lives. Of course I wish my dad had been at my wedding. Of course I wish he’d known his grandkids, and the fine folk they married. Even more, I wish they’d known him. But no. It’s a fallen world, and numerous bouts of pneumonia as a child meant dad had weak lungs that would catch up to him and steal his life at 55. The loss though, prepared the soil, and the life I’ve known, the wife I’ve married, the places I’ve travelled, the friends of made—all of it has sprouted in the soil stripped bare by loss. Wow. That’s a story a worth telling.
My daughter Holly is bent down, in tears, over my dad’s tombstone. I kneel down with her and cry. “I wish you could have known him,” I said. And yet I wonder—if she’d have had the chance to know him, would I have ever lived in Seattle? Ever met my wife? Would Holly have ever been born? And that’s when it hits me—the glory of the gospel is its profound capacity to turn loss into gain, as evidenced by the cross itself.
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! Romans 11