I was invited to read, play and tell stories for a congregation of people just outside of East Lansing, Michigan. Parking my car in the lot adjacent to the old, white church building, I had to pass by the tilted and worn headstones of the town’s main cemetery, hosted on the property of this old church.
I used to think cemeteries were cool and creepy.
I don’t anymore.
I know too many people whose bodies are buried in the ground.
A fiend of mine used to be the pastor of a church in downtown Berkeley, CA. It’s a hip, young church in a hip, young town with hip, young congregates doing hip, young things. He told me he missed the presence of a cemetery on their property. He believed the presence of “the dead” among a church family completed a kind of life-story each gathering of theirs told. When that family came together, he said, the entirety of earthly human experience was enacted and represented. Newborns and their older siblings, carried and collected by their parents whose parents and grandparents were often also in attendance. The presence of those they’d lost in their process of life together, completed that story.
It also made death part of the human story, rather than simply the end of it.
This Good Friday, my tribe pauses to meditate on the crucifixion and death of Jesus. We see this moment as one in which God frames Death in the context of Life, proclaiming Life as stronger and more resilient than death. In the glimmering shadow of Resurrection Sunday, Good Friday asks us to give death its own moment in the process of life, believing all the while that death is only a part of this glorious process… not the end of it or even a defining characteristic.
Like my friend from Berkeley, my church family meets in a building without a cemetery. Our building in downtown Concord was once a thriving movie theater. Over time, the theatre didn’t quite make ends meet. It became an adult movie theater which, in its turn, failed and was then was purchased by First Presbyterian Church of Concord. First Presbyterian turned it into a community center and, as the Presbyterian church population tapered off, the community center saw less and less use. Now, that space is rented out and used by Concord Vineyard Church, Lighthouse Church an an Evangelical Covenant Church called Shelter.. where I am an associate pastor. Two days from now, in that building, we will be celebrating new life by dedicating a truckload of kids, some of them newborns, with more dedications to come in the later spring.
All that to say, even the history our small building, in it’s own way, reminds me that failure, darkness and death are rarely the actual end of things. Just as often, they are doorways through which other life (or other kinds of life) enter in.
Walking to my car after that show in Michigan, I was fairly certain I saw headstones bearing the surnames of folks I’d just met inside. And while I generally think of friends and loved ones who have passed with a sense of sadness, the proximity of those headstones to the living members of their families framed my sadness with the broader perspective I think Good Friday calls me to have; That Life does not just go on after death. Instead, a good life carries death with it on the way… because Life is stronger and more resilient.