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A Suitable Memorial

Text: John 16:16-24

I miss reading to my young children. There is much about raising young children that I do not miss at all – the diaper changes, the explosive tantrums, the seventeen layers of clothes required for them to wear simply to leave the house in the winter, the always blissful parent-teacher conferences – but I do miss that special call from the bedroom at night, “Dad, would you read me a story.”

         I especially miss reading wonderful children’s stories that rarely speak only to children. A favorite set of stories we read to both of our children is C.S. Lewis’s, The Chronicles of Narnia. These enchanting stories are a thinly veiled Christian allegory, with the lion “Aslan” serving as the Christ figure.

         In the first book of the Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, four young children walk through a wardrobe door and into the mystical land of Narnia. Narnia is a magical world unlike our own, but in one way it is not unlike our world at all, for in Narnia good and evil always compete.

         Lewis writes, “Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning – either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again” (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, pp. 64-65).         At the mention of the name “Aslan,” the children in Lewis’s story experience a profound sense of joy that each one describes in different ways. Lewis writes, “Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”

         Joy is also the focus of the final and most treasured words of Jesus to his children, his disciples. After telling them a long story, he says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Jesus promises his children the lasting gift of “joy,” not fleeting gift of happiness that is as fickle as your mood or the weather or the stock market. As Jesus describes it, “joy” is something like stepping into that mystical wardrobe into the land of Narnia or climbing back into the best dream you have ever had and discovering that it isn’t a dream at all.

         It is only natural to associate joy with joyous occasions – a birthday, graduation, a new job. Whenever I think of joy, my mind races to Christmas Eve services when the sanctuary is full, candlelight is the only light shining as we sing, “Silent Night! Holy Night!” Whenever I think of joy, I think of magical moments, snuggling at bedtime with my two children, reading everything from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Hobbit to A Wrinkle in Time.

        Oddly enough, in Scripture the One who promises “joy” to his children is not the Easter Jesus, risen from the grave, with betrayal, denial, suffering and death behind him; no, the Jesus who promise them his joy is on the verge of plunging into the deep darkness of Gethsemane and Golgotha. This plunge will also include the descent into the abyss of fear and evil by his children. Just before his arrest and the horror that will follow, Jesus tells his children, “You have pain now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

         It has been over twenty years ago now, but it seems like yesterday when my sister-in-law called and said, “Gary, your brother is dead.” That news came out of nowhere. He was much too young to die so soon. My brother and I could not have been more different. We did not see each other often and when we did, we struggled to find common ground. I had so much more to say to him that now would remain forever unsaid.

         When I got the call, I did the obligatory things. I broke the awful news to my teenage children about their favorite uncle and then I drove to tell my mother news that no mother should ever have to hear. As if often the case with grief, reality and time seemed to warp in the hours and days that followed and I could have just as easily have been in Narnia as in Alexandria. We traveled to Atlanta where my brother had been living and we held a memorial service in the chapel of a church I would later serve as pastor. I met many people that night, people I had never met before, friends of my brother’s, and they told me so many stories about him that I did not know. Somehow, that night, I left that church with no less grief, but with a deep and inexplicable sense of joy.

         Just days before the shadow of a cross would darken the face of the earth, Jesus was honest with his children about the darkness on the horizon, but he did not dwell on the darkness. Instead, he invited them to “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” In his final words, Jesus gave his children the secret to a joyful life. That secret has nothing to do with dodging pain and disappointment or finding the miracle cure for all that ails us. Just look at Jesus; he was prison bound, soon to be whipped to his bare bones and not to be delivered from excruciating pain by a horde of angels and yet he talks to his children about joy.

         The secret to a joyful life for Jesus has nothing to do with climbing every achievement ladder that society puts before us. The only thing Jesus would ever climb came equipped with nails and thorns. The secret to a joyful life for Jesus also has nothing to do with reaching some personal spiritual nirvana, a place where you and I never doubt the presence of God. For soon, Jesus himself would cry to the heavens, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

         Read the final words from Jesus to his children and he provides multiple secrets to a joyful life. The first secret is to remember that Jesus chose us, not the other way around. Just like Jesus spotted disciples fishing or cleaning their nets or settling tax books, so Jesus spots us, claims us and sends us out into the world not as the arrogant elect but as the humble body of the grateful.

         The second secret comes with our willingness to give life away. Giving life away is an act of Christian love that may well bring us warmth and enduring satisfaction, but most of the time, it is just really hard work and we love not necessarily because we have tender feelings toward others, but because we know that we have been given something from God that will sour within us unless we give it away.

         The final secret to a joyful life is remembering who we are. We are God’s beloved children and among his final words to his children, Jesus called them, “his friends.” Through the gracious love of God in Jesus, you and I too can know the lasting joy of being counted among Christ’s community of friends.

         In his book, Wishful Thinking, Presbyterian pastor and novelist, Frederick Buechner writes, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to – a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it” (p. 58).

         As you enjoy Memorial Day tomorrow and rightly remember the courage and valor of those who have fought our wars and those who have fought with equal valor for peace, remember also that unforgettable day when Jesus promised his children, then and now, the most suitable memorial – a joyful life, lived in love in service to others, given to us not because we have earned it, but given by the remarkable and inscrutable grace of the Joyful Giver.

         If you and I remember that, we might just well become wise and grateful stewards of a joyful life. For what more could we ever pray?


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