Brothers, we do not want you ... to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.
-- 1 Thessalonians 4:13
A few weeks ago, my family took a trip up north to attend a memorial service for a young man who had been in our youth group when I was a pastor in the small town of Brimley, Michigan. Alan Jastorff Gillies was 27 when he died, and left a wife whom he deeply loved and a beautiful baby son. His death was unexpected, untimely, tragic, sad; one would have expected it to have occasioned bitter wailing and grief that could not be contained. No one would have blamed his immediate family or close friends. And yet ... it wasn't like that.
It wasn't a "celebration," either. When the attempt is made to make a funeral into a "homegoing" party, it leaves me cold. I understand what people are trying to do, but funerals are for the bereaved, not for the one who is now in the presence of God. I don't think people should stuff or hide their feelings of grief, much less feel forced to do so. The passage quoted above doesn't say that we shouldn't grieve. It says we shouldn't grieve as those who have no hope.
There was grief at Alan's memorial service. There were tears. But the moving thing, to me, about the service was that everyone there knew, without doubt, that Alan's life, though short, had been lived well. No one had any doubts about his eternal destiny. There were no wry stories about morally questionable hijinks, no evasions, no concerns that "if only he'd had time" to put something right. This was a young man who had truly been a blessing to everyone who had known him.
When I was pastoring and he was in my youth group, Alan was a solid young man in a solid family, the kind that maybe doesn't get the attention that the not-so-solid end up needing. But he always had a good humor; he was joyful and fun, as well as attentive and serious and a deep thinker when those times came up. He loved life and loved the outdoors and seemed so healthy that it was easy to forget that his family had told me that he had a life-threatening genetic disorder, an immune deficiency that had hospitalized him a number of times before. It seemed like something he'd outgrown, a childhood disease that he'd beaten.
And so I was stunned when I heard that he was struggling for his life, and a few days later, that he had passed away. There was a funeral in South Dakota, where he most recently lived, and a memorial service in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, near where he had grown up and where his parents lived. We went to the memorial service. It was great to see those whom I had pastored years ago. And as I said, there were tears. But there was also hope. There was a firm, strong, unquenchable hope; an unshakable conviction among everyone who had known this young man that he had lived his life to the glory of God, and honored by everyone who had had the privilege of being touched by him.
God bless you, Alan. I'm looking forward to seeing you again one day.