(…continued) Frank’s 10 year old daughter Maggie was also at that memorial service, but she was in a more serious mood. And she had some questions for her dad about the whole ordeal. Paraphrasing a bit, this is Frank McCourt’s description of their conversation:
Maggie kneels with me by the casket, looking at her grandmother, the first dead body she has seen in her ten years. She has no vocabulary for this, no religion, and no prayer. And that’s another sadness. She can only look at her grandmother and say, ‘Where is she now, Dad?’ And all I can say is, ‘If there is a heaven, Maggie, she’s there, and she’s the queen of it.’ And Maggie asks, ‘Is there a heaven, Dad?’
There is a lot going on in those few lines. Frank says of his daughter, ‘she has no vocabulary for this, no religion, no prayer, and that’s another sadness.’ Another sadness, he says. It is very sad to lose your dear mother and grandmother, that’s one sadness, and that’s bad enough. But there is another sadness, says Frank, the sadness of not having anything at all to say about it. Two days before, they could talk to grandma, but now she was dead and couldn’t talk, and next day she would be cremated– and that would be it, there would be nothing else to say. There is no hope, no one who can help, no one to pray to– nothing. And that’s another sadness.
When I read those words I was reminded off Thessalonians 4:13 where Paul wrote: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who have died, or to grieve like those who have no hope.” Go ahead and grieve, says Paul, that’s only natural; but we need not grieve like those who have no hope. We have a great hope, as he goes on to say in the next verse: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” There is the vocabulary and the hope in all this. But Maggie doesn’t have any of that. She’s never heard it. So she has another sadness. Yes, says Paul, Christians who have this hope will grieve, but not as those who have no hope. We have one sadness, not two. The pain of separation at death is sad enough, but we do not see it as a permanent separation. We have a promise and a hope; we have something, someone, to trust in at such times as that. Frank McCourt was honest enough to say he and his daughter did not have that hope anymore, and that was another sadness. But for Christians, that ‘other sadness’ is taken away by Christ’s Easter resurrection from the dead and our trust in his promise that he will also raise us from the dead, and take us to live with him in his heavenly home.
“Where is grandma now, Dad?” asked Maggie.
Her father answered, “If there is a heaven, she is there now, and she is the queen of it.” That was a cheerful and hopeful answer, but it had one too many words in it. “IF” he said, “If there is a heaven.” And that was a big IF coming from a man whose daughter never saw him paying any attention to God or faith or heaven or anything of the sort. His reply was cheerful enough, but it lacked conviction, it lacked assurance, and it lacked hope. The IF was too big for Maggie, so she searched for a more certain reply from her father. “IS there a heaven, dad?” she then asked. And he had nothing more to say, not one word of comfort to give. Faith was gone, and, as he already said, “That’s another sadness.”
That little story can do two things for us. First of all, it can serve as a warning, and secondly, it can inspire in us a greater appreciation for our Lord Jesus Christ in whom we trust.
First of all, the warning. Frank McCourt’s two-book life story begins with the family deeply involved in the traditions of the faith. There are prayers at home, there are prayers at church, when someone does something wrong the first thing that comes to mind is confession, and the church school education teaches about all of life from the standpoint of faith. Yes, there are problems. The schoolmasters are often too harsh, the people at the church charity are smug and self-righteous, and there is, in the slums, much blaspheming and ridiculing of the faith. But there are also good schoolmasters, kind and understanding priests, and the life-saving generosity of the church charities. The good and bad are mixed at church (as in everything in this life), but the family, at the beginning of the book, is at least concerned about, as they say, ‘being in a state of grace.’ God is on their minds, the church is important, and Jesus is there to talk to anytime. But by the end of the book, there is none of that; not even anything to say at a funeral. God had not left them, but they left God, and after ignoring God for so long, they had nothing to say to God, and no time for any word from God. They did not even bother getting a priest. All faith was gone.
There is a warning there. Faith needs feeding, or as Paul says, faith comes by hearing, and if no attention is paid, faith can die, and then there is nothing left. And as Frank McCourt said, ‘that’s another sadness.’ Faith can die anyway. One’s salvation is an individual matter between each person and God, and nothing any parent does can guarantee faith in their children. But there is so much in our world that works against it, so we must give faith every opportunity to take root and grow and deepen. (continued…)
I Thessalonians 4:13-14 — Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.