It was a perfect spring Saturday, almost too beautiful for the somber meditations of a memorial service.
A cool breeze chilled the otherwise warm temperature. The crystal blue sky was cloudless. It was as perfect a day as one gets in North Carolina’s early spring.
We were gathered in the sanctuary, comforted by the stained-glass windows, and supported by the candy red padding on the pews. The lectern and altar were draped in embroidered white paraments, and the pipe organ magnificently intoned great hymns of the faith.
While no memorial service is ever ordinary to the family, they do become very familiar, especially to those who are more than 40 years old. They have seen many, and this one seemed to offer few surprises. Then, one of the speakers came forward.
He clearly was once a man with a formidable presence. His large frame and build would have dominated a crowd in his youth. His obvious intelligence and compelling demeanor would have wowed any crowd then. His youth, however, was long gone.
That same large frame that would have demonstrated strength and power in years past was now difficult for him to carry. He put his cane in his off hand to reach for the handrail as he lumbered up the steps to the stage. His black orthopedic shoes emphasized the awkward and dangerous gait that was clearly once graceful.
On reaching the lectern, he was able to gather himself to make some poignant remarks about the loss of his friend. When he was done, he pushed away from the podium and said some of the most remarkable words I have ever heard at a funeral. “It’s not fair.”
It was not eloquent. It was not planned. It was just the honest expression of a man who had lost his friend.
At first I thought of how his words would sound to those who have lost so much more and lost it much earlier. I looked once again at him, though. I saw the grimace of physical pain and emotional sorrow on his face. Then I thought, “No. It isn’t fair.”
That phrase, “It isn’t fair,” is one basic truth of life, and it forms the anguished cry of the hurting.
It is shouted at the heavens by infertile couples. It is cried by small children who do not get their way. It is wept by those who are falsely accused and those who suffer the weight of discrimination. It is growled by those who have been passed over in their professional and personal lives. It is whispered over many a sick child.
Life is not fair, and it cannot be made to be fair. Even if true fairness were achievable, what looks fair to me, what looks fair to you and what is genuinely fair may be three very different things. Fairness is impossible, at least to humans.
While life cannot be fair, it is good. One of the myriad ways to see the goodness of life is to look at the ability of humans to communicate, and we are remarkably expressive creatures.
While the most obvious expressions we use are our words, the human body itself is a finely tuned communication apparatus. Our pupils dilate when we see someone who sparks our interest, our hands gesture to make emphatic points, our cheeks flush when we are embarrassed, our feet point to what we are interested in seeing, the corners of our eyes move when our smile is real rather than feigned.
We communicate more than we know. We know more than just what is said to us. This is amazing, and this good.
When we pick up instruments, what is often inexpressible in the average person’s 42,000-word vocabulary can be clearly understood. When I hear Slash perfectly performing a lyrical legato on his Les Paul, I know something that cannot be said in words. And I know it is good.
In the beauty of expression, I know life is good.
The ordinary, daily experiences of life are also part of life’s goodness. I know I am a very, very blessed man. I know I have been given opportunities and experiences many will not share.
Of all the things I have been given, however, it is in experiencing the gift of my family that I know goodness. I see the affection of my wife, and I know that this is good. I sit down to dinner with my family and know that this meal — even if it is rushed — is good.
When my children squeal with delight at my return from a conference, and even when they would rather their grandparents stay with them and send me back to the conference, I know this, too, is good.
Now, I do wish I could make life fair.
I wish that every person achieved what their ambition, talent and work ethic would allow them to achieve. I wish every person lived well into their 90’s with perfect health the whole way.
I wish everyone had someone to be with at holidays and no one had an empty seat at their table. I wish every good dream would come true. I wish every hope would be realized.
My wishing, however, does not make it so. My desires for a perfect world will not come to pass.
Railing about unfairness may feel helpful. It may even be a necessary part of grief.
In the end, though, we are best when we can affirm that even in its basic unfairness, life is good.
Senior pastor of Rosemary Baptist Church in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, and the author of Karl Barth’s Theology of Nothingness: a Critical Examination, and Loving God in the Darkness (upcoming).