After the service, my mind went back to a conversation ten years earlier. “How about you, Sam? What would you like written on your tombstone?” It was the kind of conversation you imagine having with your fellow hostage when an insurgent group has kidnapped you and left you in an attic for years on end. In fact, it was with a roomful of people I’d only just met. In such conversations, I tend to remember either the things that I put into words instantaneously that I previously didn’t know I thought or the things I only realized later, hours or years after the conversation, that I wish I’d said.
This time it was the first kind. “If it can’t be happy, make it beautiful.” I didn’t know where it came from. It landed, fully formed.
All these years later, I haven’t changed my mind. (Except I doubt I’ll have a tombstone at all: when you’re in eternity, trying to shape what people think of you for the first few decades after you’ve gone seems the wrong place to put your energy.) In fact that expression has become my template for almost every occasion when friends or congregation members face profound grief, their own mortality, or terrible distress. As a widower plans a funeral, or as a person faces another kind of loss, I invariably return to those simple words: “I hope that, in the midst of your sorrow and the bleakness of what you’re facing, you can yet find a way to make it beautiful.”
Notice those words don’t say, “If it can’t be good.” Beauty isn’t an alternative to goodness; it isn’t a distraction from depth, seriousness, honesty, or integrity. Nor do they say, “Make it pretty.” Making it beautiful is about realizing we’re usually operating on a mundane level, where things will seldom make sense and where most things are fragile and contingent. In the face of dismay, the best approach is to go up a level, to a realm of fittingness, recalibrated priorities, and God’s kingdom. But making it beautiful also addresses the powerlessness at the heart of grief. There is, it turns out, something you can do, and that is to take the wisdom, grace, or soul of what’s been lost and portray its transcendent quality in word, deed, or collective gesture.
Samuel Wells in @ChristianCent 'If you have a choice between giving someone false hope and giving them the truth, always give them the truth. Once they realize the hope is false, they’ll be worse off than before' https://t.co/PeqRsiIXY0 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Duke Chapel) #parishministry pic.twitter.com/W7zFXmoYtU
— Kendall Harmon (@KendallHarmon6) April 19, 2018