song of songs

“Oh that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!
For your love is better than wine…”

She looked up at the shiny black box at the front of the church, and noticed the silence. Not even a whisper. It made the shabby little church seem even more depressing than usual. She’d been coming here with her parents since she was a little girl, more reluctantly each year, and she knew every inch of every pew and every face. All these people who had come to pay their respects to her grandmother were exactly the same ones she saw on Sunday. Sunday after Sunday. And she was sure the pastor’s words would sound exactly the same as they did every time he got up behind the pulpit. She’d heard them too many times to pay attention for long. So before the service even began she’d reached for the bible in the rack in front of her and flipped to her favorite book. “My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh, that lies between my breasts… Behold, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely.”

She didn’t have a boyfriend yet, but there was someone she liked and she thought he liked her too. And this time she was going to do something about it. She and her friends had been telling each other about their crushes for years. But it usually never amounted to more than whispers and crumpled notes and a lot of embarrassed giggling. She was tired of that. She wanted more than daydreams and empty talk. She wanted to know what a real relationship was like.

The pastor interrupted the silence and she looked up. The usual funeral words. The usual songs about heaven. She wasn’t sure if she believed in heaven; it sounded a little too good to be true—at least it seemed unlikely that all the people they said were going there actually were. She hoped her grandma was at peace, though. She hadn’t known her very well, but her grandmother had been a nice lady. And a good cook.

She realized she was hungry, and as she scanned the lines of poetry in her lap, images of honey and milk and fruit appeared again and again. This part was her favorite: “How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden! You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches. Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth. I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me. Come my beloved, let us go forth into the fields…” Yes, she wanted a real relationship, not a daydream. Someone who was really hers and she was really his and they would go out to face the world together.

“Margaret was an inspiration and model for us all. I could always count on her smile from the third row, right over here, and she always showed up for the women’s bible studies and prayer breakfasts. She helped organize the church potluck every month…” Grandma had spent a lot of time at church after Grandpa died. The thought made her kind of sad. “…because Margaret loved her Lord. That’s what made her such a faithful servant in this church, doing the Lord’s work. She was the first one here every Sunday, making sure the doors were open and there were fresh flowers on the altar.” She looked down again and read, “If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and none would despise me…” “We’re glad Margaret is in a better place now, but this church will miss her. We’ll all miss her. And I’m sure she’ll miss us too; this church was her home. Now if any of Margaret’s friends or family would like to say a word…”

“Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning on her beloved?” She looked up from the page as her Aunt Helen strode up the aisle. Helen lived in some big city down south and they didn’t see her often. There seemed to be something vaguely scandalous about her aunt, at least that’s the feeling she picked up from her parents.

“I wasn’t planning to say anything,” Aunt Helen began, “but I get the distinct feeling that my mom’s not missing this place much right now.” A long pause, as if she wasn’t sure what to say next, then Helen spoke again. “I believe she did love Jesus. Or at least she longed for him in her heart; I could see that. She just never knew what to do with that longing. I suppose she was a little afraid of it. Now maybe Mom finally has the kind of love, the kind of life, she could have had all along. Not bible studies and potlucks and tending this old church, but a life walking next to Jesus.”

Suddenly a memory rose up. She was small. Her mother and Aunt Helen were in the next room arguing. Helen was leaving. And her mother wanted to know “why do you want to throw your life away” and “how are you going to survive in a place like that.” And she remembered Helen’s voice, so soft she could barely hear it: “Because that’s where Jesus is.”

“It’s like he said, ‘Where I am, there my servant will be also,’” Aunt Helen continued, the words tumbling out faster, and it somehow didn’t feel like a funeral anymore. “And we know where he was and what he was doing during his lifetime… I mean, among the poor, preaching good news to them, and suffering at the hands of the rich and powerful. He’s still doing that now.” Then, softer, her eyes shining, “Do we really love him? Do we love him enough to want to be with him?” Helen seemed to run out of breath and her eyes fell to the casket, then she stepped away from the pulpit and returned quietly to her seat. The only sound was the creaking of the pews as bodies shifted uncomfortably.

“Amen,” the pastor said with a smile. “Thank you for that sharing… uh… ” Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning on her beloved? “Is there anyone else…”

She glanced over at Helen, who smiled at her with flushed cheeks.

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