It’s been just over four months since my mom died to this world of sensation and tangibility. We were finally able to hold her memorial service this past weekend, in Georgia.
I was honored to co-officiate alongside my dear friend Bec Cranford, with family and a few friends gathering, and many joining online.
We opened our time together with a prayer of intent:
As in baptism Dee put on Christ,
so in Christ may Dee be clothed with glory.
Here and now, dear friends, we are God’s children.
What we shall be has not yet been revealed;
but we know that as Christ appears, we become like him,
for we see him as he is.
We whose simple souls reflect as mirrors the Lamb’s glory,
find ourselves even now transformed into the likeness of the Trinity,
Mourning with those who mourn and dancing with those who dance.
Unconditionally-Present One, You love everything You have made
And wash over us with Your unending mercy.
We rejoice in your promises of healing, joy and peace to all whom You hold in love.
In Your mercy turn the dusk of death to the dawn of new life,
and the sorrow of parting to the joy of heaven;
through our liberator Jesus Christ,
Who died, and rose again, and lives forevermore.
Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.
And when our days here are accomplished,
enable us to release as those who go forth to live,
so that living or dying, our life may be in You,
and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us
from your great love, in Christ Jesus our Lord.
When we lose our loved ones (at ordinary levels of awareness at least), there’s a lot of pressure in contemporary culture to rush through our feelings of loss and grief. Often, we’re encouraged to skip processes like funeral altogether, and go instead with a more upbeat ‘celebration of life.’
I get it; I tend toward unabashed positivity, myself. (I mean heck, it’s right here in my tagline: “Opti-mystic”!)
And: In order to bask in the dawn, first we need to dwell in the dusk.
I’ve been an aspiring follower of Jesus for most of my life, but it was only two years ago, when my friend and colleague Rachel Held Evans died, that I felt like I’d participated in my first actual Christian funeral, in the best sense of this phrase. Thousands of us gathered at First Centenary United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the service — officiated by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Jeff Chu, Sarah Bessey, and many others — was slow, thorough, deliberate. Clocking in at over two and a half hours, this gathering held prayers, laments, songs, and eulogies that allowed us to truly feel and move our grief. It felt as though we were actively invited to participate in the commendation of Rachel’s being from here to eternity.
With this in mind, Bec and I worked with a traditional Anglican liturgy, paired with a hymn of lament, O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go. But we also incorporated Pentecostal and charismatic standards from my mom’s chosen faith, like David Ruis‘ We Will Dance and He’s Alive Again by Phil Driscoll.
Together we prayed:
Eternal One, we praise You for the great company of all those
who have finished their course in faith
and now rest from their labor.
We praise You for those dear to us
whom we hold in our hearts before You.
We especially praise you for my mom, Dee,
whom You have graciously received into Your presence.
To all of these, grant Your peace.
Let perpetual Light shine upon them;
and help us so to perceive what we have not seen,
that Your presence and theirs may lead us through our years,
and bring us at last in sight
where we’ve always dwelled in faith:
Surrounded by them,
Your Great Cloud of Witnesses
Then and now let us be present
to Your Eternal Current;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Bec captured my mom’s essence perfectly when she said:
Those of you who knew Dee were impacted by her love for all.
And her faith.
And her welcoming presence.
She practiced her faith by remembering others.
She remembered the stranger, the widows, and the orphans. Often taking in those who were down and out. She and her family fostered children. She would lay out a spread for anyone who popped in, and wouldn’t let you leave until you ate something!
She took the words of Jesus seriously. She loved God. She chased Jesus and the move of the Spirit, as well as offered dignity, compassion, and an open table to everyone. Similar to Jesus, she offered the kind of love that brought many close.
In this she practiced the strange upside-down Kingdom of God. A Kingdom made not of great people, worthy people, or those who had somehow succeeded in the way that worldly systems define success. But a kin-dom of rascals, misfits, outlaws, down and outers, who said yes to community and yes to an invitation to come.
Dee practiced this radical way in a way that might not seem ‘radical’ to everybody. But for those with eyes to see..!
Dee practiced this radical way with each cup of coffee set out, and meal shared.
Dee practiced this radical way in loving others, and inviting them in.
Dee practiced this radical way by taking in those broken, shamed, and down on their luck.
Her table was open for anyone to come.
And as we remember Dee, and we set our eyes on this strange upside-down Kingdom of God, we must ask ourselves if we practice a Love this radical.
Could we offer the same scandalous grace of Jesus?
Could we be seen with those that have been pushed to the side?
Could we show love and friendship to those that ‘religious institutions’ have labeled unfit or sinner?
Could we, Like Dee, Show the radical way of Jesus.
Jesus, friend of sinners, misfits, outlaws, and scoundrels. Help us to be so loving that even the very religious and powerful are shaken from their idolatry. Wake us all to love that is so radical. Wake us all to love that shows up in practical ways. Wake us up to being present with one another.
And help us to have hope, a hope in a radical Kingdom where we do not yet know what we will be, but we know we are changing from Glory to Glory.
We’d argue passionately at times about our distinctive visions of spirituality and social issues, though our interactions took on a sweeter tone, I believe, in her final year.
And despite our differences, she set an example for me, early on, of unconditional presence and hospitality. When she invited someone over for a meal or a place to stay, she didn’t screen their lifestyles or beliefs.
Finally in her memorial our moment came, to name together what we trust to be true:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, We commend your servant, Dee (my mom).
And we commit her ashes to their resting place.
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Acknowledge, we humbly ask You,
a sheep of your own fold,
a lamb of your own flock,
a sinner of your own redeeming.
Receive Dee into the arms of Your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints of light.
And as you receive Dee into the arms of Your mercy,
Receive us also, and raise us into a new life.
Help us so to love, serve and reflect You in this world
that we may enter into Your joy in the world to come.
For all of you grieving the loss of someone you love — whether this loss occurred last week, last year, or decades ago — I hope you find some comfort in these words, too. I hope you have the courage to tell the truth about your loved one: the good, the bad, and the complex. And that you don’t break faith with the full spectrum of your feeling, from mourning to dancing.
Rest in peace, mom. Rise in glory.
I can only hope to breathe more life into your legacy.
PS: If you’d like to watch my mom’s memorial gathering, it will be up here for a little while. And if you’d like to contribute to her memorial fund or read her full obituary, you may do so here. We really appreciate everyone who has already contributed, and thanks to some compassionate lawmakers, there is now Federal reimbursement for many COVID-related funeral expenses. Because of this welcome development, we’ve reduced our goal considerably, but not all expenses are eligible. Whether you feel compelled to give or not, I’m deeply grateful for the outpouring of love you’ve shown me and my family during this trying time.
The best of motherhood raises similar sentiments universally. In the rightful sense of the term, that woman is mother who most cooperates with God in being the source and nurturer of life. Yet I wonder how common it is for adult children to eventually see their mothers (and the feminine) as the primary way their Maker initially made itself present to them. Perhaps that explains why even the bravest of soldiers who lay dying on the battlefield are given to cry out for their mothers. Having embraced her, and God in her in their very first breath, unawares, they are doing the same in their very last breath as well. In reality, there is no two-ness, no “God and,” especially when it comes to mothers. There is only “God appearing as” mother, each seamlessly co-present to the other, and all those who bask in their tender loving care.
Divinity always has its druthers,
appearing most in the form of mothers;
tending to her brood with uncanny devotion,
committed to caring with every motion;
single-minded in purpose and goal,
nurturing and training, making you whole;
faithfully riveted to crib and cradle,
skilled at setting a wholesome table;
sending you off to worship and school,
teaching you the golden rule;
there when you passed, and when you failed,
at your bedside when you ailed;
warmly receptive in embracing you,
when friends are many, when friends are few;
always there with your birthday cake,
there to give but never take;
spanking your bottom, mending your britches,
holding your hand while getting stitches;
taking your side against your dad
whenever you goofed, and he got too mad;
there to wash your dirty clothes,
there to stop a bloody nose;
ready to offer wise direction,
comforting when you’re scared and fearful,
there with a hug, ever so cheerful;
managing to have her way with you,
her quiet example sticking like glue;
upholding you in fervent prayer,
ever present, ever there;
with unspeakable grace and serenity,
forming your deeper identity;
the spirit and marrow of every dwelling,
a presence so vital and compelling;
steadfastly loyal at sickbed and tomb,
a holy guardian of the fruit of her womb;
at your side more than any other,
God appearing in the form of a mother.
Joe Masterleo, 2003
This is so affirming to me, a mother, grandmother and great grandmother. I’ve seen the image of God so clearly in the young ones I’ve loved and cared for but never have I thought of myself as representing God in their lives. Can this really be true?