I arrived at the church to make sure things were ready for the couple. They were meeting a photographer early for pictures. The wedding would be an intimate affair in the chancel area of our sanctuary. A grand occasion of a wedding had been planned for later that winter but COVID regulations made it clear that any gathering would have to be very small. With great regret, they gave up on much of the desired fanfare and decided on an evening celebration just with family. When I planned the ceremony with them, I reminded them that this would be their wedding day, albeit much changed in external details. I urged them to shape it with significant details that would give them joy. I was delighted to see the bride, Eleanor, alight from her car wearing a beautiful white gown. The groom donned a handsome suit. Even as COVID kept our communities apart, there would be pictures of a December wedding on a sparkling winter night.
This was a meaningful ceremony for me. The bride’s family joined the church the same year that I was called to serve as pastor. The search committee told me they wanted to grow and needed young families. They were among the first families to join. I visited in their home and met two darling daughters. I commented to the mother about the different gene pools from which her girls drew their DNA. The elder had dark brown eyes and hair, like her papa. Eleanor was fair like her mother, with blonde hair and blue sparkling eyes. She was sweet and shy and seemed most at ease in the embrace of her mom, Sarah. Sarah responded that she didn’t know why God had blessed her with such beautiful children. She meant those words. The dad, Steve, seemed quietly proud of his life as a family man and provider.
Sarah developed cancer several years into her membership in the church. Sometimes her treatments were so destabilizing that she couldn’t drive so church folks picked her up for Bible Study. She seemed to gracefully accept the help of others as she battled a disease that didn’t seem to abate. When we talked about her life-limiting diagnosis, she described her faith journey as a free fall. She couldn’t stop the fall but she trusted God would never let her hit the ground. Wow. Who’s the pastor here?
Early one winter morning I received a call from the Sheriff’s office. I was needed at the home of a member. A woman named Eleanor had succumbed to cancer after a valiant battle. She left behind her beloved husband and children. I made my way to their home where I hugged the husband and wept with him. Two little girls huddled together on the couch, awaiting the arrival of the mortician who would remove their mama from the home she loved…and from their lives.
This was a gut-wrenching loss for me. I gave birth to my fourth child about that time and could not imagine being robbed of the privilege of raising my little ones. I anguished to think of my husband left alone to tend to their needs. At the funeral, we celebrated her life with family members whose faces were pained with grief. I managed to lead the casket to the hearse before fleeing in my clergy robe to weep in the privacy of my office. How could this be? What would become of these children? In whom would this quiet man confide in the dark of night when life’s fears encroached and the needs of his daughters seemed beyond his ken?
The family drifted from the church after a couple of years. I suspect we became a repository of corporate grief for them as our congregants persisted in carrying a deep sadness for the three of them. Occasionally I saw him at the grocery store, always with his children by his side. He remained single and carried a sadness even when he smiled. Or did I just sense the sadness because that’s what I felt?
Several years ago I received a call from the funeral home about a service. A young woman had died of cancer and the family had asked for me. When the undertaker told me the name I exclaimed aloud. Who? How? When? The mortician patiently answered my questions, waiting for me to tell him if I would officiate at the service. I said I would. He gave me the phone number so that I could call the young woman’s father. It was the widower who had lost his first-born daughter to a rare cancer that took her quickly. Once again, I found myself meeting with the family, hugging a bereft father who held himself together remarkably well. But Eleanor cried in my arms and I wept with her. I remembered what she told me at the time of her mother’s death when she was eight years old: I’m going to miss my mommy’s hugs. So I hugged this young woman who grieved the death of her only sibling and stood closely by her father to give him strength.
I carried these memories with me into the church on that snowy wedding night. I wept with my husband at home that day, hoping that my tears at our table would enable me to stay emotionally stable during the service. As I entered my office, I tried to think of anything that might have Sarah’s touch on it. Eleanor’s mother died so long before that I could think of nothing. In looking over my notes for the service I wondered if I had baptized Eleanor. I opened my pastor log and saw that I had! Hers was my first baptism at the church. Shortly after my arrival I had the privilege of anointing this two-month-old baby girl in the power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The chancel where Eleanor would be married that night was the same place where her mother, father, and sister had stood as she was welcomed into the embrace of Christ’s Church. God gave me that gift when I was looking for something tangible to present to this bride. This was news I would share in the intimacy of the wedding ceremony.
The bride arrived with her father and maid-of-honor. They brought candles and flowers to arrange in the front of the sanctuary, representing the presence of the mother and sister. They would light those candles near the beginning of the service at my invitation. Also on the table was her mother’s Bible, out of which a cousin would read Paul’s words about love, a sermon he addressed to the Corinthian believers.
I was aware as I started the liturgy that I felt the emotional weight of the occasion. Just a couple of minutes into the service I acknowledged that there was more to our reality than what we see. Our faith assures us that the great cloud of witnesses joins us in these human celebrations. Eleanor and her fiance, Trevor, would light the candles on the altar in honor of her mother and sister. Those were the words I tried to say but they were interrupted by a wave of emotion that prevented me from being able to speak. Finally, with a broken voice, I invited them to light the candles—which they did. The tears released my sadness so that I could continue with the service as planned, even when I spoke of a baptism that happened in that same space for their family years before. I was able to affirm the appropriate re-entry of her mother’s Bible into a sanctuary where she had once held it in her lap in the company her precious family. I appreciated the full-circle significance to the mystery of two lives becoming one on this cold winter’s night. Christmas lights twinkled outside and the incarnation seemed very real in that sacred space. The bride initiated hugs with me twice after the service and I hugged her for her mother. I hugged the graying father who stood with quiet pride alongside of his daughter during the ceremony. After extinguishing the candles and shutting off the lights, I drove home on a sparkly night, crying out to Jesus.
Why was I still grieving the death of that mother? Her departure from this earth and her family seemed so unfair. Was this young mother shocked to find herself enfolded in the bosom of Abraham? Did she desperately search for a way to get back to her elementary school-aged daughters? In a celestial panic, did she assure St. Peter that there had to be some terrible mistake? As she looked in on her sweet family through a telescoping vortex, did she let loose the silent screams of our dreams? Or was she able to flit faithfully among the departed souls, in timeless bliss, knowing that her children would grow in their father’s care without her? Did she have more unfinished business than other saints, trying to part the clouds to glimpse human life lived on a hard planet that sometimes delivers unyielding pain? I wonder if she wished she had the time to teach her girls to tie their shoes and ride a bike. Can we offer virtual hugs from heaven?
The question that gnawed at me cut to the core of Sarah’s free fall theology. Did God fail her in her belief that she would never hit that ground and be taken?
I don’t often question God. I am normally comfortably tethered to a theology of eternal life that assures me that all is well. I trust in an afterlife more beautiful than we can imagine, more peaceful than we’ve ever known. I preach about God’s goodness even if life isn’t fair. But I haven’t had peace about Sarah’s death 20 years ago because two small children and a good man were left behind without the mother and wife who made their house a home. I might have been able to let God off the hook if the elder daughter had not then been stripped from her father’s arms in her early twenties. Her death ripped the crusty bandage off my heart and I stomped my way into God’s presence once again, waving my fist at the Holy of Holies.
Ministering to this family of two, any trite assurances of eternal well-being only added to the sting of untimely death. How could you do this, God of mercy? No wonder this family drifted from the Church! Why does a young bride have to light two candles on the altar of her wedding to invoke the ethereal presence of her mother and sister? As a mother, I grieved for Sarah who was not able to pick out a wedding dress with her daughter or support her husband in the devastating loss of their child. The beautiful trust in Sarah’s free fall theology was mocked.
I came home and continued to weep with my husband. I carried deep grief for this family. Had I whispered “I’m sorry” to this family in so many tender embraces that I did not know how to be joyful with them? Had they possibly fared much better in the grief journey than I? Were my tears disruptive to their wedding celebration?
I found myself lying in bed at night thinking about those tears. I had hoped I would be able to get through that service without crying. But the tears were authentic. I wept for the mother who could not raise her children. I shed tears for the husband who stood alone with his daughter at the altar. I grieved for the beautiful bride whose mother looks back at her from the mirror whether she realizes it or not. I wept that a brown-eyed daughter who so resembled her father would never marry and bring home a brown-eyed baby from the hospital to hand off to her father with quiet pride.
In the dark of night, I wondered if I am crying for my 39-year-old self who lost her mother to cancer much earlier than she or the mother imagined? Was I flashing back to a moment of pushing my mother in a wheelchair through the Cleveland Clinic, knowing her energy and life were ebbing away? Was I remembering when I had to look up the word “palliative” to understand the hospital ward that housed my parents in their last days? Was I grieving the absence of a father who would have been so proud of the ministry work I have been doing? Is it enough to have my parents’ gifts part of the arsenal of personal attributes I use on a daily basis to spread God’s love? Is it enough to have the memories? Or do I, like little Eleanor, still miss my mama’s hugs?
Lying in the frozen silence of a winter night, my mind moved back to my tears. I felt embarrassed. I think of the words to an Annie Dillard poem I read in seminary. Even though my capacity for theological illumination was fairly dim at that early stage in my ministry, I remember the poem clearly. Dillard wrote about a worship experience at an unpretentious congregation on an island where she would spend her summers. One Sunday she took note of the soloist, “a hulking blond girl with chopped hair and big shoulders, who wore tinted spectacles and a long lacy dress, and sang, grinning, to faltering accompaniment, a totally secular song about mountains. Nothing could have been more apparent than that God loved this girl; nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.”
In the dark of night, I fell into God’s grace. What I viewed as ugly tears reflected God’s compassion. I borrowed Sarah’s free fall theology and told God that we did pretty good work together that evening. My tears were real. I wept for the past and the changed course of the present moment. I wept for joy that our church could offer genuine hospitality to this family after such a long absence from our building. My tears came from a heart that has been inclined toward this disrupted family for decades. They felt my love and that was evident in their response to me after the ceremony. No one mentioned the tears or reacted negatively to them.
In church we gladly carry each other’s burdens. We dare to hope for the best possible outcome for others and support one another when it feels like God has abandoned us. We accept each other when we are railing at God. When we feel like we are snuggled into Father Abraham’s lap, alongside the panoply of saints who smile among us, we offer that sense of security to others. We have this precious community called “Church.” With all our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and joys, we celebrate that we are in this free fall together! Moments of doubt are allowed to rock my faith. God invites me to express my anger. Jesus tenderly holds me when I weep for a fallen world where death rocks our faith. What matters is that we support each other on the journey. What allows us to survive our sorrow is trusting that Christ carries our burdens. What this small family will remember is a beautiful expression of love courageously voiced in marriage vows on a quiet winter night. In the embrace of a familiar sanctuary, their commitment to each other was yet another miracle of God’s love melding two lives together as one–while a mother and sister cheered from another shore.
All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh.