Another Christmas in the books; 2014 is inching to a close, and the house is a mess and the kids are swirling all around me and I can’t keep up.
We had a funeral this morning, the church peeling back the trappings of celebration and the holiday shine, making space to honor a woman of faith and integrity. Her family crowded into the room, spacious and dim, carrying one another’s grief, pushing through that cloud of days that hang between Christmas and New Year’s with a sad purpose.
I came in early. We stood together, the two pastors and me, also a pastor, in that oddly shaped place where we thrum just outside the circle of grief, but yet fully inhabit a deep sense of mourning and loss. My friend tells me that as a pastor, at most and at best, we represent the presence of God.
I was there to provide music, and so I made my way to the piano. Just last night my fingers had flown all over the keys, swilling and storming joy and praise and even the deep, resonant blue-tinged search for Emmylou’s Deeper Well. Surrounded by musicians of the highest caliber, last night’s offering was poured out in exuberant joy.
Just five nights ago, we’d spent the better part of a day taking thousands of people through a joyous, poignant exercise in faith and story and tradition. The Christmas Eve service wove its way through angels and Mary and Joseph and belief, settling down at the end with an emphatic O come let us adore Him! and the gentle, candle-lit harmonies of Silent Night.
And then today, I sat at the piano in a dimly-lit room of visceral silence. Flowers circled the casket. Empty chairs waited for the collection of family, friends, mourners.
In my head and my heart reside the text and scores of hymns, the songs we grow up with when we grow up in church. The old songs; the four verses, the refrain, the four-part structure.
I sat at the piano and resurrected those melodies, the ones filled with sorrow and hope, the ones that give us this definitive sense of place and space and time. The ones that remind us of what was, and what will be, and the many have gone before us, walking this well-worn road.
One of the pastors quoted the 23rd Psalm.
though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil
“Not that we do not fear death,” he said. “We fear no evil. We believe that although evil tries to snatch us and take us, even at that last moment, Jesus intervenes. Jesus claims us. We fear no evil.”
“But all of us have healthy fear of death.”
blessed assurance, Jesus is mine
o what a foretaste of glory divine
and when i think that God, his son not sparing
sent him to die, i scarce can take it in
come home, come home
ye who are weary, come home
We all sang Amazing Grace together, and their voices hardly carried; it was more a resignation, more silence than song. There is nothing that feels amazing about a funeral. There is grace, but that song requires energy, to save a wretch like ME, and it was difficult to find such this morning.
But we were there, together, and four verses later that song was sung. The family had asked for another, so that they could simply listen: The Old Rugged Cross, and I can’t manage that song without hearing my own grandmother’s reedy alto, so my own personal grief slipped into an empty cavern in the space of this morning. And there we were.
then he’ll call me some day to my home far away
where his glory forever i’ll share
so i’ll cherish the old rugged cross
till my trophies at last i lay down…
I cobbled together a key that my voice could manage and let the raw yearning take over and I sang, for me and for all of us in the room. For my grandmother and the empty days that hang over the end of December. For the futility, too often, of the bright lights and shiny paper that end up in a heap, in the corner, surrounded by dust and pine needles.
I began this week, one promised to be empty of work, with an offering of what is, really, all I have to give. I lay down my own trophies; I cling to the daily doings that keep me in motion.
I look around in wonder, stumbling in grace, grasping at what needs to be remembered.
It’s over, and things end and begin again and the seasons, they go round and round, until one day we exchange it all. I am soaking all this and more into my skin today, longing for rest and yet grateful that what I often believe I need most, eludes me; and so I sit and watch and wait and remember. I pray, thankfully, gratefully; nothing more than the simplest thing I can find.
I whisper, just under my breath.