Birthdays are about celebrating life. I spent my 23rd birthday largely at the viewing of a 21 year old woman, trying to be whatever support I could be to my friends, (her best friends, her brothers) who for the past three months have pulled me (or allowed me to worm my way) into their warm-dancy-Christ-praising embrace. She had been sick and bed-ridden since June, every medical test in the world done and found inconclusive, and despite “prophets” proclaiming that God would heal her (among other things), ultimately the weight of living with pain, unable to walk or talk became too much and she let go.
I’ve been hearing about this young woman since I first got to know my friends here—someone from the young-adult group was constantly present with her in her hospital room or more recently at home. I remember being impressed when someone would skip out on the night’s plan to go be with their friend in need. It shouldn’t be impressive, it should be as natural as breathing, but in the culture I’m from it’s impressive. Nevertheless, I’ve known of this young woman for a long time, and only recently stated that I would very much like to meet her. Everything I heard led me to believe she was an extremely outgoing, happy and energetic woman; someone who always made the plans and got people to follow along. But I never got to meet her; by the time I saw her she was in a coffin, still beautiful, but thin as a rail, her hair cut short from (I presume) medical tests.
My first choice on Friday night was whether to stay or go. Plan birthday was obviously over, everyone was heading towards the pastor’s house to offer moral support and condolences— where did I belong? I thought of the concept of “insider/outsiders” we talked about as a program in relation to our communities as particularly appropriate. I’d never met the parents, never met her, and yet all I knew was I weighed these factors in my mind, alone in my friends’ apartment, was that the minute I heard the news, saw the tears in my friends eyes, all I wanted was to be with the people I loved who were in pain and simply let them see that I see their pain and let them see it reflected in me. Seeing the tears in my friends eyes, hearing the young woman’s brother sobbing, seeing her best friend leaning her whole body along the casket to whisper as close to her deceased friends’ ear as the glass would allow—broke me wide open. We stayed at the viewing till 3am, a bunch of us spending the night at my friends’ apartment only to wake up at 8:30am as some of us readied for a quiet day of remembering at home and others prepared for the 10 hour bus ride to the coast where she wanted to be buried and where effectively half the church was no caravanning to.
Saturday I took naps, read, went running, watched half of “Mona Lisa Smile”, and watched videos of the young woman a year ago leading church groups in singing, dancing, teasing. I had no desire to go back to my empty apartment and as evening wore on three other church-girls came over to my friends’ apartment and we all sat around for a while, tried to call our friends still on the road (no signal) and finally watched a movie. The funeral was at 3pm today.
We talk a lot about accompaniment as part of our job here. In some ways just living here, hearing the bullet-shots outside at night, listening to my neighbor’s chit-chat, being here when global events have local consequences, are all part of that accompaniment. But this weekend was different. This weekend I experienced accompaniment in a way I haven’t before—and it’s hard to say where it began or ended. I felt I was accompanying my friends, but they were also accompanying me. It was like a giant bear-hug slathered in tears with the family of the deceased at its center…and God was everywhere.
I’m not comfortable with a theology that says it was God’s will for this young woman to die. I’m not comfortable with it, and yet that is precisely the assumption and assertion I heard many times over the last two days and it was not my place or time to question that point. What was the point, and what was beautiful for me to see, was how healthy and hopeful a grieving process the entire family started on. There was no shame in tears, in saying that yes, they needed these people around. The edge of tragedy was shaved off of the natural sadness of losing a loved one because everyone was so deeply convinced that no matter how hard it is for them, their daughter/sister/friend has joined with God’s angels in heaven and is freed in a way we have yet to understand.
A major currency in my theological circles have been doubts—we trade them, accept them, hold them, knead them into meaning. Having this freedom to doubt has allowed me to reclaim my faith, to hold it lightly, to breathe within it. And yet what I was reminded of this weekend is that sometimes certainty, or at least a holding-faith, is even more beautiful than honest doubt. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating fake-faith or blind certainty, but I am saying that seeing so many people blessed with such an abiding and secure faith was another form of release, another way to breathe. Above all, I was moved by how, in a moment of deep hurt, the Body of Christ truly took shape, worked as one, hand-wiping-cheek, legs-moving-feet, etc. They were just all there, all available, all loving, all present and I was honored to be allowed to be present too.
Birthdays are supposed to be about celebrating life and the truth is, we did. We mourned death, but we also continually asserted the life that is beyond death, and the life that is between all of us where there is love.