One of the downsides of making such friends- the same downside that comes with working for or belonging to any congregation- is that I find myself mourning with or for such friends.
A friend of this blog recently lost her young son in a car accident. Her brother is a real-life, flesh-and-blood friend of mine, whose faith I admire- though his character is such he’d insist it should be the other way ’round.
Her brother, my friend, ‘Ben’s Uncle,’ wrote this reflection about his nephew’s funeral service. It’s a beautiful (made me weep) testimony to grace and our ultimate hope.
Mike had the grace to share it with me and the trust to let me share it with you. If you do me any favors in the back end of ’13, let it be this:
Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God—the Lord, the God of their ancestors—even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people. 2 Chronicles 30:18-20
The Gathering Place in the church was bright—lots of windows. There was a beautiful arrangement of flowers prominently displayed, sent from out of town, and bearing the condolences of family in a distant location. The mood was subdued—not somber—just subdued. The immediate family had gathered, and then the friends began to arrive—two groups of friends. The friends of the family tended to be older—though not exclusively so. Many had known Ben as he was growing up.
Many were members of the church where Ben’s parents were long-time members. Some were members at the church where Ben’s grandparents were members and where Ben had participated in youth activities. The other group—Ben’s friends—seemed youngish to me. But then most people seem youngish to me these days.
My sense was that they were vaguely ill at ease, worried about being out of place in an unfamiliar environment, wondering, perhaps, how the Ben they knew fit in with these family friends who were right at home in church. As you would expect, the two groups tended to cluster with their own in the large, open room: the respectable, pillar-of-the-community folks in small groups; and small groups of 21st century James Dean types, both men and women. They were all well dressed for this memorial service for someone they all knew and loved. But peeking out from under the sleeves or above the necklines of the young friends was a moving gallery of art. And some of the ink wasn’t peeking; it was right out there, expansive, striking even.
I have to admit that I find tattoos off-putting. A long-engrained prejudice. I tried hard not to judge but could hardly help it. As I was standing in the receiving line, a young woman held out her hand to me, and my eyes were immediately drawn to the extensive tattoo on her upper arm and shoulder. But as she said her name—Elise—my eyes snapped to hers. I knew the name, but not the person.
Just a few days earlier, Elise had gone to the place where her friend, Ben had been killed. She went looking—looking for a license plate that she hoped had survived the crash. She knew that little piece of metal had special meaning for Ben—and for Ben’s grandfather. After a long search, and as she was about to give up, she looked down at her feet, and there it was. She took it away with her, framed it, and gave it to Ben’s grandfather. The awkwardness of the moment, there in the line, faded. We hugged each other, and she moved down the line.
We spent an hour and a half in the Gathering Place, but it was that few seconds with Elise that I was thinking of when the doors of the sanctuary opened up, and the family went in to take our seats. Those few seconds are prominent in my thinking now, weeks later. The sanctuary was packed—about evenly split between the two groups.
We sat and listened to a wonderful service—beautiful music, readings from scripture, words of comfort and assurance from the pastors. All the while, the two groups sat behind us—each person, no doubt, with their own thoughts of Ben. With their own thoughts of what it meant to be in that place—a place of worship.
Looking back now, I marvel at these two groups, mingled in the pews. The “good” people and the “maybe not so good” people. The establishment people, easy to spot in their manicured neatness. And the renegades, a little rough around the edges and sporting a bunch of body art. But every one of them was there to remember Ben.
And Elise has become something of an emblem of that day for me.
I don’t know her.
I don’t know what kind of life she lives.
I do know that I judged her when I saw her in that receiving line—once in the negative, and seconds later, very differently.
What a heart! What a sense of kindness and love!
I very nearly didn’t see that. It was hidden to my eyes, hidden behind some ink.
And if her goodness was hidden to me, surely everyone in that room—including me—was concealed by some form of camouflage.
But we serve a God who sees through it all—the first time. A God who knows full well who he created us to be. And a God who has promised to finish the good work he started in us. My prayer is that every time we open our eyes, we will see people though his eyes.
That’s our best hope.
For Ben, who was at home with everyone in those pews….
“Because I don’t have to be the old man inside of me;
His day is long dead and gone….” Redeemed