I’ve reached that stage each generation finally reaches of beginning to lose the preceding generation. Increasingly I attend funerals of my friends’ loved ones. Last month the service was for my own mother. After several funerals of my friends’ loved ones I learned how traumatized my friends had been by the gap between the glowing eulogies and the real-life shadows of the departed ones. This has me wrestling again with a reality that has troubled me since boyhood: The way we talk about the Christian walk is often fiction.
Maybe my family and I are just messier than the norm. Maybe everyone else is bewilderedly whispering, “Say what?” to my strange take on public affirmations of how wonderfully the Lord guides and blesses. Maybe your family doesn’t have hidden shadows. I do suspect there are those for whom the rift is narrower, and I don’t want to minimize or undercut for them their blessings.
But when my mother died I felt again the importance of this issue. How would we celebrate my mom without crafting a fantasy instead of telling the truth about her?
My mother was in her way a giant. She gave me many of my life’s resources and gifts. I can’t imagine having become writer, pastor, dean, ever fascinated with God, theology, and the meaning of life had it not been for the endless hours I spent as a teenager hanging as over the counter while she cooked.
I was always full of questions about everything, including whether there was really a God and whether the Bible was really true. So on and on I’d go, pushing my skeptic’s agenda while she defended (often amazingly well) the faith. And sometimes hinted that she found my questions a tad intriguing herself. To her final days, when introducing me to people she’d report one of her favorite things about us: We were really good arguers! When she was dying I told her I couldn’t have been a dean without her sharpening my mind. She couldn’t talk any more. But she smiled.
In her final months, precisely the wild spirit that made her a wonderful intellectual sparring partner turned things difficult for her and many, including the staff at her retirement community. Parkinson’s stole her peace of mind and mobility. After she died I looked for ways to thank staff for hanging in—and was blessed by Valda Weider Garber, head nurse overseeing the staff. She phoned to offer words of healing. She told me those final weeks had reminded her of “Better than a Hallelujah?” a song by Sara Hart and Chapin Hartford recently made popular by Amy Grant’s cover. Particularly she was reminded of the line, “Beautiful the mess we are.” The line went straight into my bruised heart. When I e-mailed Valda to thank her, she sent me back this paragraph:
I sang that song in church. . . . Faces were somber, some relieved. I mentioned prior to singing the song that we, as Brethren by denomination and Christian by belief, have long suffered in silence when life happens, not wanting to question God’s almighty will or ability to know what is best for us. Questioning “why” somehow is equated with non-belief, or at minimum, questioning the will of God. However, in my own life experience, I have learned that God wants me to question, to cry, to ask why, and through that process, receive his grace and ultimately his blessing. The Bible is full of individuals who were messes (David, Saul who became Paul, the woman at the well); individuals whom God used in spite of their messy lives. We are all messes in some way. We fail miserably. But God still sees us as beautiful.
In the midst of that interchange, I was getting ready to give a committee meeting devotional and a summary of my vision as new dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary. One thing I’d been doing as dean was developing a few areas of emphasis for me to keep in view for EMS. It hit me that there was an area I hadn’t thought to add to my EMS themes but have long been passionate about; I’ve called it “transforming the shadows” and describe it as—
fostering through the content of studies, and the spirit within which seminary life unfolds, a fierce love for the church that is able to celebrate that the church is the real body of Christ and also is ever shadowed by failures and fallibilities; shadows named rather than suppressed can become, through the saving grace of God in Christ, sources of transformation grounded in authenticity rather than unacknowledged subversion of stated values and commitments (Luke 7:36-50).
When at the end of the week we held the memorial service for my mother, this guided my thinking about what to say in my tribute to her. And though I hadn’t shared it with other family members, they too seemed to be operating from their version of it. Together we found ways to tell the truth about my mom, about how her wild self could be both a challenge and a wonder, about how she helped us grasp that though none of us are saints, through the grace of God in Christ the messes we are can be made beautiful.
So I dedicate my “transforming the shadows” theme to my mother, Betty Detweiler King, who helped me both to see the shadows and to trust that God can transform them into gifts of beauty.