Sunday I was honored to be part of the worship team for the service at a funeral. My friends’ mom had died and we gathered in the church to do what no one is ever meant to do, reckon with death.
Hundreds of people came to honor Katie’s life and sitting in the opening moments of the service, hoping I wouldn’t cry in front of everyone, I flashed back to the day when Katie’s son and daughter and I first played a worship service together. There weren’t any words for the grief today, and there weren’t any words that first Sunday either, for actual fright. My heart knocked out of my chest, I was breathless, and shook like a leaf of a wintry fall day. Talking was difficult. This was a scenario to play out many more times, when we would get up there and I would wonder if today the stage fright would take me out. For a long time I assumed this fear would rule the rest of my days. It was so much bigger than I. And yet, no one removed me from the worship, even though I was clearly bad at getting up in front of people and not getting over that anytime soon.
Now today, in a few moments, we would have to sing in the face of grief and the faces of many more people. It was a strange mixture of grief and exhilaration of knowing heaven would draw near, and recognizing that the fear was almost entirely gone.
I’ve come to love deeply the people at my church, and have been given the unique opportunity of helping to build a worship team from scratch. It has been one of the more incredible experiences of my life so far, because we’ve laughed more than we probably should, become solid friends, and most of all, sung through difficult times. From before my time here until now, the church has been rocked by a tragic drowning, a tragic shooting, loss of little babies, a pastor’s sexual abuse of vulnerable women that came under his protection, cancer, dramas, and the death of several moms in recent years. Now Katie.
Katie’s funeral came Sunday and it’s not like experience of traumas has made death any easier to navigate, but the level of love and care and knowing my people displayed to take care of the family and details wrecked me in a way I don’t want to recover from.
The opening remarks for the service over we slipped onto stage as our pastor prayed, and as we started to sing the thickness between earth and heaven began to wear thin. It was a little unreal to me, how much it felt like any second I’d see Katie’s encouraging face in the audience. A few times, it seemed so when catching a glimpse of her twin sister.
We’re glad for Katie. She’s suffered for going on a decade with her illnesses and has won her race, her rest. Through everything she faced, she carried a life given over to loving people as well as she could in the midst of weakness. She loved, and was loved. There’s no way to replace her role as wife, mom and friend; she had her husband, 10 children, lots of grand kids, and she was always wishing she could do more for everyone. She worked her way through many piles of laundry, dishes, messes, countless meals, mistakes, failures, and in worldly terms wasn’t a career gal.
There are moments when life becomes clear and we see exactly what matters in life and what doesn’t. Death is one of those times, and is perhaps the best clarity of all.
That’s what got me. I didn’t know Katie well, but there’s something in her smile that has always stopped me. Something brave and really genuine. From the bits of life visible to me through her kids I see a kind of true love… and an idea of the way she didn’t settle. When we hear “don’t settle” we usually think of marrying the person who will help us become the best, be friends with the right people, be wealthier, have a successful career, achieve great things and prove our worth. That’s not what I mean. I mean Katie seemed like the person who knows we don’t build our worth through other people, but through the value of sacrifice. That when you truly love people, sometimes you have to love first.
It’s in this laying down of ourselves that we truly live.
The 600+ people singing in harmony was like heaven, for awhile I thought we might actually be there. It’s glorious. In a vivid way the music and service Sunday felt like the most beautiful “well done” moment. Like a graduation. It felt like a personal moment for me too, remembering all the fear I’ve fought through to sing publicly.
Afterward someone told me that I belonged on stage. That seemed laughable, given how history has gone down. Finding a talent is a strange mixture of discovering one streak of gold and 20 years of mining through darkness for its depth.
Don’t neglect this talent.
Despite the triumph all I can think about afterward, is how the beauty of Katie’s life was framed in the clear evidence of love; it was a love undeniable to anyone there Sunday. It was as if death was the final fire for Katie’s life, a life not so very different from the everyday mundanity and trial and misunderstandings that plague the rest of us, too. In this final burning up of what we are, who we are truly shines out. I couldn’t stop thinking about how death is the merciful closing to the chapters we can’t understand… what we just don’t know. It’s also deeply sad, for the rest of us who have one more thing to not understand, and who have got to keep on living the tension between loving and doing.
How do we become in excellent in what we do, without sacrificing who we are?
Talents and skills and education are a vehicle for how we love and it would be a mistake to simply do and be nothing because we don’t want to mess it up. The Bible actually talks against that pretty harshly. We have to take the talents we are given and build them into excellence and mastery. In the end, we recognize all these things will be burned with a fire that will show if love was actually at the center of them or not.
In the end, if we have not love, it’s all a clashing cymbal. An empty skill. It doesn’t matter if it draws admiration, praise or validation. If we live for our talents, we will die by our talents. If we build our talents from a heart that loves and is loved, the work we do will stand up to the fire.
I owe this present clarity to Katie, but even so I’m pretty positive she wouldn’t want us to put her on a pedestal, even now. She would want everyone to know that love was a hard struggle, it takes a lifetime of work, and to know the most effective way to love, the most understanding way, is to know God. To know what love means, we have to know where it comes from. We have to know what is meant by it, and have that backed by actions. We have to know love is not just a word flung out in the universe, but that God Is love and he loved us first. He is our beginning and end.
Sunday was a weird shifting of reality to me. One was the reality of death and while it felt real, also felt like there was something much bigger and more powerful at play. It is said best in Katie’s own words, written a little while before her death when she couldn’t speak:
“I’ll be a winner either way… I love you.”
She didn’t, and none of us, get a free pass from darkness in our lifetimes. In a way, the clarity of our life won’t be as visible until we die, when death closes the door on the reality we choose to accept, and have taken upon faith. Either that God is real and good and is Love, or that pain and misunderstanding and struggle is the permanent reality.
Katie knows. I won’t trivialize the struggle of her life, and won’t trivialize the fear in mine. But Sunday I stood in the face of something way bigger than me: death and love. Love won. Katie won because she put her reality in the hands of Love instead of cancer and her auto-immune illness. She won because she knew that after everything the struggle won’t have the last word. Love does.
Sunday is etched into my gallery wall of memory. Because I saw on a stage of life just how small death is next to love.
We sang for love.
For God, because he loved us first.
The reality we decide to accept.
The greatest of these is love.
"So death, tell me, where is your victory?
Tell me death, where is your sting?"
Photo up top by Michael Brubaker, used with permission. Link is through Amazon Associates, and affiliate program. I may be recompensed for use of this program.