Maybe it was because we had just gone through Holy Week, but I can’t get out of my mind a funeral I went to last year, at which the preacher went on and on about how wonderful the woman in the casket had been.
The preacher made her out to be Mother Theresa’s role model, Nancy Reagan’s inspiration and Madeline Albright’s mentor. All of us who had known her—and I want to say loved her—knew the preacher was either outright lying OR had never really known her OR was afraid of telling the truth OR felt like he had to make a plaster cast saint out of a very human being in order to get us through a painful time.
It’s maybe that last one that angered me the most, as if he didn’t trust us, as if he didn’t trust that we had the spiritual resources and relationships we needed to get us through this rough patch in our lives. That he had to create a spiritual Disney fantasy world, because we were unable to face and process reality.
I reacted to his Hallmark clichés with anger, because he wasn’t helped me do my grieving. I had loved her and she had loved me, not like Jesus loves us, of course, but the love we felt was real nevertheless. Our relationship wasn’t perfect. We were both living East of Eden. She had said and done things that were painful for me, and she in turn had never fully recovered from wrongs she perceived I had inflicted on her. She was quite a few years older than I, and that might have had something to do with the dissonance we both felt.
We loved each other partly because we had been placed together as fellow travelers on the road of life, as fate would have it, and we therefore shared many miles on the journey. That alone has the power to make strong bonds, but also each of us knew—although we never said the words to each other–that we were both trying hard to make our relationship work.
That was the very human being, whose loss I needed help in grieving. Whose absence I need help in adapting to. Instead, the preacher held up the portrait of a person I didn’t recognize, whom I wouldn’t miss because I never knew her.
He described her as having great faith, for one thing, as if faith had been her achievement, like she had regularly gone to the spiritual gym had developed a muscular spirituality. If she had any spiritual muscle, it was because she was constantly wrestling with God, challenging God to admit that he hadn’t kept the bargain, hadn’t come through when she really needed him.
The faith she had was born in pain and nurtured with disillusionment. Her faith was real, but it wasn’t achieved. The hope she felt at Easter was the assurance that her Good Fridays would eventually bear the fruit of meaning. She didn’t know that she was saved. Rather she hung on to that promise with an almost desperate trust that dared to believe that such an unverified reality could ultimately prevail. When Jesus sought to assure his disciples that he was really risen, he showed them his wounded hands and feet. She could relate to that.
I had the feeling that the preacher was trying to reassure himself that his fantasy was real more than helping us do our grieving.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a book titled Learning to Walk in the Dark. I wish that preacher had read the book. There’s a time to exclaim “Christ is risen” and a time to cry “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” What I needed at that funeral was a little of both.
I needed to grieve the loss of a dear as well as a flawed friend. I needed to feel both Good Friday and Easter Sunday in my bones. I needed to hear that the birthing process isn’t called labor for nothing. Instead, what I got was all sweetness and light, and it just didn’t ring true.