I was standing behind her at her dad’s funeral, a respectful distance from her–not in her personal space, but within earshot. This is what pastors call “the ministry of presence”–being quiet but visible, being close to the grief but not in it, except for the way we are all in it, on account of feeling the emotion and the hearts and the stories in the room.
The ministry of presence is a strange ribbon of the life of the pastor. It’s being present in the extremes. It means presence in the celebrations–engagements, weddings, births. Presence in the chaos–tragic death, children spiraling out of control, shocking diagnoses. It’s also the grief. Hospitals. Funerals. Graves.
And so I was standing behind her watching the well-wishers approach. There were some who were brilliant. The facial expression told me that they knew her well and they folded her into an embrace. She came to life, too, with those, like a statue who had spirit breathed into it, her shoulders lifting, her countenance shifted, her words coming fast and spirited. She held onto those few, despite the line stretching out beyond her, the many who had come to say goodbye.
But most were not like that. Most were hesitant and a bit nervous, probably because they had never approached a young teenager whose dad is suddenly gone. No one rehearses for that moment, so maybe the clasped hands and frozen expressions betray the racing thoughts from the grown-ups who don’t know what to say. And then one approached and patted her hand and said, Don’t Worry and my breath caught up in my throat a little bit when she finished everything happens for a reason.
And then I was angry, because I have this mama lion thing in me that wants to protect the young and the vulnerable and I wanted to step in front of the teenager and say I’m sorry we are done receiving people and I wanted to hold her and tell her don’t listen to that. Do not listen to that today. There is no reason right now.
In the months following I’ve thought often of that moment. I’ve thought of the awkward exchange, the power imbalance between the one on the cusp of adulthood facing a tragedy like most do not, and the older, who’s supposed to be wiser, scraping the bottom of her own heart to come up with something to say, and then saying what she did.
I’m hopeful that the warm embraces and the shared tears are the memories she holds. I’m hopeful that as the shock of it all starts to wear thin, and reality begins to crack through, I’m hopeful that she’ll just forget about that one line.
Because things happen that do not feel like they have a reason. Things happen that do not feel reasonable. They happen to all of us. Some are great and tragic, some are small and painful. Some shift the arc of our life. Some shift the arc of our day. But all of it–all those changes–demand from us. They dig into the deeper stuff in us and ask us to consider what makes up a life and who is really in charge.
Today I look over the mountains on a cool and cloudy day in South Africa. After months of planning, we are all here–my husband, my kids. We are adjusting in each of our little ways–to our house on the hill with bars on the windows and doors. Driving on the other side of the road. Handling different money. My littlest is sick–wracked with nausea all day and now sleeping fitfully with a fever. The hammock swings empty.
We are all realizing in our own way that we are fabulous at expectations but not so good at adjustments. And somehow this morning that funeral comes to mind.
I am starting to think that asking the questions of what makes up a life and who is really in charge matter just as much on this unexpected day on vacation as they do on that unexpected day of a funeral. That adjusting is an art, and it’s learned in the little ways. It means that today I can sit here on this quiet porch and decide life is in the adjustments and God is truly in charge.
It means that although I do not think everything happens for a reason, in that plastic way I heard that day at the funeral, I do think that everything can become meaningful.
Reasonable and meaningful are not the same thing. One speaks of rationality, the other of redemption. One depends on control, the ways we fool ourselves into believing that we can set a course and stick to it, that if we do A and B, we can expect C. And that doesn’t work, in death or in life. And it creates resentment and anger and disappointment. It means that I could ruin this perfectly beautiful day, or month, or life by deciding it’s not the day or month or life that I wanted. I’m good at doing that. Maybe we all are.
And so, despite how terrible I am at expectations and how rigid I can be in change, today I embrace the unexpected day and the meaningful life. Meaningful wins over rational, every single day.