Honesty and Grace at a Memorial Gathering
By Rev John T. Schwiebert, ThM
To the readers of this on-line newsletter:
Pat and I thank you for honoring our need to express ourselves personally following the recent death of Pat’s mother (my mother-in-law) Josie Mineburg. And thanks especially to you who sent email responses of encouragement, and who confirmed that reading our comments was helpful to you as well.
I share below the remarks I made at the memorial gathering for Josie. I hope these words can perhaps serve as an example for those of you who, at a service of memorial, are wondering how best to honor a person who has died, while also acknowledging what most friends already know—that there were serious and persistent relationship and other problems that remained unresolved at the time of death. My message? That the person who has died is far from perfect (and aren’t we all!) But the grace of God is big enough to embrace us all in our imperfections!
I’m going to preface my remarks by reading a story from the Hebrew Scriptures. At first you may wonder how this story relates to today’s occasion, but be patient and you will see why I was led to read it to you at precisely this time. The story is from Genesis, chapter 32:
The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the [river] Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then [the man] said “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So [the man] said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, But Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But [the man] said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed [Jacob].
Very soon after Josie came to live with us at the Peace House, she decided that I would be her “spiritual advisor.” The fact that she seldom took my spiritual advice did not seem to interfere with her perception that I had been assigned to play this role of spiritual advisor in the remaining years of her life.
Since the door of Josie’s bedroom was only a few steps from my desk, she would frequently plop herself down in the chair next to the place where I was working, and say, “May I ask you a question?” And many of the questions she asked were about her and about God: “Why doesn’t God take me?” “Why doesn’t God let me die, since I am no longer of any use to anyone?” “I can’t see and I can’t hear.” Or, “Do you think God is punishing me for something I’ve done by making me keep on living?”
I tried as best I could to answer Josie’s questions. I told her about God’s infinite love and forgiveness. I presented my understanding of God who knows our every weakness and our many mistakes and loves us unconditionally nevertheless. I told her I didn’t have any answer to why she had to wait so long until death put an end to her boredom and her sense that she had nothing more to offer that really mattered. I reminded her that she could choose to use the time she had left to grow spiritually and perhaps especially to practice forgiving her adoptive parents and her two husbands and anyone else who she believed had done her wrong during her lifetime. I suggested that she review the 12 steps of AA and see if there was not some more work she needed to do while she still had the opportunity.
She seemed reluctant to follow my advice although she did clearly appreciate and enjoy the attention she received during those many conversations.
It wasn’t until after she died, in fact not until this past week that it occurred to me that in these conversations I had played a role for Josie that the man in the ancient Hebrew story had played for Jacob.
Jacob was wrestling with a “man,” but the story teller wants us to understand that this was merely another way of saying that Jacob was wrestling with God, with the man serving only as a stand-in for God—an angel as it were. In the same way, although Josie was arguing with me, she was really wrestling with God and I was present merely as God’s on-site representative in an ongoing conversation.
It was a struggle that never seemed to resolve itself, and I suspect I may have said some things to Josie inadvertently, on more than one occasion, that put something in Josie out of joint.
But she kept coming back for more spiritual advice, more struggling with God, because she continued to want something from God that she suspected she didn’t have. And there were times when I wanted to say, like the man in the story: let me go, let’s call it quits, let’s declare a truce because neither of us is close to winning this contest that seems so interminable. But Josie, like Jacob in the Hebrew scriptures, would not let go until she got the outcome that she needed.
And did Josie finally receive the blessing from God for which she struggled? I believe she did! I say this not because she told me so. She didn’t. I say this not because of anything she ever said—or did! And I don’t even say this because she did seem happier than usual during the final week of her life than she had for some time previously.
I say that she received God’s blessing because the God of the Bible is a God of blessing, and none of us can finally escape that blessing. We can all do things that thwart the blessing, or dilute it, or postpone it. We can waste a whole lot of time and make huge mistakes trying to figure out how to negotiate life on our own terms. We can do our best to ignore or deny God’s love.
But, like the love of the father that pursued the prodigal son into a far country and waited patiently, never giving up hope for the son’s return, so the unconditional love of God never gives up on any one of us. And eventually, if not in this life then in the next we will come to know and embrace that love.
And Josie is no exception!
And so, as the song* says, we no longer need to know Josie as she once knew herself, as wounded, outcast, lonely, or afraid. Henceforth her name is confidence, joyfulness, faithfulness, friend of God.
*I Will Change Your Name
by D.J. Butler
1. I will change your name,
you shall no longer be called
wounded, outcast, lonely or afraid.
2. I will change your name,
your new name will be
faithfulness friend of God,
one who seeks my face.