Pastor Debbie* was around eighty years old, five feet tall and had a church in a house that leaned slightly to the right somewhere near Lincoln Park. She was the pastor of a family whose children were part of my youth group, which is how I came to meet and get the wrong impression of her. I thought she was a soft spoken, shy person because I’d never heard her preach. The Wright kids who attended her church each had a “Pastor Debbie preaching” impersonation which I heard one night when I’d taken them bowling. If any of the kids hit a pin they’d stick their hands up in the air, throw back their heads, yell “HALLELUJAH!! HALLELUJAH!! THANK YOU JESUS!" and do an ecstatic dance in the lane while the others bent in half laughing.
The Wright kids spent most of their time with their Grandmother because their mother suffered from complications of an illness that would eventually take her life. Year after year, we’d watch as Betty got thinner and more frail until one day she died. The oldest of her three daughters was fifteen at the time.
Betty’s funeral was held at Pastor Debbie’s little church. I got there before the family and sat in a pew, waiting with tensed shoulders for them to arrive. This was long before Rosemary and I had kids and I’d become emotionally glued to Betty’s children; so much so that, for me, the tragedy of her death was dwarfed by at the thought of their grief. Sure enough, when the kids walked in with their Grandmother and saw Betty in the coffin the youngest child let out a mind splitting howl that made me want to jump over the furniture and try to somehow shield them with my body from the pain.
As the organ began to play somberly in the back ground, Pastor Debbie slowly walked up to the pulpit to preach; all arthritic, five feet of her. Her own Grandson had been shot in the street not that long before and here she was beside a casket of another young person who was robbed of decades of her life. How was she still standing? How could she preach? What would she say?
At first she didn’t say a word. For what felt like a long time she was looking down at her worn Bible, seeming mindful of the weight of it in her weathered hands. She opened it, flipped through the pages and when she landed on the verse she was looking for her face opened into a glorious smile. Then, Pastor Debbie started laughing like someone who guessed the punchline of a good joke and said:
“Children of God, can you believe the devil still thinks there’s anything he can do to steal away the joy we have in Christ Jesus? Doesn’t Satan know the victory that belongs to us? Hasn’t he heard that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? (Romans 8:39).
At that Pastor Debbie threw her hands up in the air, tossed her head back and yelled at the top of her lungs “HALLELUJAH!! HALLEUJAH!! THANK YOU JESUS!” The band played ecstatically and the whole congregation jumped up like a single person as they sang “Victory Is Mine”. The Wright Kid’s Grandmother got the children on their feet and before the song was over they were clapping and singing too.
Christ turned the church’s mourning into dancing in front of my eyes.
On Sunday, Grace Church will have a memorial service for a husband and father with young children and hundreds if not thousands of music students who loved him as much as we did. Todd shouldered plenty of heavy burdens while he attended Grace Church but none of you would have known. He was always wearing an ear-to-ear grin with arms outstretched for a big hug. During his brief, shocking illness Todd remained pretty disinterested in his death, regularly chastening Wyll for focusing on it instead of life. Right after his diagnosis, Todd insisted that his son Joseph go to camp and all of the other summer plans for his kids stay in place. The only guidelines I have from Todd for preparing for his service is that it should be, before anything else, joyous.
So this Sunday will be joyous because Todd said so. Besides, we are the church. Being “the church” means we are people who have staked our faith in the claim that Christ has conquered death with love.
If you have trouble believing that come hear Mary sing, listen to people share their stories about Todd and laugh and cry at the same time. Pressed against the heart of the Gospel, standing next to your church family and Todd’s family you will know this in your bones before you know it with your mind: There is nothing, not even death itself, that can separate us from the love of God.