This morning, I woke up around 7:15, showered, put on my clerical shirt and collar and went to church to preach. As I walked into the small, country church where I led worship today, I thought to myself that there was nowhere else that I would rather be as the sun rose on this morning, nowhere else that I really could be. Twenty years ago today, my mother died; so yeah, church—or rather, the Church—seems the best place to begin this day.
I’m not sure I know what to do with that. 20 years is a long time, but longer for me. 20 years is two-thirds of my entire life. The only time this anniversary has been more bizarre was 10 years ago, when I passed the half-way point; I’d officially been without her as long as I’d been with her.
Its an anniversary that almost gets harder the more distant it gets from the original event. After 20 years, there’s so much about her I’ve forgotten; it seems like the only stuff I do remember is the stuff I have “officially” remembered in stories. The random snippets of memory and flashes of her face, her voice, things she said and did are all slowly disappearing. I also can’t help but think of all the things I never knew: what her favorite beer was or how she voted in elections or the jokes she would only ever tell when there were no kids around. There is so much a 10-year-old doesn’t know about the human beings who are his parents.
What I do know is this: as a pastor, I have heard dozens of stories about people facing tragedy. Sometimes the experience strengthens their faith, and sometimes it destroys it. I know that my faith could easily have been broken by mom’s death, how quickly it could have been scoured away by the sheer force of that calamity.
But it wasn’t.
What saved my faith—what may have saved me—was the Church.
My mother was a very faithful person. Even through her illness, she maintained a relationship with God, and she came to worship every Sunday as often as she could make it. She and my father both made the Church a huge part of their lives and mine from the time when I was very young. Seeing this helped me maintain that connection even when everything else was shaken loose for me.
But then there was the people, my congregation. Lots of people from my generation have turned from the Church, saying they can’t see God there. They say that they find God in the sunset and in the rainbow and in the quiet that settles on a dewy field as they sit in a deer stand on a cold November morning. I see God in those places, too, but not nearly as clearly or as brilliantly as I have seen God in the faces, the hands, and the hearts of those people who held us together when the world fell apart.
Redeemer Lutheran Church in Great Falls, MT showed me what God’s love is. They showed me in the meals they prepared for us after Mom died. The showed me in the visitors that came to see us at our house in those days following. They showed me in that packed sanctuary at her funeral. They showed me in all the days before that, both before she got sick and after, in all the people—some old enough to be my grandparents or great-grandparents—who loved, me taught me, comforted me.
Once, after Mom got sick and mostly confined to a wheelchair, my congregation raised money for my family to take a trip to Disney Land. What an incredible gift to a couple of kids who are desperately trying to make the most of the time they have left with their mother! Those are treasured memories for my family and I as we look back on the time we had with her.
In these 20 years that she has been gone, my relationship with God has been one of only a handful of constants in my life. As sure as the sun will rise, God is beside me. I know this because I have witnessed it firsthand. Those people didn’t just preach or proclaim or show me God’s love, they lived it to me, they demonstrated it.
After 20 years, there is a lot I wish I could remember about my mother; but the important things are preserved through my family and my congregation. They remember her better than I do, and they share those memories with me from time to time. The most important things I remember about her are almost all tied up with my memories of people from Redeemer, because the kind of person she was is the kind of people they are. She and they formed one another, and in a very real way she is still alive in that community.
I miss her like crazy. 20 years is an awfully long time to be without her. At the same time, the beauty, the love, the life that I have seen since then, the work God has done with that pain and death that I have been privileged to watch and even to participate in, I don’t know where I would be without all that. That’s part of what makes this day so bizarre; as much as I wish that 20 years ago today had simply been another day, unremarkable and unmemorable, I have been insanely blessed by all that has come from it.
And that is why I can believe in the resurrection. In my life, through the work of the Holy Spirit lived out in the Church, I have experienced resurrection. I have seen life literally come from death. We all know that dead people don’t get up and walk; but I know just as surely that God brings life from death—I have literally, actually, physically seen it. I am a witness to the resurrection.
So, I don’t really know what to do with this day, or with all these memories and emotions that come up around it, but I felt like I had to share that. I feel like it’s important to get that out there, to thank those people who were Christ to me, who carried my burdens and believed for me when I couldn’t. What they did doesn’t make today any less terrible, but it does make today holy.