The man being remembered and honored yesterday was a person I never met. I know his son and it was through this connection, I was asked to participate in the service. I was happy to do so. My feeling is we never know when an act of kindness or some ministry will bear fruit that is significant in some way. So I did my part in honor of a person whom I never met.
However, I never mind participating in a service like this, even if I don’t know the guy or gal. This guy was a real human being. He had lived for some eighty years. Since I know his son and, assume rightly or wrongly, that some of the deceased shows up in the son, I felt like I had some sense of him. It was interesting to hear the son and another brother say some things about their dad. By the end of an hour, I felt like I had come to know the old guy a little bit!
Authentic memorial stories are engaging because they are full of stories. After all, that is the essence of human living: we are story creators! Clearly some stories are more interesting than other stories. Some of us lead more or less interesting lives than other folks. When I am in these kinds of situations, my mind sometimes drifts off wondering what kind of stories am I creating? Maybe it would be fun to be conscious somehow and present at our own memorial service!
One thing that did emerge in the words about the deceased was the fact he was religious. That intrigued me. It made me aware of how I make all sorts of assumptions based on some flimsy suspicion. The son is not overtly religious. So there was nothing in my very limited context that would suggest his dad would have been religious. Again, this only serves to underscore how stupid I can be!
At one point in the sharing, it was noted that the deceased really liked reading and pondering the Bible. Someone said the dead man’s favorite verse was “do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you; I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (Isa. 41:10) As I sat listening to this verse being read, I recognized its familiarity. In the moment, I am not sure I could have told you where in the Bible it could be found. I knew it probably was from the Psalms or, perhaps, one of the major Old Testament prophets.
When I had time, I looked it up. I was on the right track. The verse is from the great prophet, Isaiah. The middle section of Isaiah is addressed to a people in exile. They have been under duress and some of the folks, no doubt, were questioning the God in whom they believed. So it is with many of us in our own lifetimes. When things are going badly, we might wonder just where is this God who loves us? That is when the words from the prophet speaking on God’s behalf meet us in our pain.
Do not fear, says the Holy One. Don’t fear because I am with you. That always brings solace to my life. I like hearing and being reminded of this. I would love to know how the deceased man understood this passage? Why was it so important to him? I can only guess. But my best guess is the passage can be read both as assurance and as promise. It is assuring to be told and reminded that God is with us. Since God is Spirit, it is difficult sometimes to know just how God is present. I have no easy answers here. One thing I am sure, however, is that God often is present in and through others. And this God promises us. Maybe all of us who want to be ministers of God can see ourselves as the promise-keepers of the Holy One!
When God promises to be present, we can be the agents and instruments of that abiding presence. That is a powerful, privileged calling. Maybe that is what I was doing in my presence at the memorial service! When God says later in that verse that God will strengthen and help us, we again are given no specifics as to how this is done. I wonder what the deceased man thought about that particular piece of God’s promise?
Now that I am thinking about it, I wonder if you and I cannot be part of the strengthening and helping presence of God. I recall the words of Jesus who said something like, if you feed one of these, you have done it for me. If you offer clothes to one of the needy, you have done it for me. Maybe, just maybe, we are part of the victorious right hand of God!
I did not go to the memorial service yesterday to become a biblical scholar and theologian. I went out of care for a dead guy’s son. I went to offer a bit of ministry and, in turn, I was ministered to. I was willing to give and, in return, was given something. I don’t know that I have a favorite verse of the Bible. But maybe I was given one yesterday: do not fear!