Getting behind Jesus—again

February 27, 2012

For more commentary on this week's readings, see the Reflections on the Lectionary page, which
includes Kersten's current Living by the Word column as well as past magazine
and blog content. For full-text access to all articles, subscribe to the
Century.

Two of Merlyn's daughters,
members of our church, asked me to visit their mom as the end of her five-month
battle with cancer drew near. Merlyn was 72, and her life had not been easy.
She was widowed at 43 and raised her four children by herself.

When I came to see her, she was
alone, lying in bed by the window in the back room of the house. One of her
daughters introduced me and left. I read some verses from Isaiah 43 to Merlyn:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you
by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you... For I am the Lord your
God, your Savior.... You are precious in my sight, and I love you.

I told Merlyn this was the
promise God had given her in her baptism long ago: she was precious to God. And
whatever she went through--even the isolating suffering of cancer, even
death--God in Christ would be there with her. The whole time I was with her,
Merlyn was lying in bed with her face turned away from me, toward the window
that looked out on her backyard. She never moved, never turned to face me,
never responded.

I prayed, and I left. It didn't
take a brain surgeon to figure out that I hadn't "connected" with her.

I sat in the living room for a
while afterwards, talking to Merlyn's children, puzzling at the same time over
what I had done wrong. Her daughters mentioned again to me what they had told
me before: their mother had been devastated by the diagnosis of cancer because,
in many ways, she felt she was just coming into her prime.

Merlyn had taken several
courses at the local community college--among them ballroom, country western
and line dancing--and had been performing the past several years with a seniors
dance group at local senior centers, college and community events. For twelve
years she also taught English as a Second Language to recent immigrants. She
tutored several students in her home, buying books and other material for them
out of her own money, and taking many of them under her wing.

After listening to her
children's stories, I went back in to see their mother again. She was still
facing the window.

"Merlyn," I began, "I just
wanted to come in again to say how sorry I am that your life is being cut
short, just when you felt you were entering your prime." And Merlyn turned
toward me. Shortly thereafter, she and her family and I shared communion
together in that back room, that farewell meal Jesus offered for his disciples
the night he was betrayed, which still gives forgiveness and strength.

Not long ago I read an
observation by a character in Joanna Trollope's novel The Rector's Wife. A woman deacon speaks about the difficulties
some of her colleagues have in feeling "the emotional agonies in which some
people labored, shackled to delinquent children or senile parents or
destructive marriages." The character continues,

You could not just say, Christ will help you bear it.
That was opting out. You had to show that you understood the suffering, knew
the price it exacted, as a fellow human being, before you even thought of
bringing Christ into it.

As I learned from Merlyn, we
cannot hope to minister in Jesus' name without "getting behind Jesus," entering
into people's suffering and sorrow and mourning with them.

One of the readings at Merlyn's
funeral was John 14, in which Jesus says, "In my Father's house, there are many
dwelling places," many rooms. I said in my homily that I was pretty sure that
at least one of these rooms is a ballroom. Quoting from the song "The Lord of
the Dance," I expressed my belief that Merlyn was on the dance floor again,
with that dance partner now.