I think I need to let you in.
There are parts of this that are a little too much, and I never really know how much to share…but then, I remember how healing it is to have company in pain and joy and wondering. So, maybe you’ll join me.
Early this morning, my generous daughter got up suuuuuper early and drove me to the airport, so I could catch a flight to Milwaukee for the Church-wide Assembly of my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I’m one of 927 voting members who are gathered to elect leaders, discuss and vote on various resolutions, and conduct the business of our church body. I love the ELCA. I’m proud of the work we do, the social justice initiatives we employ – I love the way we follow Jesus – not perfectly, for sure, but intentionally and with wide open arms. So, that early flight wasn’t a burden; I was happy to fly to Milwaukee.
As I stood in line to have my big, pink suitcase weighed and put on the conveyer belt, things got a little blurry when I realized the last time I took that big, pink suitcase to Milwaukee it was filled to the brim with some of Ken’s precious belongings I thought his family would want. And my carryon held a container of Ken’s ashes. He had requested that some of him would always reside at the summer camp where he worked when he was young.
Landing in Milwaukee brought the odd feeling of coming home to a place that…isn’t. Ken was born and raised here. With Ken I traveled “home” for holidays. I’ve been here many times, enough times that I have a favorite place to buy my cheese curds, but, I don’t travel here anymore. I grabbed my big, pink suitcase from the carousel and caught a shuttle across the city to my hotel. Turns out that hotel was “home” today. It was FILLED with my people. Some wore Live Generously (Thrivent) t-shirts, others had an ELCA backpack or wore their synod t-shirt. Inside, I was giddy, so grateful to have come “home” this way in this city. Hugs and sweet faces with expressions of, “So good to see you!” on every elevator, in every corner of the lobby was the family I love – and needed.
Ken loved Jesus.
He loved the ELCA, too. He would have loved to be here, in his city, with his people, about the work of the church. It would have all been too much for him. And I guess I actually mean that because more than once today I wondered if the height of this event would have triggered a mania for him. Grief is that way: one minute you are remembering fondly and imagining his delight – and the next you are fighting the guilt that comes splashing in when the sweet glow of imagining him so happy reminds you that you are glad you don’t have to live on that edge on which you balanced when you wondered if regular old joy was going to shift into mania. (This writing is difficult. That last sentence is clumsy, but I can’t seem to change it. So, there it sits…all awkward and scratchy.)
Ken went to worship with me today in a ballroom of a hotel where more than a thousand Lutherans gathered to praise the One who insists on love every time.
And you know who we sat by? Kai and Jessie.
And you know who we needed? Kai and Jessie.
Kai is a faithful leader in the church. He pours himself out for the sake of the young people God loves. He is gentle and funny, and he tells the truth. I am always glad when I get to draw near to Kai.
Jessie is a kid I just met. (Jessie is 100% not a kid. He is in his 20s. But, so are my kids…) Spirit tossed us together a month ago at a synod meeting, and we hit it off. He is funny and honest and God’s call on his life is strong and true. Also, this kid can sing. We grabbed some harmony lines during the many hymns we sang today during worship – bliss! The entrance hymn was All Creatures Worship God Most High, and we were singing it like 1,000+ Lutherans can sing while trumpets and percussion and organ do their thing. It. Was. Glorious.
And then we got to verse five. And the musicians cut out, leaving us to pray these words with one collective unaccompanied voice…a thousand people who are my home, two faithful young men on my left and right, and Ken’s widow sang:
And you, most gentle sister death, waiting to hush our final breath: Alleluia! Alleluia! Since Christ our light has pierced your gloom, fair is the night that leads us home. Alleluia.
1,000 siblings held me up. I actually love them. I’m so grateful they flew from the reaches of our country to stand in that ballroom sanctuary and sing when I couldn’t. It’s actually what we do. We hold each other up.
Then, we shared the Meal that joins us in Christ, and since I am persuaded to believe that not even death can separate us from Jesus, Ken was at the Meal with us, too.
Oh, and I forgot to mention that when I looked up during the sermon, the photo on the screen was of the gorgeous sanctuary of Christ Lutheran in Pacific Beach, CA, the congregation where I met Ken and where we married at the foot of the cross from which flows the river of life. It was all a bit much, Spirit. No need to work so hard tomorrow. I’ll notice you, I promise.