About a week ago, I was with some dear friends as they tried to make sense of the senseless death of their daughter, Marissa. At the visitation, I watched their close family members, friends and members of their church greet the family with sincere and genuine expressions of deep sympathy.
However, none were able or willing to talk about the cause of their daughter's death. I understood this, as it was a reality which was difficult to imagine or speak. None of us would have ever expected to be facing such a reality.
These friends had become our best friends after our daughter Megan and their daughter Mandy met in the first grade and became inseparable (and still are to this day). Their children (of which they had four at the time) became like our children and vice versus. We took family vacations together and celebrated special occasions together.
I remember the first time I met Marissa. It was on the evening my friends were called by a social worker to ask them if they would be willing to foster two sisters who had been taken out of their home and needed immediate shelter and sanctuary.
Our friends had just finished all the training and licensure necessary to become foster parents. They were willing to expand their brood and open their loving and chaotic home to those in the greatest need. They were excited about this possibility, yet were genuinely surprised when they received the phone call about Marissa and her young sister. Our dear friends called us and asked if we could help them gather supplies in order to receive the girls into their home.
We did what we could do and were at their home the night the girls arrived. I will not forget the terrified face of that 45-pound, seven-year-old girl as she was introduced to our friend's whole family and to us. What was intended as a temporary situation became permanent when the family adopted the girls after their mother overdosed.
After the adoption, the girls blended so quickly and smoothly into the family that all of us forgot they were adopted. It was beautiful to watch them blossom and grow. It was powerful to see them gain confidence and worth. It was a privilege to witness how they discovered their place in the world.
Then quite unexpectedly in her senior year, Marissa became friends with some youths who did not make good life choices. She became pregnant, but finished high school, had the baby, got a job and rented an apartment. It seemed like things were going well for her until they were not.
Over a week ago, she overdosed and died, leaving behind a beautiful baby girl and a grieving family who will never be the same.
I had wondered how their parish might handle the details surrounding her death and what would and would not be said at the funeral. Her father was concerned about this as well and decided to speak first at his daughter's funeral. He said all the things that I wished their priest would have said.
Her father talked about how we as people of faith should not be silent about the tough issues in life. Rather, we should be able to name and talk about the complexities and messiness of real life. He spoke to the young people attending, telling them the truth about the dangers of any drugs; even prescription drugs. He challenged them to see Marissa's death as a reminder that none of us are invincible.
He asked us not to be angry with God, as God did not create the situation, but to consider how free will and our choices either create joy or suffering. He spoke about a compassionate God who was weeping alongside of us. He also spoke about forgiveness, forgiveness of Marissa and forgiveness of ourselves that we could not help her in the ways she needed. His final word was an invitational word to love as Christ has taught us to love. To love deeply. To love unconditionally. To love even when we are in grief and pain. To always make the choice to choose love above all things.
All the things I would have hoped the priest would have said, but he did not. Theologically, he danced around the tough issues. For the most part, he stuck to the liturgy and when he veered off the script, it felt uncomfortable because it felt forced.
Now please know, I am not trying to criticize this man of faith. I have no idea how hard her service might have been for him. Yet, his leadership reminded me of how often in the church we might miss golden opportunities for authentic moments of vulnerability and grace.
Too often in the church, we are not willing to acknowledge the messy realities of life. We pretend as if they do not exist. Not in our church. Not in our community. Not in our family.
We act as if our lives are not affected by things such as drug and alcohol abuse or abuse and suffering of any kind. We act as if we do not speak of it or if we do not acknowledge it, it will simply go away. Sadly, our silence only serves to cause more pain and hurt.
Church, I know it is hard to know how to begin to talk about difficult things. Yet I hope you might take a lesson from my dear friend, sometimes the best time to speak up is when it is hardest to do so. For when you speak from your heart, your truth and your love, others will listen. It just might be the words someone else needs to hear right at that moment.
Blessing, Rev. Shana Johnson, Conference Minister