The grieving father decided we were going to have church at his daughter’s funeral last Saturday.
Church it was. I’m no judge of crowds, but my guess was there were 800 or 1000 of us there, maybe more, filling the sanctuary of one of West Michigan’s largest churches. The preacher said, “I don’t care who you are, you would not be able to call a crowd this large and diverse together on a Saturday morning.” He was right. It was the sudden and horribly sad death of a child that brought us together.
Quiniece was 13. She went from a stomach ache to a cancer diagnosis to cardiac arrest in the blink of an eye. Her illness lasted a few days. The suddenness of her passing leaves so many unanswerable questions.
We dealt with our questions by showing up. Ribbons of people kept streaming in, past the casket and then into the arms of the family. A gospel choir sang, and again I’m no judge of crowds but there had to be 75 or 100 people in the choir, and they just plain brought it. There were six pastors leading the service, and when the father stood up unexpectedly to say some words, the six pastors surrounded him and one sensed all those pastors were necessary to help bear this amount of grief. Surely all of this is what “body of Christ” means.
The father is also a minister, a one-in-a-million gem who works with unfailing energy among the roughest and toughest kids in the heart of the city. He has helped everyone else’s kid, but was powerless to help his own. We’re all aware of so many people who do it wrong, who neglect their children or abandon them. We’re all aware of abuse and broken families and absentee parents. Here was a family who has done it right, standing over the casket of their little girl.
The preacher chose Luke 2: the teenaged Jesus telling his parents, “Did you not know I would be in my father’s house.” The preacher brought it, too. He said if Quiniece could talk to us now, she wouldn’t want to come back, instead she’d say, “Hurry up and come here.” I don’t know if that is true, but I’ve never wanted to believe it is true more than I did listening to him. The choir sang “Victory” and the preacher said, “God is good,” and I never wanted to believe those things more than I did last Saturday morning, either.
Every morning in worship at Western Theological Seminary we drape a piece of cloth on the cross and someone says, “We seek a path of meaning in suffering.” We were doing that last Saturday. We were there to comfort the family but we were there for each other, too. This is such a hard thing. How can faith stand when confronted by the senseless and needless death of one so innocent?
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. I honestly don’t know how much faith I have. Assurance? Conviction? There are times when I feel like all I have is questions. Somewhere in one of his books Frederick Buechner writes that an anguished father’s “Lord I believe, help my unbelief” was enough at that moment. Like that father, I stumble towards faith. I want it all to be true. When a little girl dies I desperately want it all to be true.
And here’s another thing. My friend, the grieving father, is a man of great passion and enthusiasm in his faith. Faith words flow easily from his lips, accompanied by his thousand megawatt smile. At the funeral, he spoke beautifully about his daughter’s faith and her hope of heaven. He told us of his decision to praise God on this day and to have church. Then, as he finished, he said, “But I want my little girl back.” We all do.