Listen To Article
Below, I want to share with you the homily I offered at my grandmother’s memorial service, six months ago now, just shy of her 94th birthday. Several things prompt this in me today. I think of those who mourn in this season of Eastertide, who strain to know the promise of resurrection in the midst of loss. I think of fellow writer at The 12, Debra Rienstra, as her father died last week. Deb, thanks for sharing about your journey with him over the past few years. I think of the retired pastor I sat behind on Easter morning. He’ll be 100 in a couple weeks. What does Easter feel like when you’re 99? I think of my good friend from seminary whose mother died suddenly on the eve of our first semester; now 13 years later this friend is using her own transformative experience of bereavement as she ministers to others who grieve. And I think especially of last night, when I heard my husband and the rest of his church choir perform Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem,” a stunningly beautiful work that uses the common language of the people to weave scripture into a message for the living. Unlike a typical Latin Requiem that begins with prayers for the dead, Brahms’ requiem begins with a word for the bereaved, from Jesus’ beatitudes: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
On another note, I’ll be taking a break from The 12 for the next 3 months. I’ll meet you back here in August.
Memorial service for Anita Bratt
October 18, 2014, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Scripture: Romans 8: 14-25
When I got the call from my Dad last Thursday night, saying that Grandma had at last taken her final breaths, I had just hung up the phone with my friend Michelle, who was waiting to go into labor any minute. She was waiting for the arrival of a new baby, eager to witness him take his first breaths. In life and in death, there is so much waiting, so much anticipation and uncertainty about the day and the hour. So when Dad told me that this passage from Romans was hand copied in one of Grandma’s Bible study lessons, it resonated for me with the experience of losing Grandma. Especially the images about creation being in labor pains as the children of God wait for the new creation to come into being. So I want to say a few things about being family, and about our yearnings.
From Anita–Grandma–I learned so much about what it means to be family, and what it means to be part of the family of God. She delighted in her grandchildren. I don’t take that for granted, and I continue to appreciate how her loving embrace and affirmation helped me grasp the idea of a God who loved me and delighted in me too.
Of course Anita delighted too whenever her family grew. I know how excited she would be about the arrival this week of a new great-granddaughter and another on the way. I know how excited she was last January when I introduced her to Jonathan, to whom I’m now married. “Grandma, we’re going to get married!,” I told her, and she smiled and made that distinctive noise of downright glee. She asked if we met at Calvin. No, I said, we met in Nashville. To which she replied, “If the Lord sees two people with their heads on straight, and their hearts in the right place, He can find a way for them to meet – of course it helps if they live in the same place.”
To me this is a classic example of how Grandma saw both the pragmatic and the providential in all of life. She and Grandpa, too, had their heads and hearts in the right place, and their lives bore witness to the faithfulness of God.
When I think of Grandma’s life and legacy, well, it’s right here in this room, in the people that she and Grandpa brought into the world and that they in turn brought into our family. In your faces and your voices and the stories you are living with your lives, I see the continuous thread of Grandma’s delight, her deep faith, and her steady dedication to worshiping God and serving others. She exemplified the psalmist’s command to “serve the Lord with gladness.” I see that legacy pulsing through the lives of her loved ones who use their gifts and passions gladly in music, education, the church, healthcare, and family life. Grandma’s fingerprints are everywhere.
I think it’s fitting that today is my sister Christy’s birthday. It was on this day 39 years ago that Grandma became a grandmother and welcomed the first of 17 of her children’s children into the world. She lived long enough to see the youngest one start college this fall. It was always so obvious how much joy it brought Grandma and Grandpa to be together with family, and they simply loved being grandparents, carrying on stories and tradition and the practice of deep and sincere faith from one generation to the next.
Simply being present here together with family and friends can be such a comfort as we mourn Grandma’s passing and celebrate her life. But that’s not only because we are connected by Anita, but also because we are connected to her and to each other as part of God’s family. In the midst of the change we are feeling right now, as our places shift in the Bratt and Ribbens family trees, our identity—and Anita’s identity—as children of God is secure and unchanging. This is where the Romans passage is resonating for me right now—the promise of being God’s child, and also the yearning that comes with it in this life.
I think there is a tendency to be swift in our dismissal of the grief of losing an aged relative, especially one like Grandma who had a long slow decline and whose death brings relief. Yes, we are thankful that she lived such a long and vibrant life. Our gratitude runs deep. What more could we have asked for? But there is still grief, still a loss that runs deep. Of course we mourn differently than we would mourn a sudden loss, or a young person’s death, or the passing of someone in the prime of his life. With the passing of someone like Grandma, even as we celebrate and give thanks for her long life, there is still the sorrow of adapting to life without her, and figuring out what it means that she is now part of the company of saints who have gone before us. I celebrate that she is redeemed and free of the suffering and decay of this life; at the same time, I ache to think of life without her. I’ve never known life without her. And she was my last grandparent—am I still a granddaughter anymore?
As we all adjust to the loss of someone who was for us a “tie that binds,” there is deep comfort in knowing that our place in God’s family is unchanging. Whatever our place in our human families, we are all first-generation children of God. Grandma certainly knew that. She knew she was God’s child. Yes, she was Theunis and Gertrude’s child, but first and foremost God’s child. She knew that in life and in death she was not her own but belonged in body and soul to her faithful savior Jesus Christ.
Grandma’s life points to a heritage of love, not just our family tree but a heritage of all those who by grace through faith live and move and have their breath by the Spirit of God. And this is what gives context to our grieving. The grief we feel over the fresh absence in our human family is set against the backdrop of our place in the family of God. With Grandma, we too are co-heirs with Christ, adopted children of God. Our beloved Anita has gone to her eternal rest and now experiences the fulfillment of God’s promises. She too hoped for what she could not see, and now her faith has been made sight.
I know that this hope and trust in God carried Grandma through times of yearning in her life. I can’t imagine what it was like for her to wait for Grandpa to return from the war, or what it felt like to live with the loss of a newborn daughter all those decades ago. I do know, though, because I heard it with my own ears, that in the moments after Grandpa died eight years ago, one of the first things Grandma said was, “he’s with Judy now.” Grandma weathered both the joys and the sorrows of life in the knowledge that God as a loving parent holds us securely in life and in death. I hope that we too, in the midst of our grief and longing, can experience the tender care of a God who loves us, calls us by name, and will not forsake us. God holds our memories, and our future. Our deepest yearnings, I believe, are the symptoms of active labor as the whole world waits for the wholeness God intends for us. We live our lives against the backdrop of the world’s gestation—the old creation is giving way to the new. In the meantime, we mourn, but not as those who have no hope.
I want to leave you with an image that keeps coming to me when I picture Grandma in my mind’s eye. I picture her, along with Grandpa, stepping out onto the porch of their house at 1127 Marshall, smiling with sheer glee as she eagerly welcomes me. The table is set, and the scent of a meal fills the air. It is a place where I am loved, and where I belong, and where there is delight. It’s an image that repeats itself as I picture all the meals our extended family has enjoyed together, whether at 1127 Marshall, or Lake Michigan, or Douglas Walker park, or countless dining rooms. And it’s an image that comes to mind when I picture how Grandma herself has been welcomed into eternity with God. The table is set, and the feast is ready. And God welcomes Grandma with delight, saying, “Well, done, good and faithful servant.” There is rejoicing, and singing, and I trust Grandma’s voice joins right in.
I miss Grandma, and I trust that I have not sat at the table with her for the last time. I trust that the delight she felt in me was a mere glimpse of the delight that our God feels over all of us. I trust that the meals I enjoyed with her were a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where we too will be welcomed, where our yearnings will be fulfilled, and where there will be such abundance that even all the plastic containers Grandma saved over the years could not contain the leftovers.
Until then, may we gladly receive the love of the God who loves us as children, and may we serve all God’s children. In life and in death, we are the Lord’s. Thanks be to God for the life and witness of Anita Lenore Ribbens Bratt.