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Just going to brag about my congregation for a minute.

It was my birthday on Sunday. I, like many whose birthday falls during this quarantine period, was anticipating a quiet day. I was going to work on a paper for my ThM class (I know – op Zondag, but do days really matter anymore?), call my family, and have a glass of wine.

Then last week my friend (one of the very few people I see these days) said she wanted to bring me breakfast. A treat! She showed up at 9:30 (‘cause #quarantime) and proceeded to take out of her van and set up in my driveway a folding table, lawn chairs, a checkered table cloth, vase with flowers, milk steamer for lattés, and bacon.

“You know I have a table and chairs on my back deck, right?”

“It’s quarantine. We’re going to have some fun with it.”

Fair enough.

So there we were, laughing and drinking coffee in the slightly brisk sunshine, waving to neighbors as they walked their dogs, and already this was going to be a better birthday than I had thought. At ten, the church bells tolled across the street.

“Time for church!” I joked. And then more seriously, “Weird not to be seeing people right now.”

At that moment, a few blocks down the street, a police car’s sirens started to wail as its lights flashed.

I was pretty sure we were about to get in trouble for eating together on my driveway.

Emily, though, says, “Maybe someone’s getting pulled over. We should go look.” A rather awkward thing to observe, I thought, but up I got.

We weren’t getting in trouble. The police car was at the front of a parade of about fifty cars, stretched down the road, filled with my beautiful, wonderful, dearly beloved parishioners, balloons flying behind them and poster-board birthday cards hanging out rolled-down windows from which some threw candy as they passed, because no Grand Haven parade is complete without candy being whipped into onlooker’s faces.

One by one they passed and honked and waved and cried, “Happy Birthday!” Someone even played the song on a trumpet.

It was astonishing. Breathtaking. It took me hours to recover. My paper did not get written.

My 29th birthday, instead of going down in the books as one of the saddest birthdays ever, will be remembered as one of the best birthdays ever.

I’ve heard this from others, too. People are being celebrated in new and delightful ways. Folks are sending more cards than before. The phone rings more often. Families that talked once a month are talking weekly. Families that talked weekly are checking in every other day. I know my own week is filled with FaceTimes and HouseParties and Zooms and MarcoPolos with friends and extended family I’d otherwise talk to a few times a year, and now am checking in with regularly.

It’s not like we didn’t care about people before all this. But I think maybe our assumptions have changed.

Maybe, before, we assumed someone else would make sure people felt special and celebrated and loved. “Someone else will send them a card. I’m sure they’ve got a party planned already. Their day is probably so full of phone calls and visitors, I don’t want to make them exhausted.” I know I’ve made these excuses many times over.

But now, we assume people’s birthdays or anniversaries, or even their regular Tuesday evening, won’t look like they had imagined it. We assume people will be isolated, cut off, separated from the people they love. So we step up. We fill the void. We live out community.

The paper I neglected to work on on my birthday is about the liturgical ecclesiology of funerals. A question I hear often after a funeral is, “How many people were in attendance?” My hunch is that we want to know there were a lot of people at a funeral because we want there to be a lot of people at our own. We want to know that we belonged, that we meant something to people, that we were, and are, a valued member of the Body.

But if we profess that in baptism we are all grafted into this Body, and each part of the body needs the next, the question of belonging should never be raised by a congregant. I argue, along with folks like Tom Long, that the congregation should be present at a funeral regardless of whether individual members knew the deceased well or not because a congregation covenants with the baptized to accompany them in their journey of faith to the very end. We are born into community, we live as part of a community, we die as part of a community.

What does that have to do with birthday parades? Even as I bask in the warm fuzzies of my community surrounding me with love, I am acutely aware that there are many for whom a birthday celebrated without much fanfare is a common occurrence. Many in our congregations and communities felt isolated long before quarantine set in. Many in our congregations and communities wonder if they have a place in the Body, if they belong.

So I wonder, in this time when our assumptions are challenged and we’re stepping in to fill voids, if this is also an opportunity to question who might feel that void all the time, who feels like they don’t belong, and then step in to enfold them. I think this time of separation provides us with unique opportunities to be community for one another, to remember one another. And by remembering one another, we re-member the Body of Christ, and that would be something to celebrate indeed.

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong serves as pastor of Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan.

14 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Marvelous. Thank you. And Gefeliciteerd.
    I had the privilege of serving my first charge at an extremely old-fashioned Hungarian church in Central Jersey. Everybody came to all the funerals. All the funerals were big church services. The church bell rang three times a day for the deceased from the news of the death till the time of the funeral. Bell-ringing was the most important job of the custodian (his title in Hungarian was actually “bell-ringer”), and why they paid him with the use of a house next door–so he could be present to ring the bells, or his wife if she had to. At the time of the funeral, somebody would keep lookout to see three blocks down when the hearse turned from Main Street into Thomas Street, and then immediately he started ringing the bells (two of them, named Gyorgy and Gabor, for two Calvinist princes) and kept ringing as the till the casket was marched up in front of the pulpit and the last family members sat down in their pews. Then, upon the Benediction, he started ringing again for the whole thing in reverse, until the hearse turned up Main Street. This was not written down anywhere. Everybody just knew it. Those Hungarian funerals were the best in any church I served.

  • Dana R VanderLugt says:

    We have celebrated two April quarantine birthdays in my house for two of my sons, and I fretted about how sad they would be. Neither was. The gift of presence turned out to be most of what they wanted/needed. My newly christened 11-year-old announced to me at bedtime that it was his “best birthday ever.” Beautiful and thoughtful post. Thank you!

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Once again, Laura, lovely and so very poignant in the end. Thank you.

  • What a wonderful perspective. Happy Birthday.

  • Jim Schaap says:

    What a blessing –for you and us. Thanks.

  • Gail Miller says:

    Beautiful! Thank you!
    And I would love to read your thesis when it’s done!

  • Henry Baron says:

    That birthday surprise present will bless you for a lifetime, Laura!
    Yes, I agree – the deceased church family should be present at the funeral.
    How sad to know that too is now not possible. But a car parade maybe to support the grieving?

  • Carolyn DeNeut says:

    Laura – you make me proud to know you and that you are an alum of where I work. Thank you for your wonderful words…and Happy Belated Birthday! 🙂

  • Ron Nydam says:

    Hello Laura,
    I rarely respond, but I found this piece so delightful. A very happy birth day for you! Great congregation! My wife and I were married in that sanctuary years ago.
    A comment to your paper. I find it quite troublesome that we now ” celebrate the life of” at memorial services with no body, no dead body, before us.
    A funeral to be a funeral need a dead body, it needs to confront death right before us. It ought to begin as a time for lament, a time for real life sorrow, mourning. With our culture, we are now doing grief-lite. It would only be a true celebration were we truly happy that that person finally died. To call such a celebration is truly crazy-making. Enough said. Enjoy Grand Haven! A great place to be alive!
    Ron Nydam

    • Jan Zuidema says:

      As a long time organist who has played numerous funerals through the years, I’m so thankful for your characterization of grief-lite. No matter our joy for the person made whole again, in the presence of the Lord, we need to recognize and voice the grief and hole in the fabric of our lives at the death of a person who we will never touch, speak to, care for, or laugh with again. I find some of the ‘sharing’ that now goes on to be an exercise in dead-aggrandizement, leaving those present wondering if their kids or friends will gush when they’re gone. Information overload at our funerals.

      • Anthony (Tony) Diekema says:

        Indeed, Laura………..know now that you are ministering in “the one true church”. 🙂 Truly a touching and delightful piece. Thanks!

  • Dan I love this story! So rich. Brings back memories of living in Germany and the church bells, of visiting Hungary and the warm full of life and strength people. Thank you for sharing this.

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