i went to a funeral today

IT IS A GREAT mystery that each of us is both unique and not at the same time.

Not a day goes by that I don’t come across an aspect of life in Colombia that stands in stark contrast to my experiences in the US. Communication styles. Jokes. Notions of personal space and autonomy.

Then there are moments that shake up my comparison game and remind me that, at our core, we share similar desires and sentiments. I had such a moment today.

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This afternoon I attended the funeral of a beloved member of our presbytery. Dr. Ángel Quintana recently passed away at the strong age of 89. I never had the chance to talk with him, but I saw him at church a few times. From getting to know his son’s family (they are super nice), I could guess that Dr. Quintana was a noble man.

That he was, and more. Upon arrival, my host aunt and I had to weave our way through the crowd to find a seat. (There were just a few couches lined against the walls. Everyone else stood.) There must have been at least 100 people.

I couldn’t grasp every word that was shared during the service, but grief doesn’t need words.

The mild, subdued atmosphere. The faces of those who loved Dr. Quintana. The way his daughter-in-law asked me, “¿Cómo te ha ido?” as if it was just another day. The emotion that shook the speakers’ voices and the shoulders of his children and grandchildren.

It is true that followers of Christ who lose a loved one can find comfort and hope in the promise of eternal life with God. Jesus’ solidarity with humans in their suffering is really good news. But until the promise of heaven is fully fulfilled, the hole left by that loved one remains. The desire to see them again remains. The pain of living without them remains.

This afternoon I was glad I couldn’t express myself well in Spanish. I gave hugs and squeezed hands, offered silent tears and prayers. Because although I didn’t know Dr. Quintana, I have grieved the deaths of my aunt, my last piano teacher, and my friend in DC.

Losing someone makes you cry regardless of the language you speak or the country you live in. 

Of course, it’s entirely possible that one can witness a sad event and walk away unaffected. It is only when we choose to enter into our shared experience of sorrow that empathy abounds.

el buen pastor y las ovejitas

I WISH I had a tape recorder so you could hear how enthusiastic and cute los niños were during class.

Every Tuesday I help out with the children’s program in a neighborhood called Por Fin. So far, I serve as the silent wingwoman, nodding along to the teacher’s lesson, rewarding correct answers with smiles, and attempting to quell deviance with prolonged stares. While we do our thing, a group of women (mostly moms of the kids) have Bible study in the back courtyard with the effervescent Pastora Flor.

This week we learned about el Buen Pastor (thIMG_1158e Good Shepherd). I love that in Spanish the word for “pastor” and “shepherd” are the same. We learned that God, like a good shepherd, protects us, las ovejitas. He knows what his sheep need – apparently his sheep need toys. He leads his sheep to good pastures.

Yesterday my body went to war with itself. Burning with heat, I laid in bed for about 9 hours straight. It took me 15 minutes to call my coworkers to notify them of my absence because I kept falling asleep between each attempt.

I wonder how old you have to be before you stop wanting your mom when you’re sick. Thankfully, my host mom came home after a few hours and helped me out. My host sister also told me to put on more clothes to sweat out the fever – duh! From then on, I was on the road to recovery.

For the whole day I felt so helpless, like a little sheep. But just knowing I was being cared for by my host mom brought so much comfort. The medicine, the clementine, the wet cloths for my forehead, the shoulder rub – these were the green pastures I needed.

By the way, whether you’re in a Chinese-, English- or Spanish-speaking Christian community, you can bet that the go-to Sunday school answers will always be some form of ¡Dios! or ¡Jesús!

a thing or two i learned from 3 kids

LET THE LITTLE children come to Me.

With sleep still in our eyes, two fellow YAVs and I filed into the pastor’s car to be commissioned at the Presbyterian Church of Upper Montclair. Having never experienced a Presbyterian church service before, I braced myself for an hour of stoic, wordy worship with “the Frozen Chosen.”

As is often the case, my preconceptions were misguided.

The hymns burst with color and expression at the pianist’s fingertips. A young man performed an original song that I would buy – yes, buy – on iTunes. Pastor Lauren opened her sermon with a Harry Potter reference to draw connections to today’s injustices and the story of Ruth the Moabite.

But there’s one scene that will be forever imprinted in my memory.

The pastor invited my fellow YAVs and I to the stage. As we turned to face a room of people we had never met before, three children got up from their pew and stood before us. They beamed up at us, faces full of hope and wonder. And one by one they asked us a series of questions.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, seeking to show God’s love in all you say and do? 

“I will, with God’s help.”

Will you meet the persons in your community right where they are and accept them just the way they are?

“I will, with God’s help.”

After each question, they would look up at us with expectation. I could not break their gaze.

Will you open your heart to the beauty and brokenness of this world, admitting that you cannot do everything, and trusting in the healing power of the Holy Spirit who brings hope and laughter out of despair and even death?

My heart lurched. I imagined these words settling into the foundation of their hearts and building paths of lifelong discipleship.

In that moment I felt the weight of accountability. The words I repeated were no longer just a ritual. They were a promise.

I wish I could transport you into this memory like a Pensieve. It was a powerful moment – and it was mad cute.

The Christian gospels tell a story of mommies and daddies coming up to Jesus, shoving babies into his arms and asking him to bless their children. His disciples start to get annoyed. I imagine them turning on crowd-control mode as they start shooing away the women and children and saying, “Jesus is busy. Go bother someone else. Go home.” But Jesus rebukes his disciples and turns their idea of status upside-down.

Jesus says, “Let the children come to Me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” (Mark 4:14-16 NLT)

Sunday morning’s service could not have moved forward without the boy and girls standing before us. They were not an add-on or an afterthought. They played a prominent role in the gathering.

The older I get, the easier it is to tune people out. We adults start to get predictable. We go through the motions. We choose what or what not to say based on how we think people will respond, rather than on our convictions and values. At least I do.

Affirming my commitment to service before these children was truly humbling. It moved me to take a step back in the midst of an intense week and recall the reasons I am going to Colombia. There is no one for me to impress, no one for me to save. I go as an extension of God’s mercy – not because of anything I say or do, but because I’ve been invited to join God’s work in Barranquilla. And as I live and work, I am to receive the reign of God like a child. I am to learn from children and those who are like children.

So when the months begin to slow and my resolve wears thin, I will remember this moment and the promise I made when I stood in a church somewhere in New Jersey, before the pure and powerful presence of these three children.

I rise today with the power of
Your strength to sustain me
Your shield to defend me
Your wisdom to guide me
Your hand to protect me.
You are my source of peace.

I fix my eyes on you.
I trust you.

— from A Denver Book of Prayer