I’ve taken a longer break from blogging than intended, and for the last few weeks it’s been due to the tsunami of grief that hit like a cement truck when I got news that my dear friend Deb was in her final weeks if not days. Her wide circle of friends knew of her battle with a rare pancreatic cancer that struck like a sudden Minnesota thunderstorm. We had been praying, supporting, meal-ing, encouraging, and grieving with her since her diagnosis on Good Friday at the end of March. We had also believed Mayo’s prognosis of 10 months to 2 years. Despite her tremendous courage, she died June 30th, barely three months later.
I am grateful beyond words, beyond song and sigh, for my connection to Deb. Initially she was the muse of all things music at church, then my choir director, and soon my good friend. We talked gardening, cooking discoveries, backyard chickens, and Handel solos. We were soprano sisters who learned to blend our voices together for a number of lovely duets sung over the years for our church community. She invited me to her family table many times, for holiday feasting, for hilarious card games.
Getting to see her one last time to whisper my love and gratitude is a gift I will cherish all my days, one kindly given by her family and even nurtured as daughter Audrey interpreted the subtle body movements that meant Deb knew it was me and that she heard what I said. Their generosity mirrored what she was so loved for: open embrace, warm acceptance, making room for more. Deb exuded simple hospitality. While I could have grieved alone in San Diego, there was no question that I would get to St. Paul as quickly as possible for the chance to see her. And to be with those who loved her, my dear church family. I needed to be with them to reminisce, cry, appreciate, sing, and hold each other up in the weariness of this still inconceivable loss. I’m so glad that I did. Hearing their experiences of Deb deepened my own. Practicing with my sweet flock of sister choir chicks the song that she taught us a year ago made new connections for me. “Draw the Circle Wide” is a beautiful simple song we will offer at her memorial service this Saturday, and what a fitting piece! It so captures Deb’s extraordinary gift of inclusion:
Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still / Let this be our song, no one stands alone
July 1st at Edgcumbe Presbyterian where she was our worship leader, we took extended time during the Sunday morning service the day after she died to reflect on what we each would carry forward from the years of music and grace she lavished there. Themes emerged as each person shared their thoughts. Deb’s ability to notice and listen. Her willingness to welcome whatever was offered and include it somehow. Her gracious flexibility with changes. Hospitality of heart. Belief that what we had would be beautiful, would be enough. Welcome. Laughter. Humility. Gentleness. Encouragement. Nurture. Connection.
That sacred sharing has such resonance with my perception of Jesus and what the gospel is really all about. All my life I have been unlearning what my conservative Christian upbringing taught: the gospel or supposed “good news” is that if you clean yourself up enough and jump through the prescribed church hoops correctly, you earn God’s begrudging forgiveness and are allowed into heaven when you die. Woohoo! (Assuming you don’t fall off the good behavior wagon.) It is the opposite of grace, the antithesis of God’s reckless abundance. It has no basis in Scripture. And yet it is somehow still fairly pervasive. People like Deb are such balm to recovering conservatives like me: her stance was that there is no bar to clear, no cover charge to get in. Acceptance comes first. Whatever you have, however little or much you bring, it is beautiful and it is enough. What matters is the desire to sing, to be together. Just come.
I think Deb would be a little surprised to hear that she helped her seminary-trained, spiritual director, overboard fulltime ministry wacko girlfriend to love God more, just by being Deb. She was humble that way. I love God more for the gift of Deb and her short but radiant life. I love seeing all the people she has touched. I am encouraged to believe that maybe, just maybe, my own halting imperfect attempts to draw the circle wide, to include people without requirements, might matter. Deb was convinced that however much or little anyone brought, that it was beautiful and it was enough. I want to love like that too.
Thank you Deb.