I arrived early at Martie’s funeral last week. To be accurate, the title of the religious observance was “A Service to Celebrate the Life of Martha…” But whether called a funeral, memorial or celebration of life, the atmosphere usually has similar characteristics: silence, weeping, solemnity, soft music. I’m learning, however, that in spite of their resemblances, such occasions often are subtly different, and frequently can be studies in human nature as the gathered individuals remember their friend or family member.
As people were ushered to their seats, the organ played a medley of Martie’s favorite hymns but instead of the solemnity and stillness usually preceding such a service, a low hum of conversation filled the space as arrivals noticed already seated friends and acquaintances. Travel down the aisle was slow as greetings and hugs were repeatedly exchanged.
Let me introduce you to Martie. At ninety-six, her life was one of trusting God since childhood. Her home was one where alcohol ruled with all the attendant misery, but when a neighbor invited her father to a local mission, the message of Christ awakened a longing stronger than alcohol and he eventually chose to trust Christ with almost immediate life change. Even as a young girl, Martie was curious about those “mission people” and when she accompanied her parents to the mission, she decided she wanted what they had.
This began a life of adventure with she and her husband joining the staff of Young Life, an organization in which adults who are concerned enough about adolescents go to them, on their turf and in their culture, building bridges of authentic friendship, sharing God’s love by deed and word. Her walk with Jesus was not without challenge, especially when the organization in the 1960’s asked George and Martie to move from the suburbs of Dallas to turbulent Chicago where they would work with inner city youth.
From Martie’s own lips I heard the story many years ago. “Taking my young children to downtown Chicago was NOT in my game plan. God may have been calling George but I hadn’t heard any such call and saw no need to follow George’s plan without personal verification from God. So when George asked me to at least pray about it, I went into the bedroom, got down on my knees and basically told God I thought this was a ridiculous idea, but if it was His idea, I would be willing to go. As I knelt there quietly, an unexpected peace settled over me. I moved—with George!—to Chicago.” The rest is history as goes the saying.
Her walk with God was one of deep faith but not without questions. She and God were on intimate terms and she truly enjoyed Him. And she loved being with people who also basked in His presence. (She would have loved this celebration of her life!) Throughout her years she shared herself with others without losing her sense of self. We in the congregation that day couldn’t wait to tell others our Martie stories. Many of us had the privilege of working closely in ministry with her, but for Martie, there was little difference between “ministry” and having a party. Even in her last years, before being confined to bed or wheelchair and unable to remember names of friends and family members, when seated at the piano, she played “by heart” the hymns she knew so well. Two weeks before Martie’s death, her granddaughter (whose name she couldn’t remember) read Psalm 46. Memory of names and places was gone, but soon her faint voice began to “read” along. The words had not been merely memorized but stored deep within her soul.
But what is the connection between Martie’s life story—and there’s so much more to tell—and the chatty congregation?? As I sat through hymns, shared memories and a short sermon, I began to realize something. Hovering over and floating within was this common sense of community: we all had been touched by Martie’s life—by the Jesus of Martie’s life—and we were happy to be together. We needed to talk and hug and remember. This is what it means to be family, Christ’s family.*
*Martie’s family requested that, before the congregation move downstairs for coffee and dessert, we listen to the organ bursting forth with Widor’s “Toccata” Symphony #5. “We imagine this being played as Martie walked into Jesus’ presence.” Check it out on YouTube. What do you think?