An Eastertide Visit Beside the Still Waters
Long after her Holy Week funeral, a revered, elderly church member will continue to inspire friends and family.
The road to the church was awash in the blooming colors of spring as I slowed the Subaru and put down the windows. Just then I could see little Jimmy and Johnny running from the creek, their sneakers squishing full of water. Rachel, their mother, followed. As she waved, I pulled over into their gravel drive anticipating an Eastertide visit.
We laughed as we watched the boys make their way up the drive to the forest trail leading up the mountain. Rachel was pleased with their morning adventure. She described it, really taught it, in detail. The creek banks were alive with clever artistry and Rachel was showing the boys what to look for just like her mother had taught her at the same age. The northern bank, well shaded by the maple, birch, and mountain ash, was blanketed with the white blooms of trillium. The boys were curious about the odd shaped pink blooms that Rachel called lady slippers. Then she walked them across the creek to the southern bank and showed them the same flower but with yellow blooms. She kept them moving down the creek giving the boys names for what they saw – jack in the pulpit, pussywillow, and bloodroot. Jimmy and Johnny were hungry to know more. She knew well the feeling of belonging that came from intimate knowing of the created world.
Rachel said that she would let them run for a while but would soon track them down. She still had lessons to teach about the life blooming farther up the mountain. There was mountain azalea with flaming red and orange tendrils and violet and small purple dwarf irises. Then she would show the boys where to find the big bed of mayapple that hadn’t yet bloomed but whose funny umbrella stalks were curious to behold.
We talked about the funeral of Ida McKinnon this past Tuesday of Holy Week. The Saturday before Ida had died surrounded by the families of her daughter and son at the full age of ninety-three. She was a beloved soul among her family and mountain neighbors. In her church Ida was a treasured saint. Simply saying her name made people smile and nod their heads. For the next couple of generations there will be people who will look at her pew, middle-right, lectern side, next to the window, and remember Ida and reflect upon her life as a grateful resource for living their own. The funeral and the graveside service across the road at the cemetery came off as well as expected. Then Ida was laid to rest in the family plot next to her beloved Jim. The people were quiet and solemn. Her children and grandchildren held hands and shed tears. Everyone walked back to the church where lunch was waiting in the fellowship hall. Then people ate too much and talked too loud, sharing stories of praises and also loving reminders that Ida was just as human as the next person.
Rachel sighed as we remembered the community’s gathering for Ida. There wasn’t much to say. Gratitude. The full arc of a life well-lived and brought to its natural course felt as right as the new life of spring blooming around us. I thanked Rachel for a well-written obituary. Rachel writes for the little local mountain newspaper and tells the stories about what is going on in the community. For many years she has also written the obituaries for folks in her church. Families simply started asking her to do it for them and she didn’t know how to say no, but now has come to write these stories with great care and beauty.
We were all thinking about Ida on Easter morning. It seemed so natural that we should be celebrating the love that is stronger than death on the same week that we buried Ida. Everyone knew how much Ida loved to garden. She provided flowers on a regular basis for the sanctuary. Rachel had emailed me a poem, that had been too long to include in the obituary. But it was perfect for the small Easter sunrise service.
Rosing from the Dead
We are on our way home
from Good Friday service.
It is dark. It is silent.
“Sunday,” says Hanna,
“Jesus will be rosing
from the dead.”
It must have been like that.
A white blossom, or maybe
a red one, pulsing
from the floor of the tomb, reaching
round the Easter stone
and levering it aside
with pliant thorns.
The soldiers overcome
with the fragrance,
and Mary at sunrise
mistaking the dawn-dewed
Rose of Sharon
for the untameable Gardener.
I am grateful for congregations whose lives are so interconnected with nature that Easter does not seem a world away. We are still marking the seven weeks of Eastertide, which hints that Easter is not a onetime event. The traditional readings for this church season are old favorites picking up on themes of the natural world, such as the “Shepherd who leads by green pastures and still waters” and “the vine and its branches who abide and bear fruit.” We need to find our way back to these places so that we are ready to hear him whisper our name. As we do, we remember that we are merely a small part of the natural world and very far from her master. As we welcome and nurture our place within it, we too may be remembered with gratitude.
Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who pastors small town and country churches. He currently serves New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Southwest Virginia. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.