Tomorrow my friend Sarah will bury her husband, the first of my peer group to do so. And while she and I haven’t had much contact in the half-decade since I moved to a different state, Sarah will always be a special friend. When the devastating news of her loss reached me on Wednesday morning, I sobbed.
I met Sarah at church in 2011, and in the few minutes we talked that Sunday, I took her to be a kindred spirit. She proved it to me a couple weeks later when our church commemorated “Right to Life Sunday,” not my favorite Sunday on the evangelical church calendar. Don’t get me wrong—I wholeheartedly support the right to life. What I don’t support is the sermon du jour that elevates the nuclear family above the Family of God and exalts motherhood as the highest calling for a woman. As a single member of the Church until just recently, I shudder at the message that’s all too clear to those without spouses or children.
The sermon on this particular “Right to Life” Sunday was no different. Everything about it was wrong, and I was as bothered as I usually am by such things. At the other end of my pew that morning was Sarah—a loving wife, the mother of four children, and the ideal audience for such a sermon. In fact, the speaker had said his goal was to energize people just like Sarah in their child-rearing efforts.
Halfway through the sermon, I caught Sarah’s eye—and while I’m not sure the exact look I had on my face, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t one of my better ones. After church she caught up with me before I could get myself and my less-than-sanctified thoughts out the door. She started by saying, with a wry smile, that she did not feel energized by the sermon. Instead, she had some significant issues with it and its implications for being the Family. She asked what I thought, and I—the introvert to Sarah’s extrovert—told her I didn’t know her well enough to tell her what I was really thinking. So she kept talking, giving voice to so many of my own thoughts about what it means to be the Church, the Family of God.
I went to Sarah and Don’s for Easter dinner that year—along with a retired widowed pastor, an elderly woman, and a widow with her single adult daughter—all people from our church without “families” to join for a holiday meal. As I, the newcomer, sat at the table, I listened to Sarah ask each guest about his/her life with respect to our church. She freely expressed her appreciation of them and their rich investments in the church’s ministries. Then the kids presented each of us with cards and bookmarks they had made. I’m sure the dinner that day was delicious—but what Sarah’s guests really savored was the love of Family.
Sarah gave me a standing invitation to sit with her family in church, a kind gesture to a single person in a deeply established family church. But for Sarah, it wasn’t just a gesture. On Mother’s Day, I followed her into the sanctuary and down the aisle to their family pew near the front. Their pew was particularly crowded that day, and by the time Sarah found her spot next to Don in the middle of the pew, it was obvious we weren’t all going to fit. I motioned that I would just sit somewhere else. Sarah tried waving me in, but I wasn’t interested in making a scene (or sitting like a sardine), so I took a place two rows back by myself. It was fine, really. No harm was meant, no offense was taken, and goodness knows, I was used to sitting alone in a wide variety of places, not the least of which was church.
The service started and we sang about three songs—all sitting down. As we sang, I noticed that Sarah had moved herself away from Don, on the other side of a couple of kids, and next to her brother-in-law—all while we were sitting down. We kept singing—sitting down. Then choir sang their number for the morning, and we finally stood up. At that point, Sarah climbed over her brother-in-law and sister-in-law—the last two people in the crowded pew. She came back two pews and put herself next to me. I said, “It’s Mother’s Day, Sarah. You should be with your family.” She said, “They have me all day.” End of discussion. From our pew farther back and without nearly the view she had in the center of her family’s pew, she watched three of her kids sing in the special Mother’s Day choir; she strained her neck to see her 10-year-old son read a card he’d written for her; and then she tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to “love-grab” them when they walked past our pew to go to children’s church.
The sermon that morning was another exaltation of motherhood—and while I could’ve cried over that, what nearly brought me to tears that morning was Sarah’s kindness.
Sarah lived out such kindness and generosity to me over and over during the two years we were “in-town” friends, and my life was so much richer for it. Working on Christian school teachers’ salaries, she and Don struggled to make ends meet, but they always had more than enough love to share. Their hearts and their home always had room for one more.
My heart is broken for my friend—and I pray that in her devastating loss of family, the love of God’s forever Family will carry her through.
What a beautiful tribute to a woman who has touched so many lives by Christ who lives so abundantly inside her, she can’t help but overflow His love to others. We all cherish and adore the VanderKolk family and pray as they navigate this world while Don glorifies his God in heaven.
My heart breaks for you and your friend Sarah. I will be praying for her as she navigates life without her husband. I pray that her church will step up and be the Family to her in a very special way – just as she was to you.
I appreciate your candor in writing this and pray that when I sit in my pew tomorrow morning I’ll be challenged to a renewed effort to really be family to those gathered together for worship. “Be a Sarah” shall be my goal tomorrow.
Thanks, Cindie. You & Wayne always welcomed me as Family, too! 🙂 Special friends in multiple states…I am blessed.
Oh man, you found many of the words I’ve been searching for all week. Well done, and thank you for articulating so well a portion of the grief of this dreadful week.
Thanks, Megan. 🙂