(NOTE: Theresa Neifert died Monday morning, 5/14, at 12:55am. I am her pastor. She was and remains a real treasure and will be sorely missed by many of us. You can see her obit and leave messages here. You can read her CaringBridge chronicling her journey with cancer. Her son Joe and husband Jeff did such a nice job speaking about her during the funeral, and her family and friends will be far better at narrating her story, so I’ll leave that to them.)
Some of us are familiar with the notion that this earth is not our home, because we are a spirit trapped in a body, and that God’s ultimate plan is to free our spirits from a bodily form. This is not what either the old or new testaments say. The biblical witness, as we have heard in Revelation and in Paul’s writing, is that God’s consummation of all things will bring us restored bodies in the midst of a new heaven and new earth – we will, in the end, be incarnational beings. Incarnation is the ultimate expression of God’s creation of humanity, not some kind of secondary temporary compromise we are stuck living for a short while. This is why there was a resurrection. Without the centrality of our incarnation, there is no need for Jesus’ bodily resurrection – he could just conquer death as a spirit – no need for the cool resurrected body that is both similar and different from the old body. This tension between our bodily and spiritual experience is none-the-less real, and Paul talks at length about it in numerous places, including:
21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.
Paul regularly acknowledges the apparent tension we often feel between our internal and external experiences of the world, and in faith he goes further to identify a tension between desiring to be here among family and friends or in the kingdom of God in eternal bliss. This life is marked by blood, toil, sweat and tears – a phrase first uttered by the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. It can be a hard life, and yet it is also filled with good food, hearty laughter, natural beauty, rapturous physical intimacy, intellectual challenge – in a word, it is beautiful.
La Vita e Bella – Life is Beautiful – Do you remember that film from 1997? Do you remember Roberto Benigni at the Oscars? He practically floated off the stage he was so filled with joy. He seemed to be filled with some kind of energy from some other place – it was infectious – the kind of thing that still makes one smile 15 years later. That is how I think many of us experience our time with Theresa – she seemed to be channeling an energy from somewhere else – it is infectious, beautiful, challenging, hopeful, inspiring. That may be part of what made the last years so difficult for us – to see someone so filled with life and love struggling to stay and continue to be present with us and for us.
People live four different kinds of lives – the interior life of the intellect, the interior life of the emotions, the exterior life of objects, and the exterior life of relationships. My sense of Theresa is that her life was very externally focused, and leaned heavily toward relationships. She worked with her hands in a very tactile and intimate way – to have her wash your hair prior to a cut was to know that someone was praying for you. She loved to be surrounded by family and friends, and loved to feed them – Sunday afternoon meals are legendary.
The fact that she lived her life so much in the body, so much in her relationship with the physical world, may also be part of what made it so difficult to let go. Theresa’s experience of her own life and faith was such that she struggled knowing how to pray once she stopped praying for healing. What does one do? There is a whole terrible and wonderful discussion to be had about coming to terms with that reality – making a conscious decision to turn from prayers for living toward prayers for dying – without feeling like one is giving up or letting others down. I’d like to share part of what I told her last week when she’d come to that place.
I’ve only known her these last ten years, and the rest only as she’s told it to me, so most of her life is out of my reach. But I can confidently say several things about her life and faith.
Theresa was generous with her life – to her family, to friends, to clients at the salon, and even to strangers near and far. Many of you were involved in her efforts for the St. Bernard Project after hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans. From all I can tell, that was just the kind of person she was – nothing out of the ordinary, though certainly extraordinary in its effort and impact.
Theresa was vivacious – she was the kind of person other people wanted to be around and couldn’t help but like – because she wanted them around and liked them. Even in the last 48 hours of her life she was surrounded by family and friends and friends of family. She was joking and guiding and challenging and encouraging and teasing and loving. Saturday evening was a scene I’ll never forget, as she and her family drew together to boldly love one another and stare death down, fiercely proclaiming to themselves, each other, and the world that death would not separate or destroy them, that death would not get the victory.
Theresa was devoted – you knew who she loved, and she prioritized those relationships. That probably wasn’t always fun or easy, because if she loved someone she wanted the best for them and would challenge them to be their best, to hang in there, and to make difficult choices and go through tough times to overcome adversity and get to a better life.
Theresa was forgiving, she believed in second chances. How many of you in this room were given a second chance by her – or a third or fourth? Often times we take actions in our lives – we say or do something, make a decision – that we regret, but we think there’s no going back. We can’t unsay or undo those things, but the forgiveness we see in Jesus tells us – Theresa’s own faith and the way she related to us tells us – that we can be reconciled and restored, we can be forgiven, we can get another chance. With God we never run out of second chances. No matter what we’ve done, how many times, or for how long, God is always waiting right beside us to receive us back in love. It may be that the hardest part of all that is that we have trouble forgiving ourselves – I know Theresa did. She was ready to forgive others, but found it difficult to forgive herself for past mistakes and receive the grace and mercy she so freely offered to others – which God so freely offers to us.
People like to say, “Gone but not forgotten.” They put it on headstones, on car windows, on tattoos. But we shouldn’t be content just to remember, the way we remember the people from our school years. Remembering should not stay in our heads and hearts, but be incarnational – we should live it out in the world, in what we say and do, in the priorities we set and the values we live. Theresa has taught us many faith lessons, and all of them are incarnational – all of them mirror God’s love for the world which is tangible – it can be seen and heard and felt. As you remember, make a conscious decision to live your life differently because you knew her. Honor her life, her love, her legacy, by living it. Stay in relationship with her, hearing and feeling her guide you toward your better selves – toward being generous, vivacious, devoted, forgiving. By doing these things we honor her, and the God she loves.