Funeral Meditation for Teresa Neifert

(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:

Philippians 1:
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.

Learning to die – Practice in releasing

Learning to die – Looking to the crucified Christ

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.


I, Kendrick Garrison Crawford, had a mother. We all do, or did. Ruth Grace Wagner Crawford was mother to myself and my sister Kimberly Ann, by Ruth’s husband, our father, James Garrison Crawford Sr. I realize now, 15 years after her death, that I really didn’t know my mother all that well. I knew her only really as a son. We did not get to spend much time together once I was an adult –and even then there were so many other distractions – other people, her illness, my plans and dreams. If I could, today, I’d love to ask her about her childhood, about her views on politics and religion, about her faith in Jesus. She was quiet and unassuming. She was confident in what she knew and she lived it out, though rarely shared it with others unless it was her task to do so. She was one of the most tender and loving people I have ever known, but that love never took her far from home or the school where she worked. She simply loved the people around her, not seeking out new strangers to love.

Mom was diagnosed with non-hodgkin’s lymphoma when I was 18, again when I was 24, and finally when I was 27. She lasted only a few weeks after the final diagnosis. At her memorial service, as people were coming through the receiving line I hugged my mother-in-law, Camille, and said, through my tears, “Will you be my mommy now?” I was twenty six, and felt like I was four. And of course she said yes. And she has been loving and tender toward me in my own right, not just through her daughter Laura. I’m so grateful for wonderful in-laws. I’ve never known anything of the nightmares of immaturity and strife that so many people share.

Dad remarried the next year – Jackie. Thin as a rail and sweet as Texas pecan pie. I remember vividly arriving at Dad’s house, perhaps the first time we met her. We walked in and in only a few moments I realized that all the photos of Mom (Ruth) that had displayed only days earlier were gone. I came unglued and ran out of the house and walked around the neighborhood for nearly an hour. When I arrived back at the house I learned that Jackie was hurt by my actions, because she thought I was rejecting her. Nothing could have been further from the truth, though I certainly understand her interpretation now. It was simply that the absence of all the photos brought a new level of concrete reality to Mom’s death, it was the next stage of good-bye, and it took me by surprise. Jackie was in ICU when Dad proposed (he’s certainly a bold one!) and they were married for 7 years before she succumbed to pneumonia and other complications. She was always frail, but in a remarkably and mysteriously strong sort of way that still makes no sense even as I write it. She was really the only grandmother that my kids knew on my side, the kids called her Grams. Camille was two when Mom died and thinks she has some faint memories that may be recollections or constructions or a combination of both. Russell was three when Grams died. She loved them deeply and fully as though they were her own, and loved us the same way. I was 35.

Dad remarried again (yes, that’s right!). Faye came along by way of someone who was supposed to smooth his ruffled feathers over a civic organization gaff (and maybe make him go away?) Well she’s been trying to smooth those feathers now since 2006. She’s kind and gracious with us and the kids, and she and Dad make each other happy.

An aside: Jackie and Faye were both mothers long before meeting Dad, with grown children of their own, and Jackie with grandchildren. So it’s interesting to think about observing them as mothers of their own children, and experiencing their mothering instincts in a different sort of way toward me and my family. And if your Dad’s wife’s kids are your step-siblings, what relation are they after she dies? It’s not a weighty thing, but it is curious.

You may not believe this, but Dad was actually married and divorced before he met my mother. (The man does believe in the institution of marriage – and loves women – one at a time!) So, Kim and I have a half brother and sister (That sounds so weird, like “Top half or bottom half? Left side or right? Is that half a brother and half a sister?” Anyway…) So they have a mother different from our mother, which is interesting – siblings with different mothers –what relation is Floretta to me? How do I think about my love for her on their behalf? It’s another curious thing.

And I’m married to Laura Camille Evans Crawford, the love of my life, who has given me two beautiful children, Camille who is now 16, and Russell who is now 10. So I’m married to a mother as well. It is wonderful to see how mothering works “from the side” as it were, rather than from below. Eventually I’ll get to see it, perhaps, from above, if Camille and Russell get married and have children. For now, I watch and learn a new view of motherhood. I see its challenges differently now. I know what it is to hear a mother regret that she doesn’t or can’t do more for her kids, when I know she does so much. I know what it is so watch her cheer for them and grieve for them, and want to wring their necks, and to share together in all of that with her – our experiences distinct, but together. I treasure Laura as my friend and wife, and particularly, this weekend, as the gift of motherhood she is to our children, for I know how precious that gift is, and I know that generations will be blessed because of her loving care for them.

Finally, I watch mothers. I watch our sister Carol, our cousins, our friends, our neighbors, our church family, community colleagues, and strangers at the park or the store. I watch the women who do not have children of their own, like our beloved Kimberly, yet who shower so many children with a mother’s love – particularly those who seem to be getting short changed by the world somehow. I marvel at the diversity of what it means to be a mother, when the essentials are so basic and share such clear commonality. Mothers love unconditionally. Mothers nurture, feed and tend. Mothers protect and defend. Mothers hover and smother. Mothers worry and fret. Mothers hope and dream and pray. Mothers receive, and they give, they cling tightly, and they let go. But mothers never really let go, any more than we let them go. They are, in that way, like God. Always with us, even if we can’t see, hear or feel them. Always loving and being loved, we are never out of their thoughts, even if they are out of ours. I thank God for the mothers in my life.