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Remembering Rebecca Wriker

We celebrated the life of Rebecca Bell Wriker (5) at Oak Lawn yesterday. These are the words and prayers I offered at the service. Her parents, Matt and Samantha, gave their permission to post them here, hoping they may be a source of comfort to others.

Last week I sat with Samantha in Rebecca's room at the hospital. We talked about finding meaning in all of this, and I gave her permission to go to the roof of the hospital and shout, "THIS IS NOT FAIR!!" to God. We could probably line people around the block today to shout at God. It can be a cathartic thing to do- God can certainly handle it. Rebecca's illness, metachromatic leukodystrophy (MLD), was a tragic reality. It is not fair for a life which began as most other girls' to end in this way. Let us not define her memory by her disease, but rather our remembrance of the joy she shared with us. Every time we see a ladybug, let's remember how that was Rebecca's trademark. Every time a child shouts aloud on the swings at the park, let's remember how much Rebecca loved to swing. Every time we hear a Laurie Berkner song, let's remember she was Rebecca's favorite, even having the chance to see her in Austin via the Make a Wish Foundation. Let's remember her wonder and curiosity when she happily explored the cockpit of Matt's airplane. Whenever we see a child at the library being read to, let's remember Rebecca's love of books. When we hear a child pray the words, "Now I lay me down to sleep," remember Rebecca's "PRAY!" command to her parents every night. Or her "AWAY!!" command to healthcare providers when they entered the room.

We struggle to find the meaning in all of this, but we must be careful not to explain it away. Often when faced with such tragedy we believe we are most helpful to those we love by trying to explain away our grief: "Everything happens for a reason." "God needed another angel in heaven." What Matt and Samantha need the most today is love and compassion, not answers. Let us not try to save them from their grief- let us believe that their faith, as damaged as it my be today, will, over time, become a source of strength and healing. The Rev William Sloan Coffin quoted Hemingway from A FAREWELL TO ARMS in a sermon after losing his own son: "The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places." That's our prayer today, not just for Samantha and Matthew but for each one of us: we'll become stronger in our broken places.

Coffin remembered how countless pastors wrote to him quoting scriptures like, "Blessed are the mourners." Reflecting on that experience, he said, "While the words of the Bible are true, grief renders them unreal. 'My God my God, why have you forsaken me?'" Those are words from Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted from the cross. In his time of suffering, perhaps he too felt abandoned by God, as many of us have felt during Rebecca's illness. Psalm 22 is a psalm of lament, a prayer voiced by one enduring great trial. It begins with, "My God my God, why have you forsaken me?," but does not end there:

All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
To him,indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.*
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

The psalmist has become stronger in the broken places.

Several months ago Matt and Samantha returned to Oak Lawn after many years away. They sat on the back pew with Rebecca. After the service I walked back there and we spent several minutes catching up. A few months later many of us gathered in this space for Rebecca's baptism. I wheeled her around in her chair and proudly said, “This is Rebecca” to her church family. It was a special day. I don't know what brought the Wriker family back to Oak Lawn- lots of great churches between here and Frisco- but I am so glad. Sharing this time and these experiences with Matt, Samantha, Rebecca, and this family has been holy. At her baptism the two of you made the commitment "that by your teaching and example she may be guided to accept God's grace for herself." Unfortunately she was not able to get there, but you gave her great teaching and example on how to live. The 5th commandment calls for us to honor father and mother, but surely parents are called to honor their children as well. You honored Rebecca in every way.

1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 says, "Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangels and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words."

Or 1 John 3: 1-3 says,"See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure."

The text I read from Romans 8:31-39 could not be any more appropriate for our grief today: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that was created will be able to separate us from God’s great love in Christ Jesus.” Wherever you are emotionally today and in the coming days, know that God is with you. It may seem that God is distant—but remember Paul’s promise: nothing can separate you from the love of God.

Years ago- probably 15 years ago- a group of us from church went to a Stars game at Reunion Arena. Steve and Elliot Schemmel were there- Elliot was about 3-4. We were in the nosebleed section, when we her Elliot exclaim, "I can see Jesus!" No one else saw Jesus that day as far as I know, so we could question it. There's no question today, that if we were quiet and reflective enough we might hear Elliot's cousin Rebecca say, "I can see Jesus!" We know she can, because that is where she is. She has been restored. Today she runs, sings, and dances in God's presence. She has been healed of her disease. She is no longer confined to her earthly body. And as much as this tragedy hurts each of us, we also find a way to rejoice for Rebecca, as she has been raised by the same power that raised Jesus. Let us pray.

Life-giving God, your love surrounded each of us in our mothers’ wombs, and from that secret place you called us forth to life. Pour out your compassion on Samantha. Her heart is heavy with the loss of a promise that once took form in her womb. Have compassion upon Matthew and the members of this family. They grieve the loss of hopes they anticipated, the dreams they envisioned, the relationship they desired. Give them courage to admit their pain and confusion, and couple that confession with the simplicity to rest in your care. Allow them to grieve, and then to accept this loss. Warm them in the embrace of your arms. Knit together their frayed emotions, and bind their hearts with the fabric of your love for them.

Jesus, most gentle and tender friend of children. You valued 'the little ones as those to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs.' You will understand how Rebecca brought the touch of heaven into our daily lives. She transformed everything and lit us up. Darkness has come upon us now that she is gone. Lighten our darkness now we beseech you, 0 Lord. Jesus, Rebecca did not travel far into this life, and so did not have far to travel back to you. Hold her in peace now and forever in your loving arms. Into the arms of your love we give Rebecca’s soul. Into your hands we also give ourselves. Comfort us all. Keep tender and true the love in which we hold one another. Let not our longing for you ever cease. May things unseen and eternal grow more real for us, more full of meaning, that in our living and dying you may be our peace. We offer our prayer through the name of Jesus, who called the children to him with the words, “Let them come to me.”

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