A Letter for Barbara

By Martin Elfert

My friend Barbara Tyler died a few weeks ago. I’d like to share with you today the letter that I sent to her son, David, in anticipation of her Celebration of Life.

Dear David:

I met your Mom only a few years ago. She was a faithful attendee at the monthly Eucharist at Holladay Park Plaza, a Eucharist at which I have the privilege of presiding. Your Mom was always among the most lively of the worshippers: she listened with attention and generosity. And she virtually always had some wisdom or encouragement to share.

Two things that your Mom said to me particularly stick in my mind. The first is brief, it is a kind of aphorism, and it goes like this:

Human beings need to be careful what we worship. Because we will worship something.

It seems to me that this is a big insight, as profound as it is brief. It suggests that the religious impulse is universal, that one of the great questions of this life is not Will I be religious? but rather Will the religion in which I participate be one that I have chosen deliberately and critically; will that religion proclaim compassion, love, and justice? Virtually all of us, for instance, whether or not we attend church, temple, or mosque, are worshipping regularly in the religion called Consumerism, a religion that promises that we will find meaning and healing and community in the accumulation of stuff.

I don’t mind at all when someone opens the Bible and says, “I’m not sure if I can believe that.” As Rob Bell says, doubt is evidence that your faith has a pulse. I just wish that, when we visit the temples of Consumerism that we call the mall and Amazon.com, when we stand outside of a store called Forever 21, we would apply the same criticality. I wish that, there too, we would say, “I’m not sure if I can believe that.”

As we say thanks for life of Barbara Tyler, remember:

Human beings need to be careful what we worship. Because we will worship something.

The second thing that your Mom shared with me was a story. I imagine that you’ve heard it, David; I imagine that most of the people who will be present at her Celebration of Life have heard it. But I’d like to repeat it now anyway. It is, to my ear, beautiful and wise and mischievous in equal measure.

Your Mom knew, for a time, a man who was allergic to faith, a man who was not so much an atheist as an antitheist. Even though the two of them had different understandings of reality, they were friends. Periodically, your Mom’s friend would ask her a question. It was kind of a challenging question, and it went like this:

When you die and you find out that there is no heaven, how are you going to deal with the disappointment? How are you going to feel about all of the time that you wasted praying and going to church?

Now, your Mom was kind enough not to point out to her friend that his question was absurd: if what awaits us when we die is oblivion, then those of us who believe in the resurrection aren’t going to be disappointed. Nor are we going to be anything else. We aren’t going to be standing in a void somewhere, cursing and saying, “Oh no! Oblivion. I was wrong!” Oblivion, after all, is nowhere and nothing. And if oblivion is what awaits us, then we too will be nowhere and nothing.

Your Mom, however, let the absurdity pass. And then she gave her friend a kind and generous and wise and patient and amazing answer. She said to him something like this:

If it turns out that there is no heaven, then I haven’t lost anything. I have had years and years of comfort from my faith, years and years of community from going to church, years and years of love from knowing God, years and years of service from following Jesus.

Those words are as beautiful and simple an explanation of what faith is about as I have ever heard. Faith isn’t about later, it isn’t about somewhere else, it isn’t about buying or working your way into heaven. Faith is about living with freedom and delight and purpose and compassion right here and right now.

To be clear, I believe that your Mom is in heaven. I believe that she is reunited with your Dad and with countless friends. What I don’t believe is that she is in heaven because faith was a chore that she endured for more than nine decades. Rather, I believe that her place in heaven is the natural extension of the faith in which she found such joy during her sojourn on this earth.

Thank you, David, for sharing your Mom with me for a little while. She taught me a lot about faith, a lot about life. I will miss seeing her smile every month at the Plaza. I will miss her profound kindness.

May Barbara Tyler rest in piece and rise with Christ in glory.

Yours in the love of Christ,

Martin Elfert

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