Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Happiness Conspiracy: A Memorial Homily in Celebration of the Life of Alena Marie Hibbs Ehrhart

Richard and Sandra invited me here today to participate in this service partly because I am a pastor but also because I am a friend.  So that means I have two things I want to do here today.  I want to share some of my memories of Alena, and I hope to bring you a word of encouragement and hope. 

Alena and I went to high school together in Sierra Vista, Arizona, for one year—our senior year.  I already had a pretty tight knit circle of friends before Alena and her family moved to our town.  We were theatre rats, kids who found our identity in the theatre—in choirs, in drama, in musical theatre, in dance.  We were Glee before there was Glee.  We sang and danced and acted our way through high school. 

We took it as a compliment when someone called us “weird.”  For instance, we developed an annual celebration called the Merry Moose Marking Month Party.  We decided that July was Merry Moose Marking Month, and so we decided to celebrate.  Everyone who was invited to the party was instructed to bring a Moose Marker.  We gave no instructions as to what might constitute a Moose Marker, but everyone had to bring one.

There were prizes.  There were costumes.  There was theme food.  There were homemade virgin cocktails.  There was dancing.  And always there was laughter.  Now if you have raised children, especially teenagers, you probably understand how great it was that we had each other, as crazy as we were.  Kids who are busy planning elaborate theme parties and auditioning for musicals and rehearsing six days a week are too busy to get into others kinds of trouble.  We knew we were different, and we took joy in our differentness. 

And then Alena moved to Sierra Vista.  We met her in the concert choir during our senior year.  And I don’t know how it happened, but it seems to me now in my memory that it took us about five minutes to befriend her.  Or maybe it took her five minutes to befriend us.  But our lives were never going to be the same.  We already had friends, we were already a little crazy, we were already addicted to laughter.  But I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that there has never been a period of my life before or since when I laughed so much.  Alena was the funniest person I had ever met, and I already knew some hilarious people.  She had us laughing so hard we cried.  Let me tell you some stories.

For some reason the school choir director got it into her head that we were all conspiring against her to take over the choir.  I don’t know what it would mean to take over the choir, and I cannot remember the details, but I can tell you that all we wanted to do was sing well and have some fun.  But anyway, we thought, okay, she thinks we have a conspiracy going, we’ll get a conspiracy going.  We had t-shirts made.  We elected officers.  We made our own vocabulary.  We made a constitution.  We were, yes, a little weird.  The thing was, the choir director never made the connection between our t-shirts and the fact that she thought we were conspiring against her.  Let me read you what she wrote in my yearbook:

“Debbie:  It seems like we only met yesterday and that’s probably because we did.  We’ve come a long way even since February and I wish we were going to be together even longer to see what’s going to happen next.  These last few months have been the happiest ones in my whole life [Sorry, Richard, I know you thought her happiest months were with you, but apparently they were with me!] and I’m never going to forget that you were a part of it.  I want to keep in touch with you so you better help me do that.  Thanks for everything, and long live the Happiness Conspiracy!  Love always, Alena Hibbs.”  I like her version of it:  The Happiness Conspiracy.

One day towards the end of the year I had my yearbook confiscated by our government teacher because I had let someone sign it during class.  So Alena and I and the rest of our gang sat down together and made an elaborate plan for “liberating” my yearbook.  We had a list of needed supplies, such as gloves, rope, flashlights, night goggles, and a crowbar.  We spent hours on the details of this plan, and some little part of us hoped we might actually have the chance to implement it.  But of course all we really had to do was ask the teacher for it the next day.

Then graduation time came around, and we wanted to think of a really great senior prank.  Most classes did something stupid, like putting all the school picnic tables on the roof, or painting some piglets the school colors, blue and white, and letting them free in the courtyard.  We decided instead that we wanted to do something more creative and less destructive, something that would leave our mark on the school forever, but in a positive way.  We decided to sell the school. 

We wrote up a detailed classified advertisement, which mentioned the fully equipped gym, the spacious dining facilities, the ample parking, the newly installed computer room, the multiple rooms, the large private theatre.  For more information, interested parties could call Vince, who just happened to be our school principal.  It just so happened that Sue Ann, who was also part of our little gang, had a mother who was a city council member.  We figured that if she took the advertisement to the local newspaper, no one would question her.  They would accept the ad and put it in the paper.  And to our surprise, she agreed to help us with our little scheme!

She took the ad to the local newspaper office, and they accepted it and the payment, and we waited to see what would happen.  But someone got suspicious and did a little checking.  And when they discovered what was behind the ad, they refused to publish it.  But instead, they wrote a feature story about us and put it on the front page of the newspaper!  We had our moment of glory, even though the ad never got published.  Everyone knew that the Conspiracy had struck again!

Before Alena moved away, we had one more thing we had to do.  We had to do graduation in a big way. We decided that each of us, as our names were called and we shook the principal’s hand—the very same principal whose name we had put in the ad to sell the school a couple of weeks earlier—when we shook his hand we would place into it a ping pong ball.  And we were so excited about this idea that it spread, and we got every single one of the 400 hundred graduating seniors of the Buena High School class of 1977 to come to graduation prepared with a ping pong ball.  Old Vince must have gotten wind of it somehow because he had a cardboard box on the platform.  When it was my turn to receive my diploma, he looked me in the eye, said “Congratulations,” shook my hand, and with the ping pong ball I had oh-so-slyly deposited in his hand, he turned without a trace of rancor and tossed it into the box.  Our principal received 400 ping pong balls that night. 

There are many more stories I could tell—like the time Alena’s sister Sandra plucked Alena’s eyebrows so thoroughly that they practically disappeared—but I think you get the idea.  Two days after graduation a few of us met Alena for breakfast and said goodbye.  Then she and her family drove away, moving back to Portland, and most of us never saw her again.  I was lucky.  I moved to Seattle a while back, and about three years ago Darrel and I met Rich and Alena at the Rose Gardens in Portland to wander among the flowers together and relive old times a bit.  Facebook has made it possible for us and many of our other friends from the good old days to stay in touch.  Alena made us laugh, and she kept our memories of those days alive in our hearts.  She was one of us, and we missed her when she left.

I know many of you have stories and memories of the joy and laughter that Alena brought into your life.  Even though Alena suffered with many physical ailments and has been mostly homebound in recent years, she still found ways to be an encouragement to us.  Many people knew her only on Facebook, and she ministered to them even though she had never met them.  I was looking over her Facebook wall this week, and I see how often she posted things about strength, the need to be strong, the way we discover strength in ourselves when we think we have none, our need to depend on God for new strength.  Maybe that’s why she loved these Wonder Woman shoes so much.

Rich told me that he was lucky because Alena wasn’t a person who cared much about clothes or makeup or expensive gifts.  She was easy to please.  But when she saw those shoes, they spoke to her in a way that very few material things have spoken to Alena.  I think perhaps she saw in them the power to live that she had discovered already in herself, the power to rise above her circumstances, and to live a life of love, meaning, community, family, encouragement, and strength in the face of some difficult limitations.  And Richard made sure she got those shoes.  Yes, she was limited in some ways, but she refused to be limited in all ways.  And in the ways she wasn’t limited, she was strong.  Mighty strong.  An example to us all strong.  Wonder Woman strong!  Yea, though I walk through the valley of death strong!

And that leads me to our passage today, a passage that I’m sure almost all of you would recognize, the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord


I want to share a few things I discovered about this very familiar psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing. 

First of all, the name of the Lord in the first line is the personal name for God, Yahweh, the one given to God’s chosen people Israel.  It means, “I am.”  The God who was, who is, and who is to come, is the very same God who is our shepherd.  We are allowed to call that God by name!  And because Yahweh is our shepherd, we lack nothing.  God gives us what we need for each day and for each season.  That doesn’t mean we will never experience hurt or pain, but somehow in the midst of it, God gives us what we need.  And we are hurting today.  We need something from God.  What is it that a shepherd gives that might make sense to us?  Think about what a shepherd does.  A shepherd spends all of his time with the sheep, 24/7.  He spends the day with the sheep, he eats with the sheep, he travels with the sheep, and he spends the night with the sheep.  We lack nothing because we have the shepherd with us, day and night!  The gift of God is his very presence with us.  And he is here with us now, sharing in our grief.  None of this escapes his notice.  And just as God was, is, and will be with us, he was with Alena, he is with Alena, and he will continue to be with Alena.

The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside quiet waters; he refreshes my soul. 

The Hebrew words that are translated “quiet waters” literally mean “waters of rest.”  Oh, how our souls crave rest when we are grieving.  Sleep can be hard to come by, and even when we find sleep, we don’t always find rest.  But God promises us a comfortable and beautiful place to find rest, a grassy spot in front of still waters.  And when we arrive there, our souls will be restored. Although our memories will last, our grief will not last forever.  We will be brought back to liveliness and vitality. 

When I think about Alena, about the physical struggles she had in the last years of her life, about how hard it must have been for her to find real rest, real comfort, I rejoice that at last she has been returned to the health and vitality that God always intended for her.  We already knew the vitality of her spirit; and now she has a new, healthy, lively body for all that vitality to live in!  I imagine her telling stories with Jesus and making him laugh, the way she used to make us laugh.  We, too, will experience that renewed vitality when we put our trust in God, our shepherd.  We will experience it a little here on earth, as we learn to trust God more, and we will experience it fully in the day when we stand beside Alena, in the presence of our Shepherd.  We will laugh again!

He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
 Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me.

The phrase darkest valley used to be translated “the valley of death.”  It means a place of deep darkness or impenetrable gloom.  Alena has walked through some pretty dark valleys in her lifetime.  In recent years, her struggles with health were downright frightening.  There were days of impenetrable gloom.  But she knew who her Shepherd is, and so she looked beyond the gloom to the light.  I think of how her doctors told her she would probably spend the rest of her life in assisted living.  And she said, No way.  [Richard interjects:  I think she used a little stronger language than that!]  I will find a way to go back to my home.  And she did!  And I think of how they told her she’d have a trach for the rest of her life.  And she said, No way.  I will find a way to get rid of it.  And she did!  Just a couple of months ago, they were finally able to remove it.  She worked hard to get well enough to make that a reality, because she did not fear the evil that wanted to keep her down!  God was with her, and her family was with her, and her friends were praying for her, and Alena saw beyond the gloom of the valley and came out the other side. 

Do you feel like you are walking through the valley of death?  Either because of your grief over Alena or because of other circumstances in your life?  God is with you in this darkness.  Reach out and take hold of his hand, and he will lead you through the darkness into the light.  I Peter 2:9 says that God has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Will you answer the call of the shepherd?

The Psalm goes on to say:  your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

A shepherd’s rod is just like you might expect, a stick used to guide and tend the sheep.  But it can also mean scepter, like a king uses. And the word staff in the Hebrew is a word that is used in reference to the aged and the sick.  Alena was the same age as I am, so I don’t like to think of her as aged!  But God was certainly caring for her in her illness.  We are comforted in our illnesses as Alena was, by the shepherd’s staff.  But the scepter also promises us that God reigns as king, and one day that reign is going to be perfected, and then every illness will be healed and every tear will be dried.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.

The word translated my enemies means literally the ones who are being hostile to me.  Now hardly anyone who knew Alena really well could be hostile to her; she just brought us too much joy. But she definitely had experienced hostility.  Sometimes people who didn’t know anything about her judged her, and at those times I would see something in Alena that made me really proud to be her friend.   She would seek justice not just for herself, but for everyone who had ever been a victim of someone else’s malicious gossip or taunts or judgments.  She wrote some beautiful essays, which I read on Facebook, talking about the need for us to give one another the benefit of the doubt, to avoid judging one another, especially before we even knew one another, and to accept one another in all our glorious personalities and bodies and strengths and weaknesses.  And now Alena is feasting at the banqueting table of her shepherd, and some of her enemies are going to be left scratching their heads.

You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

The word anoint here means refresh.  God refreshes our heads, like putting on expensive lotion that smells good and feels good.  Yes, God is concerned with bringing us delight, so much so that our cup overflows, literally, my cup is abundance.  I have more than enough to drink.  When we’re walking through the valley of death, it’s hard to remember that God wants to bring us delight, but someday, beloved, someday soon, in a limited way here and now, and in a fuller way when we stand with the shepherd, our cup will be abundance.  Abundance of laughter as we remember Alena’s life, abundance of health when we aren’t disabled and in pain, abundance of love in our families, abundance of things that smell good and taste good and finally and perfectly quench our hunger and thirst.  God is about abundance, and Alena is living in the fullness of it now, and someday we can join her.

And then my favorite part of the psalm, which extends this idea of abundance.  Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.  God’s love—that’s a word in the Hebrew that is very difficult to translate into English, because its meaning is so much larger than what we mean when we say “love.”  It means lovingkindness, mercy, faithfulness, righteousness.  It means, as one scholar put it, “activity beneficial to the recipient in the context of a deep and enduring commitment between two persons, by one who is able to render assistance to the needy party who in the circumstances is unable to help himself or herself.”  That kind of goodness and love, that’s what followed Alena from this life into the next one. 

And the word follow means pursue or chase.  Imagine this.  We are walking through the deep darkness, and we’re looking forward so hard, looking for a glimpse of light, and the whole time, God’s goodness and lovingkindness are behind us, pursuing us, chasing us.  We’re so focused on trying to see into the future, that we don’t even see that God’s goodness is right around us!  God wants to pour his mercy and love into our lives, but sometimes we are running too fast to receive it.  My hope for you, for all of us, is that we will slow down and look around and see where God is trying to show us his love and mercy and goodness.  Who has expressed kindness to you?  Who has done the right thing when it would be easy to do the wrong thing?  Who has offered you sympathy or food or a handkerchief?  God’s mercy is pursuing us, if we will only notice!

The world is not a perfect place.  Things happen that we don’t like, that hurt us, that disappoint us, that make us uncomfortable.  But God is not absent. Like a shepherd, God walks us through the deep darkness.  There is still deep darkness that we must walk, but we are not alone.  We are not alone!  Let that be our hope as we celebrate everything that Alena was and is and will be to us, and we shed our tears of grief and joy.

Alena wrote a poem once that was published.  I’d like to share it with you now.

Daily Renewal

morning sunshine blooms
blossoms open to the sky
heaven's gift renewed
evening descends
all life enfolds 'til morrow
daily renewal
God's greatest gift
a daily miracle, yes
dance! sing! no sorrow

Alena’s words to us are:  dance! sing! no sorrow.  I have a little sorrow.  I love Alena and I already miss her, and I know that you do too.  But someday we will dance and we will sing and there will be no more sorrow. 

Richard has asked us to share this song with you, by Queen, called “Dear Friends.”  I think we can imagine that Alena would share this with us herself if she were here in body today.

"Dear Friends"

So dear friends your love has gone
Only tears to dwell upon
I dare not say as the wind must blow
So a love is lost, a love is won

Go to sleep and dream again
Soon your hopes will rise and then
From all this gloom life can start anew
And there'll be no crying soon

Let’s pray.

Loving God, your eyes are always upon us, nurturing us through all the days of our lives, sheltering us by your grace and preparing a special place for each of us in eternity. We give you thanks and praise this day, O God, for the life of Alena.  She brought laughter to a world that knows too many tears, kindness to places filled with hate, friendship to people who needed a shoulder to lean on and the support of an embracing arm. Welcome her, merciful God, into your joyous, eternal home.
We ask you, O God, to be with Alena’s family and friends as they walk through a valley of deep shadows where it feels as if the sun will never shine. Let the bright light of your love and compassion reflect into all the dark crevices of their continuing journey. Lift them from the depths of sorrow and pain. Allow their feelings of loss to be surmounted by comforting memories of good times spent with the one they love. Lead them by the still waters of peace, and anoint them with the oil of faith. We ask these things in the name of your Son, Jesus, who came into the world that we might have unending joy and eternal life. Amen.


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