When I first heard the news, I was with some friends. (Thank God.) Bill looked at his phone and said, “This is bad.”

“What?” Shobha said.

Silence.

“WHAT?”

“This is very bad,” Bill said again, as if his soundtrack was stuck in shock.

As he read the words of the text out loud, “tragic . . . died suddenly . . . flu . . . pneumonia . . . stopped breathing . . . unable to revive . . .,” I felt — no, I actually saw — my emotions shutting down. I was staring unblinking at a Christmas tree and I saw the white lights blur and then dim as my “self” withdrew deep inside my body.

Already hiding in shock and denial after my brother Biff’s death last month, this was too much for my raw soul. Impossible. Not our dear friend Betsy. Some survival instinct moved my inner emotional switch from the hibernate setting where it had been for the past month into the full OFF position.

Being Without Betsy

I entered church the next morning in full shut-down mode and so was able to do my usual job of greeting folks. At least I didn’t have to smile — many had already heard the news about Betsy on Facebook or by phone, but some were only just finding out as they entered the building and saw her face on the screen and the “In Loving Memory” underneath. It’s odd how many people thought it was some kind of morbid  humor, that it must be Betsy’s quirky idea of a joke. Because of course it couldn’t be true.

Actually, quirky doesn’t begin to describe Betsy. She’s very hard to describe, although many have tried over the past week of remembrances and services and Facebook tributes.

Of all the people I know, I think she is the most alive. Truly, fully alive and engaged with life.

Only she’s not.

None of us can imagine Cedar Ridge Community Church without Betsy. She’s been on staff there forever, often working in the sound booth, where you could see her hot pink hair poking up over the partial wall and her arms waving in full-on joyful worship when the band played the rockin’ songs. How she loved God!

Betsy Mitchell Henning

Betsy Mitchell Henning (photo by Jed Curl)

And how she loved us! All of us. As so many said at her memorial service, she was the most absolutely non-judgmental person you could find. She was utterly fascinated by people and their stories and found something to like in everyone she met. She knew how to connect and she knew how to love unconditionally.

The Good News

When I entered the sanctuary that morning, I was surprisingly unsurprised to feel Betsy’s spirit alive as ever, hovering in and through and above everyone and everything. It is impossible to imagine our church without her because we will never be without her. The unconditional love she radiated was absorbed by all of us and is being radiated back out to the world.

This is unbelievably good news! Did you know that’s what “gospel” means? Good news.

When I realized that Betsy’s spirit is not “dead,” I also realized that my brother’s spirit is not gone either. At least I realized that in a tentative kind of way — in my journal I wrote: “Somehow that makes it almost possible to allow myself to believe that Biff’s spirit is also still with me. Almost. Too good to hope for in a way. Too good to be true. Do I believe in Jesus or not?”

Do I believe?

Do I believe?

Stay tuned for Part II of this post tomorrow, in which I find myself apologizing to just about everyone: my atheist, aggressively agnostic, and conservative Christian friends . . .

In the meantime, here’s a lovely blog about Betsy by someone who barely knew her but felt her spirit: http://thedefiningyears.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/dear-betsy/

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