Years ago after I had published some of her books, I slipped into a talk Mennonite author Katie Funk Wiebe was giving at a retirement community. Although I had long connected with Katie in relation to publishing, I had only met her briefly a decade before. Even back then she was at retirement age and writing particularly on aging. Now in her 80s she was still writing away and active enough to be speaking 1,300 miles from her Kansas home.
When I crept into the chapel where I was to help sell her books, I was instantly impressed. Why? Because we often view 80s as winding-down time. Such signals are even stronger as COVID-19 makes some see those over 60 (like me) as having few valuable years left. Yet there was a majesty to Katie that was riveting, even awe-inspiring, as she stood there framed by that head of white hair simultaneously dignified and wild and told her truths. I saw the Katie who in Border Crossing (DreamSeeker Books, revised edition 2003) yearned to have done more galloping “at breakneck speed.”
A man likely still older asked Katie this: As we age, as ears and eyes, limbs, even brains fail, how is God with us then? And what are we worth then?
The next questioner wondered what it meant to believe God remains present when dementia takes away everything we may have thought of as defining a person.
Katie pondered. She seemed not determined to get answers just right. She just offered the thoughts that came. A main response was to tell of walking with her daughter Christine. After years of failing health, Christine had finally moved in to be taken care of by Katie before dying.
Katie said some days were very hard, with not much to be done but get through them. At the end of each day they’d sit with each other. They’d ask what in that day had been life giving, what life denying.
Sometimes they found life-giving things to be thankful for, even if as small as the sun shining. Other days, confessed Katie, they could think of nothing at all. The day had been grueling, even torturous. Those days they’d just sit with and sometimes hold each other and thank God they still had each other.
The Jesus story says that the great takes the form of the low. That God sometimes values the very opposite of what we do. That God is larger than death but also present in death and beyond.
I suspect this matters as we confront — sometimes squabbling over political implications — wrenching accounts of people of all ages, often older but often enough not, savaged by COVID-19 and too frequently taken or grieving one taken.
And I think often that the upside-down Jesus this season reveals was evident in Katie Funk Wiebe. I see Jesus in Katie’s head of white hair flaring, pondering with her questioners what is left to celebrate when we have little but dim eyes, failed ears, false teeth, a brain that may not even know who we are.
Amid worry that normalcy may not return soon — or ever in its old forms — I remember Katie not fixing what can’t be fixed but sitting with dying Christine. And even then being grateful for what remained present to be cherished.
Both Jesus and Katie are gone now in bodily form, but I sense their spirits living on, intertwining not so much in answers to what lies ahead but in ongoing presence amid whatever each day brings.
Michael A. King is publisher of Cascadia Publishing House and blogs at Kingsview & Co., cascadiapublishinghouse.com/KingsviewCo.