Last Tuesday night, my husband and I attended a memorial service for an 18-year old high school senior who had committed suicide. The service was at the exclusive Episcopal Boarding School the student attended, and was beautiful, emotional, powerful, celebratory, painful, spirit-filled and sorrowful all at the same time.
The classmates and friends of the young person were grief-stricken, and sounds of teenagers crying could be heard throughout the service. At the reception afterward, it was clear that the school community had been actively engaged in helping the students to process this tragic death; this unexpected act of a promising life cut short. Although suicide is always heartbreaking, this one was particularly so due to the fact that the student had been a shining star in the close-knit school community: class president all four years, a gifted musician and member of the school orchestra, choir, and band, athlete, and friend and counselor to all. What’s more, the student had already applied to twelve colleges and had received acceptance letters from two.
So what happened? You may have noticed that I have not yet mentioned the young person’s name, nor referred to the student as he or she. This is because although born a boy named Carl by his parents, recently Carl had begun identifying as transgender. In other words, Carl felt that he should have been born a girl. He proclaimed this in a powerful December talk at chapel in front of the school community. Carl publicly took on the name Emelia, and although there were no external physical changes to Carl, many people over the past several months began referring to Carl as Emelia, or Em for short. In fact, the memorial service bulletin gave thanks for the life of EmeliaCarl.
The service followed the traditional Episcopal liturgy, and the responsive Psalm read was a portion of Psalm 139. In this beautiful psalm, a favorite of many, the psalmist talks about how the Lord knows all about us because God created all our innermost parts and knit us together in our mother’s wombs. Furthermore, our bodies were not hidden from the Lord while we were woven in the depths of the earth, and even during this time God’s eyes saw us clearly and wrote down our days in the holy book. One of the most captivating verses from this psalm is verse 14, which states in the translation of the Bible read that evening, “I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.”
I am marvelously made. These few words from Psalm 139 are the ones the priest who delivered the homily, or eulogy, chose to focus on. They are the words the Holy Spirit gave her to expound upon for the good of the broken school community who was and still is in need of being put back together again. In her message, the Dean conveyed to all present in no uncertain terms God’s words that “we are marvelously made”. She asked us all to repeat those words after her, then to speak them in unison from the depths of our souls, and shout them loud enough so that EmeliaCarl could hear them in the heavens, the eternal resting place.
EmeliaCarl was clearly not the only person who has struggled with not feeling marvelously made by God. It was this struggle and the ensuing depression that resulted from the struggle that likely led this marvelously made being to commit suicide, although we will never know for sure. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, chapter 1 verse 27, we find these words: So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. This is not a platform to debate gender identity from a theological point of view; that is for another place and time by another person. I am bringing up this verse to point out the inviolable truth that every single one of us is created in the image of our amazing, wise, loving, all-powerful, ever-present God. This is the case regardless of what struggles we are going through with our physical bodies.
I am not afraid to admit that there have been many times on my cancer journey when I have questioned whether I was in fact marvelously made. After four separate cancer diagnoses, the seemingly endless prods and pokes over the years by countless doctors, and the many exams, tests, surgeries, recoveries and treatments I have undergone, I have asked the question what’s wrong with my body? Why does it keep getting cancer? Why can’t I just remain healthy? My once bushy eyebrows never returned after being decimated by my first round of chemotherapy treatment, and my hair, which used to be thick and plentiful, has been replaced by wigs, scarves and the natural look.
Each time my body healed from another surgery or procedure, a scar was left. I could look at these scars as ugly mutilations that needed to be hidden from view, or I could see them as beautiful warrior marks representing that I had been victorious over yet another phase of this battle that has never belonged to me but has always belonged to the Lord. I chose the latter. The very fact that our bodies heal after undergoing various forms of trauma – serious injuries, debilitating illnesses, etc. is a testament to our being marvelously made. It’s an awe-inspiring combination of God’s creative power and the power and wisdom God passed down to human beings in the form of modern medicine.
My friends, be assured that whatever state your body is in right now, know without a doubt that you are marvelously made. This has been true from the moment you were conceived and will be true until your body leaves this life. Stand in front of the mirror naked right now and praise God for being marvelously made! See you next week.