A funeral sermon

audio of funeral sermon for Hertha, by Martin Malina

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit, O Lord? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:6-10)

Hertha’s confirmation verse was from Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.” All things are possible. 

Perhaps this confirmation verse, given to Hertha at a young age, would become a calling of sorts, a gift to her especially in the last couple of decades of her life as she faced serious illness, setbacks and several medical crises. Perhaps this confirmation verse would alight over her like some metaphysical banner whenever it was tough going: “I can do all things, even this.”

Like Saint Paul who wrote these words in the 1st century from prison, Hertha would take this words to mean: “I can do all things in Christ—even when I’m at my lowest, even when my needs are their greatest, even when I don’t bring my A-game. I will endure the physical, mental and emotional anguish in my life. I will tough it out.”

Indeed, her mental toughness was exceptional, on many levels. Her faith as well. This was her simple yet solid faith in Christ who emerged from his suffering and death to new life. Indeed here was a vision in her mind that guided her through the difficult times. It was a holy pattern of getting back up after falling down: suffering-death-resurrection; and repeat: suffering-death-resurrection. She could indeed do it all, meet every challenge head on, literally. All things were possible.

Yes, Hertha had such a strong brain, a quick mind. Even into her 90th year she could still recall and tell stories from her childhood in vivid, blow-by-blow detail. Her memory was like a concrete vault.

She could provide comprehensive explanations to all, and I mean all, her medical conditions to such an extent that impressed even her surgeons and specialists. She knew more about her body’s ailments than anyone else. Her brain was firing on all cylinders her whole life long.

Iain McGilchrist argues in his seminal work The Master and His Emissary[1] that contrary to popular myths about the brain, the left side and the right side of the brain actually both function in every decision and activity we engage. And, again contrary to what had been earlier assumed, McGilchrist shows that the left side—prone to focusing on the particular, concentrating and rational explanation—is in truth subservient to the right side—which adopts the big picture view and accepts nuance, metaphor and ambiguity. It’s the right side that is the Master; and the left side the dutiful Emissary not the other way around.

We may presume that Hertha’s capacity for acquiring knowledge, applying analysis and logical explanations to situations in her life was the exceptional thing. But there is more to it, I suspect.

A better place to meet today would be the shores of the Bonnechere River near Kilaloe at the family cottage. Of course for various reasons we can’t. But perhaps each of you present today, whether watching online or here in person can conjure up in your mind an image of that place that is special for you.

And that is why Hertha chose the hymn we will listen to shortly: Shall We Gather At the River. She knew that spot to be a connecting-ground for the generations spanning her family line: From the humble yet intriguing beginning of how Joe acquired the land, to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who would decades later also develop a deep connection with that same spot on the river. 

Perhaps as the weather improves moving into Spring and Summer later this year, you can pause to remember and give thanks for Hertha when you next gather together there.

What impressed me was why she chose this hymn, especially because it is a common, beloved hymn often chosen at funeral services. She made a connection within herself—between the strong baptismal imagery in the hymn and the integration of the Christian faith with her personal experience. Left brain connecting to the right brain.

For sure, Hertha could left-brain it with the best of us. But Hertha’s master, so to speak, was her right brain function. Despite her precise and comprehensive capacity for rational thinking and acquiring knowledge, she ultimately could submit to the realm of faith, trust, acceptance and love. That’s why she picked that hymn, because she loved you. She loved you dearly.

She knew and often admitted to me that so much of life cannot, and need not, be merely explained away. She knew that there was no place on earth, indeed no place in her mind, that she could go apart from the loving and steadfast presence of a God she couldn’t fully comprehend.[2] She knew, that often all we need to do when facing the mysteries of life, love, death, suffering, and God, is just to gather at the river. And sing.


[1] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019)

[2] Psalm 139:6-10

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