(September 30, 2007) Reflections on my mission trip to Ecuador and our responsibility to care for each member of our human family. (Isaiah 65:17-25)
A friend and fellow feminist (who would never mess around with gender pronouns) quoted my funeral homily in one of her sermons.
The original sermon (not the memorial service homily thing) is back in my possession as my webmaster is having technical difficulties (as in a power outage fried his computer’s guts). As soon as I have a spare minute I’ll burn it and upload it to my archive. But first, I have a day-long meeting this week, and I’m having a new Lutheran pastor and her husband over for dinner, and I have another funeral. I’m actually looking forward to it– a lovely and delightful woman and mother who kicked cancer a couple of times before it finally caught up to her, and she died relatively peacefully (no gunshots were involved at least). What does it say about me that I consider any death not involving a weapon to be a pretty good thing right about now?
One of those weird sermon days that affirm for me why it’s a good thing I don’t use a manuscript (the bad thing is that it makes uploading much more difficult!). I had one whole sermon written out in bullet form. It was okay, nothing stellar. But as I was reading the scripture aloud in the worship service something else, well, hit me. And I preached a different sermon, and a far better one. How strangely erm, cool.
Every so often, people wonder (sometimes aloud, and sometimes even to my face) about the necessity of all those years of schooling. Did I really need to study philosophy and religion for four years in undergraduate and three years in graduate school, or was that a waste? they ask. Doesn’t God just speak to the faithful and tell them what to do? Isn’t ministry mostly about ‘pastoral moments’ of being with people one on one and you don’t need any deep theological thoughts to do that?
In a word, no.
This past week has affirmed two things for me. The first, and this is a wonderful surprise and a long time coming, is that I am good at being a pastor. Not good at some aspects of it like preaching or crafting worship or focusing on mission. I’m the whole package.
The second is even more refreshing to know: every single moment I spent reflecting theologically was a moment well spent. I am glad for every test, every paper, every stupid theological reflection on some random aspect of my week that I was forced to do for seven years. Because sometimes you need it. Every so often, you walk into a situation where you have this one chance, maybe ever, to not [really mess] up. You are asked a question, a tough question, and you have to provide an answer. A shallow platitude won’t do. The answer you think the person wants to hear won’t cut it. In that moment, when you are asked, “Is my grandson in heaven?” or “Can God forgive murder?” or “Why the hell do we pray, then?” you have that one moment to give an answer that you believe and that you stand by and live by, that you can support with sound thinking and decent theology and biblical examples and life experiences. You better believe that you can’t pick that up at two weeks of local pastor’s licensing school.
But fortunately, I had more than two weeks’ training. I had seven years of theological schooling, and when a twenty-two year old girl looked me in the face and asked me if her brother was in heaven with Jesus, even though he was a murderer, I told her yes. With conviction and with the assurance that I was as right as anyone could be about such things. I said yes because I believe that strongly in God’s grace, and I believe that love and grace are more important than retributive notions of justice. And I walked her through it: do you still love your brother? (yes) do you forgive him? (yes) do you know that he is a good person and that the horrible thing that he did wasn’t who he really is? (yes) do you think God is more loving than you are? More forgiving? Do you think God knows your brother even better than you do? Is he okay, then, she asked. I told her that I didn’t know what heaven really was, if it was a place or a state of being, but I believe that it is without sickness or pain or anger. Do you agree? (yes) And when you take away your brother’s illness, when you take away his pain and anger, what are you left with? That’s right, the wonderful, loving man you know him to be, and that’s who he is now. But can God really forgive murder, she asked. Knowing she knew her bible inside and out, I said, “you already know the answer to that question.” I do? she asked. “Sure. What did Jesus say as he was dying, as he was being murdered?” And she got it. She held on to it like a lifeline, in fact.
The question about prayer is harder, and one that I freely admit I don’t know the answer to. I don’t think that we pray to try to get God to do something that God hitherto has been unable or unwilling to do. I think we pray to get ourselves closer to the heart of God, and in so doing to either come to a place where we are the answer to the prayer that we seek, or we are strong enough to bear the outcome of whatever crisis we were trying to avert. I don’t think that we can pray, for example, for God to create world peace, because it’s not like God’s just sitting around waiting for us to pray enough and then ‘he’ will swoop down and fix everything. We can’t pray for peace because we are the ones who stand in the way of it and we are the only ones through whom it can come. Instead, we’re really praying for the courage to be peacemakers, and the strength to deal with the absence of peace, in our selves and in our world. That said, there are instances of people who were prayed for being healed of a particular disease, or in my own (very recent) experience, people who know that they are being prayed for feeling buoyed and strengthened by the support and love of others– a truly sacred feeling.
A third thing that was affirmed for me this week is that I am a die-hard process theologian. When I left seminary, I was a budding process theologian, but the practice of ministry has solidified my stance. [for the non-seminarians: very briefly and poorly stated, process theology suggests that creation is not the completed work of an all-powerful god, but an ongoing process of creating, participated in by both divine and human forces. the upshot is that we co-create the world with the divine, who is not so powerful as to have made a flawless world, or to have the power to intercede and avert tragedies.] Plainly put, I can’t buy any argument by which god is all powerful but for some noble reason self-limits or defends free will and chooses not to act in the face of disaster. When it comes to things like mass genocide or murder suicide or pandemic illnesses, screw self limitation and free will. Any god who had the power to stop the holocaust and for whatever reason didn’t is a monster; I can’t worship that god. The only thing that makes sense is that the divine lacks the power to intercede and struggles along with us in the midst of tragedy and disaster. That god is all-loving, and that’s far more important than the notion that god is all-powerful.
A fourth thing that was affirmed for me is that my congregation loves me. This afternoon, I came home to find a tray of homemade baked ziti and a loaf of italian bread on my doorstep. My chair of staff-parish committee thought I looked tired yesterday, so he cooked dinner for my family. And left it on my porch.
So much for keeping the press out of it. And I swear, despite the fact that I was before about 300 Republicans and fundies, I never used a gender pronoun for God. Just goes to show you that people hear what they want to hear: Intrepid reporter apparently hiding under the organ gets most of his quotes and darn near all of his punctuation wrong.
I began my day with the copier eating my bulletins, so the funeral parlor staff, who arrived shortly after 8 to deliver the bodies, were treated to a performance of a pastor swearing profusely and kicking a copy machine. It didn’t help that I was wearing my ‘does this pulpit make my butt look big?’ shirt, not having done laundry in a week. And my toddler was eating rubber bands and painting her face with nail polish. But, on the upside, one staff member and his daughter decided they’d bring the kids and foster kids to church on Sunday on the sole basis that “she’s a *person*.” We evangelize in the strangest ways.
The family showed up at 10 (I had thankfully changed into my grey powersuit and clerical), and spent more than an hour together in front of the caskets (open at first– yes, that took 12 hours of reconstruction; between the two men there were three gunshot wounds to the head), then supposedly took a break from 11-12 while ‘immediate family’ ate in the fellowship hall. Of course, many more people thought they were immediate family than the immediate family thought, so they ran out of food, much to the embarrassment of our church ladies, who blamed themselves, although they’d been told not to bring anything. I spent most of that time missing that crisis and bringing LittleOne to daycare instead.
From 12 to 2, there were viewing hours for the public. People came in, walked past the caskets, hugged the family, and left. For the entire two hours, the line extended through our foyer, out the front door, across the front of the church to the side door, across the parking lot to the far side, and up onto the lawn, which itself looked like the parking for a county fair. There must have been four or five hundred people through the church in that two hour period.
We still managed to start shortly after 2. The sanctuary was hot and crowded; we’d put up all the chairs we had, nearly 200, and there were people lined three deep along the walls and out into the foyer. The service was okay, although not as good as the one for the congregation on Sunday (much harder when you don’t know your audience and you’re trying to be brief so no one– yourself included– faints). Usually after a memorial service, I feel like the healing process has begun, that good mourning has occurred and people have begun down the long road toward healing together. I didn’t feel that way at all in this instance. Barely a scratch in the surface.
The ‘private’ burial was attended by about 60 family members, and then we all went back to my congregant’s house (me with LittleOne back in tow) and had food and drink, and I actually saw a couple of people smile once or twice.
I can’t believe how much my congregation helped this week, without me even needing to ask. This was a job for about four churches, but they stepped right up, moving chairs and cleaning up and providing refreshments. More importantly, I was flooded with supportive emails and phonecalls, thanking me for Sunday and offering prayers for Wednesday. Good people.
Following Sunday’s difficult service, I had this email in my inbox tonight. I will pull this out whenever I feel like I’ve made no difference whatsoever. The author is a young man with a wife and adopted son, who has been attending our church off an on for a few months. (names have been removed)
I just wanted to say to you again — you did a tremendous job this morning. Given the gravity and the circumstances of the family’s situation, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in your shoes during the service today. But, you handled a terrible and shocking situation in the most beautiful way. And I’m sure everybody who was in church this morning feels the same way. It’s hard to wrap your brain around such tragedies. My wife and I have had our share of them, but thankfully haven’t dealt directly with anything quite this shocking — though, we’ve watched some friends grieve over loved ones who died unexpectedly, tragically — and in a couple of instances, horrifically. And in all of those other situations, the pastor/priest/etc would tell the grieving to not be angry at God…and I could never accept that, never in a million years. So to hear a pastor tell her congregation that “It’s okay to be angry, God can handle it” was the most wonderful thing I’ve heard a preacher of Christianity say.
I’m, admittedly, not the most devout Christian to come down the pike…I consider myself 1/2 Buddhist and 1/2 Christian…and while I believe that would be a problem in some churches, I think it’s something you could accept easily. And for that I thank you…
The point is…(at least from where I am standing) you took the most horrible of situations and made the best sense out of it, better than anyone I’ve ever met. That service was hard to get through…I can’t imagine what you were going through.
Anyhow…I’m sure you know that you delivered the goods, as it were, this morning…but thought I could confirm it for you. Your church, and it’s congregants, have made me (and my family) feel more welcome than any other we have stepped into…and I’m sure most or all of that has to do with your leadership.
A million thanks. Be well,
And also, probably (because of that), my best.
This morning was supposed to be back-to-sunday school day, a time to focus on kids and sing “Jesus Loves Me” and talk about how Jesus wanted the little children to come to him. And we did that. For about fifteen minutes. And then the kids left the room and I asked my congregants to put their bulletins aside, and I gave the sermon of my life (soon to be uploaded) in the midst of the worship service of my life.
I began by explaining what had happened, because some had known for nearly 24 hours and some had no idea: the grandson of one of my congregants, a young man of 24 with a long history of mental illness, fatally shot his father (my congregant’s son), a county legislator, multiple times, and then killed himself. The bodies were discovered by the wife/mother of the victims Saturday morning.
Then we sang a hymn. “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.”
Then I talked. I let people voice some response and nods, but no one seemed about to jump up and speak, so I continued, talking about the questions and the pain and the anger, tying in the anniversary of Katrina and 9/11 and all the people in our church facing difficulty right now, telling people it’s okay to be pissed off at God when bad things happen to good people. I told a couple of really powerful stories about bad things happening, and the miracle of forgiveness or healing or strength being the presence of god–rather than the hand of god working in the tragedy itself (we’re full up on platitudes here; sell that ‘it’s all part of god’s plan’ crap somewhere else). Then we took prayer concerns. And people shared stuff I never thought they would. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
Then I did something I never do: I gave an altar call. I invited people in great need of prayer to come up to the altar and for others to stand with them, and I invited people who couldn’t come up to just stand or wave and others would come pray with them, and we prayed. A lot. The man who’d shared a really personal heartache came forward, and my husband and another congregant stood with him. I had a request to change the closing hymn from my planned “Amazing Grace” to “Here I Am, Lord,” which is sort of my congregation’s theme song.
When the service ended, I got the best comments I have ever received:
“Perfect. Exactly what needed to happen.”
“I have never been more impressed in my life.”
“We’re so glad you’re here, but you should be somewhere else. More people need to hear what you just said.”
“That was the most moving service I’ve ever been to.”
I also got an email that I’ll post separately, because I want to keep it forever.
In the afternoon I visited first with my congregants (the mother/grandmother and the sister-in-law/aunt), and brought as much comfort as I could. One cousin said simply, “it’s just good and calming to talk to someone who isn’t crying.”After dinner, I went to talk to the immediate family, who has asked me to do the memorial service. It was the most awful thing I’ve ever had to do, to try and just be there with that family in such a horrific time, but I did it. And I nearly had to pull over and puke on the way home, that’s how much it hurt.
But for the first time I am sure that I did everything exactly as I had to and was meant to and needed to and as it could have and should have been done. For the first time I am sure that I made a huge difference, if only because I wasn’t crying or spazzing out or offering empty platitudes. Just being there helped. People always say it does, but this time I actually saw it.