My first “official” responsibility in my new position took place a week or so earlier than schedule, as I officiated at a memorial service on a sunny, breezy, southern Alberta Saturday. It was a somewhat strange thing to be leading a service like this before even attending a Sunday morning service!
Throughout the day, a number of people expressed appreciation that I had agreed to do this before I had officially begun. Of course it was no problem, whatsoever, and I was honoured to do it. Death is no respecter of schedules, after all. Death always intrudes. A few others remarked—tongue in cheek—that this was a bit of an ominous beginning for me! Welcomed by death. Or something like that. I smiled and laughed awkwardly.
As I was silently observing people come and go from the viewing room, my thoughts, unsurprisingly, turned to death. It’s impossible to go to a funeral or walk the paths of a cemetery without pondering the uncomfortable fact that one day this will be you. We modern westerners can be fairly committed and inventive death-deniers, but there are always moments when the intruder barges through the door, and the reality of death is unavoidable.
As I drove home yesterday afternoon, I wondered if an encounter with death was perhaps the most appropriate way to begin a new season in life as a pastor. We, who presume to speak for/about God. we who are given the fearful honour of being present with people during their highest highs and lowest lows, we who are somehow permitted to steward the mysteries of life and death and suffering and salvation—perhaps it is we who most need to be reminded of the shadow that colours all that we do. Part of life is learning how to die.
There are no shortage of expectations out there for what a pastor ought to be and do. Decisive program administrators, witty intellectuals, compassionate shepherds/counselors, skilled social networkers, creative entrepreneurs, indefatigable apologists… the list goes on and on. Some of these expectations have their place… many do not. But experiences like the one I had yesterday add a touch of perspective to things.
Perhaps one of the most important things a pastor can do is to refuse to surrender death to the realm of meaninglessness and chaos and pain. Perhaps one of the most vital things we can ever do is to stubbornly insist that there is meaning, here in the valley of the shadow of death—that words like “redemption” and “resurrection” have not gone extinct, that phrases like “running the race” and “finishing well” make contact with truths about the universe that are real, and solid, good, and hopeful. Perhaps that is our job, in this post-Christian context—to tend to the embers of meaning and hope in this death-denying space and time.
I think it is appropriate for me to begin with death for another reason: I am quite a competent death-denier, too. I am as good as anyone else at pretending that death will not come calling. And if I am going to presume to help wrench meaning out of death on behalf of others—if I am going to stand in front of wooden boxes in front of holes in the ground and presume to locate all of this grief and pain and confusion within a narrative of hope— then I need to pay careful attention when death intrudes.
Wow This was really powerful to read. Grief is so complicated and confusing to be able to witness that in so many different situations must be… an odd experience most people only experience their grief and the grief of the people in their immediate circle of people. ‘learning how to die’ what have you learned about how to die?
Good question, Jenna! In many ways, my learning has just begun, but I suppose one thing that has stood out is that, like everything else in life, people need to interpret death as a part of a story with meaning. Each life is a story—a story of obstacles overcome (or not), triumphs achieved, character developed, accomplishments, relationships nourished, etc. This comes out in every service I’ve ever been a part of. Maybe one element of learning to die well is simply paying attention to the stories we have been entrusted with and telling them well… That sounds so cheesy and Donald Miller-ish, but I think it is true. I’m not one of these “live every moment like it’s your last” kind of people, but I do think that dying well is linked with living well—living honestly, hopefully, and faithfully before God and others.
Thank you for this post Ryan. It’s weird, last night in my fever induced delirium, I found myself planning my funeral. I am not trying to be dramatic as I know I am sick but not THAT sick; but it was quite interesting. I think it is a good thing to think about death sometimes. What you want your epitaph to be…
Any way, thanks so much for all that you do and for sharing your thoughts. Thank you, as well for keeping it down last night. I know you and Everett find that hard when your playing for the championship, but I really appreciated it. I still feel horrible today but at least I got some sleep.
May God continue to bless your ministry as the Spirit guides you and shows you “what a pastor ought to be and do”. Everett and I are here for you and your family always.
Thanks Tanya—you are a tremendous encouragement to me! I hope you feel better soon. We missed you yesterday!
“Perhaps one of the most important things a pastor can do is to refuse to surrender death to the realm of meaninglessness and chaos and pain”. Well said.
I have officiated at hundreds of funerals, but I have not probed too deeply my role in the ritual. Mostly, it seems, my job is to stand there and read things. I also listen beforehand as the family tells me of their loved one. When too many funerals come at once, I start to get sad; then I must do something mundane and repetitive like rolling coins to get my balance back. A mentor once told me there are three key things ministers do: hatch, match and dispatch (baptism, wedding, funeral). I guess for Mennonites the hatch one looks different, but even then you probably have a dedication ceremony.
Looking back, I see nothing terribly profound in this comment. But I will hit post anyway and wish you well in your new call.
Ha! I’ve never heard that before: “hatch, match, and dispatch.” I like it.
I’ve only done a handful of these, so “hundreds” seems overwhelming! I invariably find them incredibly draining, but I suppose that is one of the curses of being an introvert in a public role.
Thank you, Ryan. I couldn’t be there on Saturday but am grateful that you could be. One of the odd inheritances I got from my late father was the Abingdon Funeral Manual. If you ever wish to borrow it, you know where I live.
I may just take you up on that offer, Ruth… Thanks!
Funerals are draining. And they blow a hole in your universe for a while. It’s hard to focus on anything else. It’s especially tough when the funeral is Saturday, then worship Sunday. That is just exhausting. But ‘hole in the universe’ is a good metaphor for death itself, and it certainly does the same for the people who have lost their loved one. You enter into their ‘hole-ness’ for a time.
I generally read a lot of scripture at funerals because there is a power in that. I offer a brief homily, often summing up aspects of the person’s life, and how since they bore the image of God then certain aspects of their life and character remind us of God and God’s ways. A teacher reminds us of how God teaches all of us, for example. I have also learned the value of that old saying, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.” Mostly it matters that you show up. I don’t say a lot, apart from the funeral liturgy itself; usually the less I say the better.
Peace to you.
Yes, you’ve described the experience well, and I very much resonate with your approach to funerals. I think the image of entering people’s “hole-ness” is a very accurate one.