Sunday, July 10, 2011

Burying My Friends. . .

I cannot forget standing at the cemetery for the committal.  Her name was Shirley Selzner and she was the secretary to the Council of my first parish.  Faithful, generous, with a heart as big as she was, I had grown to love that wonderful Long Island accent when she called me "Pastah..."  Her laugh was positively contagious.  She had not been sick.  I was in St. Louis at a Synod meeting when the phone call came (before the days of cell phones).  I held back the tears as I spoke the Gospel to her husband Charlie.  As I consoled his grief, I stood alone at the pay phone, wounded and bleeding by the loss of my friend.  I got through the funeral but at the cemetery I could hardly speak.  "Christ is risen" came the whisper from my lips and the people responded with the conviction my voice could not muster, "HE IS RISEN INDEED!"  I turned from the assembled people and faced the tombstone to let the tears flow.  A few minutes and I was able to turn back and greet the family but the wound in my heart was still bleeding all over me and it would for months and years to come.

Such is the story of but one of the many folks who became my friends in the nearly 13 years in New York and the nearly 20 years here in Tennessee... funerals for folks who had touched my heart and life and burying those whom I knew not only as parishioners but as friends in the Lord, dearest friends.  I struggle to think of going back to New York because so many of them are now gone.  Part of me does not know if I can hold up with the homes lived in by other people, the spaces in the pews now occupied by different folks... So it has been too many years since I have returned.

The other day I had another one.  And I will continue to have them (unless the Lord moves me to another parish quick!).  I have lost family members and been unable to attend their funerals because of timing or distance.  I look at my parents and in-laws and know that every day they are with me I am privileged.  Perhaps these realities only magnify the losses and deepen the wounds when I must preside at the funerals of folks I call friends and bury those whose lives have intertwined with me in the most intimate of ways.

Pastors who stay in one place long enough cannot avoid this (unless their hearts are so cold or so insulated that they do not let folks in).  In the end it is our own mortality that death exposes.  As Herb Mueller put it, "Pastors are dying sinners, too..."  Indeed we are.  But we do not talk about it much -- not even with our spouses and children.  It is, for me, the most wonderful privilege of the Pastoral Ministry and its most painful duty -- to preside at the funerals of those who I count as friends and to lay to rest those whose lives have forever changed my own...  I could rattle off a list of names over the course of the next several days and would not get to them all.  Sometimes my wife and I find ourselves thinking at the same time of the same person -- now gone -- and our eyes well up with tears as our voices clouded with emotion whisper their names once more...

Too many stories to write them all here, gone but not forgotten... at least not by me... And, thanks be to God, not by God, whose memory has the power to rescue us from death.  Those whom the Lord remembers, those precious in His sight, He ushers from death to life in our Lord Jesus Christ.  It was not a helpless cry that the thief uttered that Friday called Good.  "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom..."  In Christ there are no yesterdays, only the todays of His promise, His paradise, and His peace.  This is not only the consolation and hope we preach, it is the consolation and hope that sustains us Pastors, too!

7 comments:

Emily Cook said...

My husband is young in the ministry (3 years ordained) and so we are only just beginning to taste this. It is bitter and sweet.

It is good to know that God sustains those farther along the path we are traveling.

Sage said...

I wish I had words of comfort for you that would convey the feelings of my heart and spirit. The older we get, the closer we are to the same place as you mentioned. I think God prepares us for that time we too are put to rest, watching those we love go before.

We bury a piece of ourselves with each person we say goodbye for now. I think all those pieces are put back together in heaven with our Lord.

It hurts beyond measure and the tears really never stop until we are freed from this world of death and sin.

Peace and God's blessings to you and your family that support you in your calling.

Anonymous said...

It is natural as a caring and loving
shepherd of his flock that a pastor
experience grief at every funeral
he conducts in his parish. This
would be the norm not the exception.

What makes it more difficult is when
you have been in a parish over 20 yrs
and your pastoral relationships with
your flock are much deeper than
a pastor with only 2 to 4 years at a
parish.

Sue said...

One of our previous organists once told me how hard it was to play for funerals - and then to later look down from the balcony and see the growing number of holes where living members once sat.

Our now-retired organist of 60 years (retired 6 years ago at age 80) spent 2 days thinking about (& I'm sure praying) whether she could manage to play for the funeral of my mother, her dearest friend. She did, and it was such a blessing to me, especially at the end when she played, at my request, the Hallelujah Chorus.

God give you strength as you face these sad occasions, and may he remind you again of the glorious reunion to come.

Anonymous said...

St. Paul, who wrote and preached so much about the assurance of eternal life, and the joys of heaven to come, also wrote this (Philippians 2: 25), “Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; 26 for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people, 30 because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me.”

In the first chapter he wrote (Philippians 1:23), “… my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” It is interesting that while St. Paul considers being with Christ to be “far better”, he considers that God had mercy on Epaphroditus when the latter did not receive what is “far better”.

So even in St. Paul there was the tension between sorrowing when a friend died, and being convinced of the superiority of life with Christ. On the other hand, our Lord had no such conflicting feelings; He wept when He had to bring back His friend Lazarus from where it was “far better.”

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

El said...
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