Tomorrow, I will lead another funeral service, the first one for 2004, and the fourth since my appointment at Antioch UMC four months ago. This saint is Bernice Eaves, a person who was homebound when I was appointed and who I only met in person twice. And yet, she is one of my flock, one of my own, and I cherish the responsibility of presiding very much.
I once told a church member at another church that I enjoyed doing funerals. She looked at me kind of funny until I explained. It isn’t that I relish the thought of people dying, that I thrive on people’s pain, or anything morbid like that. But it is in the ministry of life transition — marrying and burying as some would say — that ministry becomes most real. Funerals are a time when you feel like you’re doing something important — both on a personal level but on a a sacred level as well. You are presiding over someone’s transition from life to life in another form (at least, according to my understanding of the world) and it is a great responsiblity. The family needs you to proclaim hope and comfort, and to interpret the life of their loved one honestly but lovingly. And the deceased needs you as well, to say words to the family that he or she might have been unable to say. In a sense, the pastor is a great interpreter, interpreting this mystery as best he or she can to all involved in the process.
Funerals are also a time when it’s easy to regain perspective. The ministry life is often filled with many little details that can quickly consume the pastor (and no– to my church folks that read this–I’m not complaining about being overloaded, so don’t worry!!!). The greatest dilemma of ministry that I face (and most of my colleagues face) is the balance between spiritual leadership and event manager. No matter the size of the church, there is a juggling act between which is more important — my role as pastor, my role as administrator, my role as program developer, my role as teacher, etc. Funerals put all that in perspective. They help me remember that the call is to a deeper place than organizer and systems manager. There is a priestly function, a place where we represent God in this transition, which is both odd, and refreshing.
One more thing about death and funerals. The most amazing thing about ministry is how willing folks are to allow you into their lives at the most sacred moments. I can’t ever forget what a sacred trust this job is. How many persons are allowed (even encouraged) to be present with a family and their loved one at the point of death? How many times have I been a fly on the wall during moments that were tender and loving and redeeming in the midst of this loss? I have baptized a stillborn child, and presided at the death of persons who took their own lives. This isn’t fun or enjoyable work. But it’s important, significant work, and there are very few opportunities for most of us to experience that level of meaning.
The funeral tomorrow is one of the easier ones. Bernice lived a long and fruitful life. She was a faithful person, who was loved by her family and church. It’s easy to celebrate her life in the midst of our loss. There are others that are much harder. But all are significant. And it’s part of what makes me a pastor.