It felt like falling down a well.
That’s the best way I can describe standing by the side of the cart in the back room of the funeral home, looking down at my sister in the body bag.
The call had come after a long day in the church office of meetings, planning sessions, and all of the mundane paperwork that has somehow accrued to the Good News these two thousand years after we first heard it. The early evening light slanting across the living room of my apartment took on a surreal tinge as my father’s voice on the phone told me my sister Maggie had died suddenly and unexpectedly from a drug interaction.
My sister had just turned thirty-three the prior week. I was twenty-seven, still learning the ropes after two years of ordained ministry. I was starting to get familiar with some of the changing patterns of post-ordination relationships—high school friends asking me to officiate their weddings, always being turned to for the prayer at Thanksgiving Dinner. And I was learning the rhythms of tending to parishioners in sudden and unexpected grief—going to the hospital, helping plan the funeral, gently shepherding dazed mourners through the steps of saying goodbye.
But suddenly my two worlds were colliding. No matter how many self-care and boundaries lectures we heard at seminary about not being pastors to our families, our loved ones didn’t sit through those classes. My family was even pretty good about not expecting me to have any greater knowledge of or connection to God than anyone else; but in the deafening spiritual chaos that descends in the death of an immediate family member far too young and without warning, I knew they would be looking to me for answers.
The death of a loved one has the immediate effect of revealing what your real theology is. In that sudden first burst of emotion, the long hours of evaluating elegant theological constructs around the problem of evil and life after death abruptly evaporate. My first prayer was visceral in its need: Please, God, I don’t care what she did or if she never had a chance to say sorry for it, just let her be safe. Perhaps it showed how deeply I’ve been conditioned by the societal belief in a punishing hell. But if nothing else, on later reflection it gave me a new appreciation for how our deepest desire for our encounter with God is a loving, sheltering, and above all safe Holy Presence.
Because my sister was not an easy person to love. In fact I and my whole family had been estranged from her for the previous two years. Her struggles with mental health and addiction manifested themselves in cruelty and abuse, and some boundaries had to be drawn for the safety of vulnerable people. I do not regret those boundaries even now. But I guess I always had hoped that healing would occur and those boundaries could soften over time. Now she was dead with all the unhealed pain forever suspended in unanswered questions.
In the car on the way to the funeral home, the emotional intensity was so high I had to keep tuning in and out of it like turning a radio dial from station to static and back. Jesus, her death is going to kill Mom and Dad; they say some people never recover from the death of a child, I would think, and then *click* went the mental dial: Wow, that’s a lot of people at a KFC this early in the morning and *click* back to I swear to God I hated her as much as I loved her, *click* Why didn’t I bring my comfortable black shoes, these are the ones that always give me blisters *click* Why are you doing this, God?
I’d seen my fair share of dead bodies in my Clinical Pastoral Education term. But this was my first experience of an immediate family member’s dead body in front of me, and she was not made up and dressed nicely the way people are by the time they get to funerals. She was still zipped into the body bag that she had been placed in at the hospital morgue. I reached out and touched her cold face, my family standing around me crying, and for the first time in my life I didn’t want to be a priest.
I didn’t want to offer a prayer or a reason or a comforting platitude. I didn’t want to be strong. I didn’t want to try to find something to say about how she now rested in God’s embrace and all her troubles were over.
But as the tears of anger and confusion and grief coursed over my own cheeks, I had a sudden and bone-deep knowledge that I didn’t want anyone else doing those things either. I didn’t want a pastor none of us knew coming in and trying to speak to a situation that he or she, through no fault of his or her own, knew nothing about. The deep and complicated veins of emotion twisting their way through our family could not be ministered to, at least in that moment, from anywhere but inside.
Although my ordination had briefly felt like a burden in the midst of my panic and pain, it came home to me once again as a gift. No, I shouldn’t be or have to be a pastor to my family. But right now, the people I love most in the world are drowning in the greatest darkness we have ever experienced. I have my hand on a lifeline—scripture and sacrament and prayer—and I’m going to use it.
Many Sunday mornings, when my mind was on the football game that afternoon or the headache that was making my sermon text blur, I felt like a less than adequate vessel of grace. All of those times, the good words of the prayerbook bore me up; and they came through for me again in my hour of greatest need. Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Maggie. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.
So what did I learn about being a priest and being a sister and a daughter all at the same time? I learned that when push comes to shove, the labels and titles fade away, and that lay and clergy alike, we are all helpless before death and deeply in need of our loving and healing God. Boundaries are good and important to preserve family life and role clarity, and 99.9% of the time we shouldn’t be pastors to our families. But the 0.1% of the time we have to be pastors to our families—those can be among the most sacred moments of our lives.
That day I found the tools God had placed in my hands at my ordination helped me keep the wolf away from the door for my family, gave us an anchor of strength in God in the storm of pain. That one half hour in the back room of the funeral home may be the most blessed and real of my entire ministry, and will make me forever grateful God made me a priest.