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gravestones in a cemetery

Can You Ask Them If They’re Okay With a Woman?

gravestones in a cemetery

“Can you ask them if they’re okay with a woman?”

It was late morning on the Friday after Christmas.  It was one of what feels like only a small handful of days each year when I didn’t have anything really pressing on my to-do list, so I came into the church that morning determined to clean my office.  My time that day felt like a gift – it wasn’t claimed already by someone else, and so I pulled up some music and set about making my space feel, once again, like my own, which almost never takes priority for me.  It had occurred to me, as I walked in, that these are the kinds of days when disasters usually strike, but I dismissed that thought as quickly as it had arrived.

So when the call came in from the city office, it took me a minute to wrap my mind around what the woman on the other end was asking.  Someone needed a pastor, and they needed a funeral in less than two hours.  Wait, what?  Who buries the dead that quickly?  Or if it wasn’t so quick, why hadn’t they called yesterday, or the day before?  Oh, I see, their priest is suddenly unavailable, okay.  And they don’t speak much English.  And you say they’re African immigrants?  They attend the Orthodox Church.  Okay.  It’s for a 6-week-old baby?  Good God.  And just the burial.  Right, just some prayers.  Christian prayers.  They just need a Christian minister; any Christian minister.  Got it.  Okay.

I’m a Christian minister.  A Lutheran one, to be precise.  My church is the first one the city employee had called, and of course I said I was available.  To bury a baby on a moment’s notice for a grieving family on the worst day of their lives?  Can there be more holy work than this?

After I had taken down the few bits and pieces of information the city employee had about the family, I was about to hang up, when I remembered one last thing:

“Can you call the family back first?” I asked the city employee.  “Can you ask them if they’re okay with a woman?”

She scoffed.  I appreciated the guttural expression of support, and I knew what she meant – that this family was desperate for someone to meet this need, and I was both trained and willing to meet it – but still.  “It’s the worst day of their lives,” I said.  “I don’t know anything about their culture, and not enough about their religious beliefs.  Can you just call and make sure?”

She agreed.

She called back within three minutes, her voice sheepish and apologetic.  “You were right to ask,” she said.  “They said that they would much prefer a man.”

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My Friend, the Mortician

cross in graveyard small

I met Rob Pecht, owner of Bordentown Home for Funerals, in a hearse. At least that’s how I remember it. Our first conversation on a long drive to a cemetery centered around my being relatively new to the area and our mutual love of the HBO show Six Feet Under. I vaguely remembering asking him, “Is it really like that?” We have been friends ever since. I have celebrated with him and his wife the birth of their children, and I’ve even attended birthday parties in the funeral home, which is much cooler than it sounds. Rob is more than a friend, though; he is also a cherished colleague. Through Rob, I learned a lot about what happens behind the scenes for a funeral to come together. I recognized that a funeral director’s calling is similar to ours – always on duty, always connected to a phone. They too have to leave family dinners and plan the long weekend trips around needing to be back for a service. He understood the life of a pastor, and I understood his life as a funeral director. Read more

The Nearness of the Clouds

An opening in the CloudsJust before Christmas, I preached at the funeral of a beloved church and community member named Wendy. She struggled with cancer for many, many years—far more years than I knew her. We became especially close in the last two years of her life: years which were also marked with my mom’s cancer diagnosis and death. Wendy, my mom, and I all bonded over cancer, death, and the promises of God that we shared.

After such a long battle, Wendy’s death still felt sudden. It was hard to know where to begin with the sermon, although it felt like it should have been easy. After all, not long before she died, she sent me a four page document telling me what to share and what not to say.

Wendy wanted to be sure that I shared how much her family meant to her: her dad and her mom, as well as her husband and children. She loved each of them fiercely and uniquely. Wendy loved people, including more friends than she could name. Of course, I didn’t need her email to know that. Anyone who met Wendy knew that. In the years I knew her, it was obvious that she put others first consistently. Even as she did everything in her power to fight the cancer that had invaded her body, she continually gave of herself: in her classroom, at church, to her family and friends. Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The only difference with Wendy may have been that she loved her neighbor more than herself.

That love for others grew out of love she received: from her family and friends, but also from God. Wendy told me not to say that she was a strong person. Some of us disagreed with that over the years. However, she wrote, “God is who got me through all the years with his strength and by surrounding me with such wonderful people that made me want to stay for as long as I could.” Wendy was strong because her strength came from God, from her faith.

Jesus also said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Wendy loved God and was not afraid to share her faith. She was involved in teaching confirmation for many years. Those were years in which she talked openly about her faith, about what she believed, about her willingness to keep learning and growing, trusting that God was part of her life’s journey. For me, Wendy was part of that great cloud of witnesses referred to in the book of Hebrews. She ran the race of this life with perseverance, looking to Jesus for her strength. And now, she’s still part of that great cloud of witnesses: those who have gone before us, who point us to God.

A few months after her father died, Wendy shared with me an experience she had one evening while driving. She was on the phone but had to pull over because a cloud stopped her in her tracks. It looked just like the profile image of her dad. I told her that I believe the boundary between this life and the next is thin. Throughout the Bible, Jesus says that the kingdom of God is near. And the kingdom of God includes God’s children, in this life or in the next. Wendy saw an image of her dad literally in the clouds but also as part of the cloud of witnesses who reminded her that life is not over even when life is over.

I told Wendy of an experience of mine that she asked me to share at her funeral. My life, too, has been deeply affected by the horrible reality of cancer. My dad died from cancer when I was not quite ten years old. There is much of my life he hasn’t been here for, including the birth of my children, and that brings deep sadness. My oldest child, now six, takes after my dad by having sensitive skin. My dad had been a mail carrier, and the winter was particularly rough on his skin, so he used A&D cream to help. Shortly after my daughter’s birth, when we used this ointment on her, I would hold her close and smell her and think, “Daddy.”  When I snuggled with her six-month-old self, and when she “kissed” me (which was more like slobbers), I felt like my dad knew her and that he sent hugs and kisses for me from heaven.

It’s hard to articulate this. I believe my child is a gift from God, that God knit her together, and that God knows her and loves her. I believe that God knows my dad and loves him, and I believed that before I had children. I couldn’t help but feel like my dad knew my daughter and sent me a message of love through her. Both of them belong to God and are forever connected by that reality. Wendy told me that my story gave her comfort and strength. She knew she belonged to God and would forever be connected to those she loves, even those we haven’t yet dreamed of. The distance between life and death is thin in the kingdom of God.

In life and death, we belong to God. Wendy knew that. Now, she is free of pain and cancer and the burdens of this life as she rests in God’s presence. Her funeral was a day to rejoice in the promises of God: that she has been granted everlasting life. Even so, as Ecclesiastes states, there is a time for everything, including times of tears. There were certainly tears that day and in the days that followed. But none of us walk the journey of grief alone. Jesus lived and died and rose again so that we might live and die and rise with him. Yet God’s promises aren’t just for the dead, but for the living. God’s promises are for us, too. God will be with us, just as God was with Wendy, on this journey through life, surrounding us with people who will share all the bad and good times with us. This is the great cloud of witnesses, who strengthen us to run the races set before us, the cloud of witnesses who invite us to live as Wendy did, loving God and loving others. In life and in death, in joy and in grief, we belong to God. We are God’s beloved children always. I hope that I, like Wendy, will never forget that.