Thoughts After a Funeral

In my career as “pastor du jour,” I spend some time looking at gravestones. I’m usually being chauffeured by one of the guys from Schulz Funeral home, so I have plenty of time to read the names on the stones we pass.  One does not race through a cemetery, especially during the final procession of the earthly body, so even though the tomb stones number in the hundreds, quite a few names register with me.

I have lived in this community for over forty years and I’ve had the advantage of teaching in this community for more than thirty years. It’s the next best thing to being a native, in that I am always in familiar surroundings, among familiar faces and names.

I’ve noticed lately that the name on nearly each tomb stone brings to mind a face, a family, a relationship.  I am happy to report that all these connections are not only positive, but also warm and fulfilling. They tug at my heart as well as my memory.

My first inkling that I would be a pastor came when I was about four years old.  I lost that vision as I was molded into more traditional roles.  No regrets. Being a teacher is much like being a pastor for me.  I always felt that my relationship with my students was about more than content, more than performance; I’ve always felt responsible for the well-being of my students—all four thousand of them.

Now I’m responsible for them in a new dimension. I help them to lay to rest their parents and grandparents, friends and neighbors. Perhaps God laid aside my vocation as pastor until I could first gain the trust of these students, their parents and friends.  I know that God has given me the gift of comforting, of witnessing, of giving hope in the face of death.

When I graduated from college, I had no dream; I had only a diploma. But through some steps and missteps, I’ve been led to this place and this time. Even if the dream did not surface for fifty-some years, I am living it now.  It is really a modest dream.  It will never be a plot for a reality television show. If I had to describe myself in one word, today, that word would be “content.”

I do not mean complacent.  I mean happy with what I am able to do.  I am much more than a pastor, of course.  I am a wife and mom and–God be praised–a grandmother, a community activist, a cook, and still an educator.

It is gratifying to me to be able to comfort people—to comfort the afflicted, as someone famous said (Bonhoeffer?  Tillich?), but it is also gratifying to be able to afflict the comfortable, to be angry at injustice, to wave flags and words and deeds around for the cause of justice, to march toward human dignity and against human exploitation.

It all comes down to relationships.  The names on those tombstones at Elmwood and Calvary cemeteries are people.  I am not wrestling with death, not even mourning the bodes of my two best friends.  You don’t see me shedding tears at funerals…because there is a current of joy running through me, one that is at odds with the sorrow filling the room full of mourners, the passengers in the slow procession through town.

That joy is the joy I share with the mourners…the joy of resurrection.  My faith can be labeled as “progressive;” I don’t get excited about the virgin birth or the intricacies of the Trinity. But I do stand firmly, positively on the resurrection. Part of that comes from how I was raised, part of it comes from anecdotal evidence: My grandfather’s last words were, “Oh, how beautiful heaven is!” Part of it comes from my own human wish to suspend logic. Resurrection is not logical, but who cares.  Neither is my ending up to serve as pastor to the students I first met through a career that I stumbled into by accident.

To tell you the truth, resurrection makes me insanely happy when I think of those saints who are now playing penny poker with their sisters and who are sharing a cold one with best friends.

You see, I am not the mourner.  Not today.  Someday, someone else will be trying to comfort me, trying to give me hope. Today, I am the lucky one, the blessed one. Today, in the midst of bad news, I get to deliver good news.