Being an associate pastor during a pastoral transition prepares you in a lot of ways for lead pastoring. During that transitionary period in my previous assignment, I presided quite a few funerals over a short period of time. Sometimes it was difficult as I didn’t know the family at all. Other times it was an amazing homecoming celebration with people I loved like my family. I had become very familiar with the grief, the process of planning funerals, and helping families in whatever they needed. But there was a moment in my first year of lead pastoring that I wasn’t quite prepared for. I will always remember the first time being in the room with a family as their beloved mother, a parishioner of my church, died.
She was in the hospital for a while. When someone is in the hospital for an extended period of time, you devote a good amount of your time as a pastor to these visits. After all, it can be lonely in the hospital, time moves slower, and visits help pass the time and encourage the healing process. I love these visits, because oftentimes I get to know someone on a far deeper level than the typical Sunday two minute conversations. It has been during these visits when I’ve heard stories from seniors about their grandparents taking a trip cross country in wagons. I’ve heard stories of war, of family, of humor. And in the conversation, you offer what is going on in your life, some encouragement, and of course prayer, for prayer is incredibly strengthening and formative. It’s that time that even in the midst of what is happening, you give the entire situation over to God who gives amazing peace, even if the prognosis is the worst.
So her time in the hospital included a few of these visits, visits of stories and laughter. While she had moments of confusion occasionally, she seemed to be getting stronger, getting better. She was able to sit up and would carry wonderful conversations with me and her family. But it was a few days later when I received a text from her daughter that had me drop what I was doing to go see her. Her daughter shared that she was fading quickly and it is not looking good. I swiftly grabbed my travel Bible and went to the hospital.
When I turned the corner to see my parishioner, she looked completely different from a few days before. It was difficult, to say the least. She was struggling to do the most basic of life functions. She couldn’t speak to us, but she was completely aware of the people around her. And as myself and family circled around her with prayer and the reading of scripture, you could see her responding to the love around her. It was heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.
They were going to move her into a larger room to accommodate the family as she was expected to fade. The family and I began our journey to an upstairs floor to the new room, and when we arrived, we saw the nurses transporting her from the elevator to the room, but something had changed already. She didn’t look the same as the nurses rolled the hospital bed past us. By the time we were able to go into the room, I saw the shaking head of the nurse as she was leaving and I knew, she had gone to be with the Lord in those few moments between rooms.
That was the first moment in my life, I actually saw death. Before, death always came after I left the hospital room or before the funeral service. Until you are in a room with someone who recently passed, you don’t fully understand it. Skin is still warm, but there is no movement, no sign of any kind of life. You look at the person you’ve come to know and love, expecting to see some sign of life again. It’s such a foreign experience because you’ve only ever seen that person living, breathing, talking, moving. And the experience directly after death is completely opposite. It’s debilitating and so difficult to take in. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
In the moments following, I was speechless. Hugs were being passed around the room and tears were being shed, but my mind was racing. I have an overactive brain. I ask questions continuously. These were some of the questions in my mind: What is the first thing you say in this moment? Is anything you say really going to help comfort? What now? I had nothing. The only words I could muster (which I don’t even fully remember) were standard phrases like, “I’m sorry”, “She’s with God”, and “She’s no longer in pain.” And we prayed over her, even in death, for God to take care of her. The family was incredibly gracious and loving, and we celebrated her a few days later with a wonderful service.
Millennials are known to hate clichés, especially about themselves, but I think it goes beyond the notorious ones shared by media outlets and the like. I know I despise them, especially when it comes to God and life. If you want to get under my skin, share a cliché faith statement with me when I’m going through a difficult time. Because this drives me batty, I try to be as authentic as possible in my relationships as a pastor. I try to stay away from clichés. I try to recall what Jesus said as best I can. I try to share good theology. I try to empathize. And I remember the day when I began to understand the Biblical views around death, heaven, and resurrection and I committed to myself to not say clichés of yesteryear. I would boldly pronounce that after death that our hope is actually resurrection. I wouldn’t ever perpetuate any folk theology our church culture so often offers.
And yet here I was, saying cliché statements. While I didn’t say some of the stuff I heard growing up that borderlines Gnosticism, I do remember saying, “She’s in the Lord’s hands now”, “She’s in a better place”, and of course “She’s no longer in pain”. Because when you are in that moment, you’re just looking for some source of comfort for the family, and even for yourself. You try to be human with the people crying, to mourn with them, to try and provide something of help. And those statements were a part of that moment.
I don’t know if I was fully prepared for a moment like that. But I don’t think anything could have prepared me (except a previous personal situation, which I hadn’t experienced). And while death hung over us, God was still present in that room. He was there in the hugs we shared. The scripture we recalled. The somewhat cliché statements. The stories that were told about an amazingly faithful woman. God was present even when I felt overwhelmed and unsure of what to say. Because God is present in humans, when they rely on Him for help, love, comfort; for life. God is present when we are actually acting and being humans, fully dependent upon Him, allowing His love to be shared through us to each other.
And no matter what insecurities I had as a pastor, that was enough. God being present in peoples’ lives is enough. I’ve come to learn that. No matter how much I understand about God, scripture, tradition, theology, and even facts of life, relying on God is far greater than any of my own endeavors, instincts, and intelligence. God is greater than the sorrow we face when we lose someone to death. God is greater than death itself, after all, He is our salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ! And I think that’s one of the greatest aspects of ministry. No matter what, God is always enough.
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You’re a very sensitive, emotional, good person Matt–great work