Death intrudes

July 25, 2011

My first “official” responsibility in my
new position took place a week or so earlier than schedule, as I
officiated at a memorial service on a sunny, breezy, southern Alberta
Saturday.  It was a somewhat strange thing to be leading a service like
this before even attending a Sunday morning service!

Throughout the day, a number of people
expressed appreciation that I had agreed to do this before I had
officially begun.  Of course it was no problem, whatsoever, and I was
honoured to do it.  Death is no respecter of schedules, after all.
 Death always intrudes.   A few others remarked—tongue in cheek—that
this was a bit of an ominous beginning for me!  Welcomed by death.  Or
something like that.  I smiled and laughed awkwardly.

As I was silently observing people come
and go from the viewing room, my thoughts, unsurprisingly, turned to
death.  It’s impossible to go to a funeral or walk the paths of a
cemetery without pondering the uncomfortable fact that one day this will
be you.  We modern westerners can be fairly committed and inventive
death-deniers, but there are always moments when the intruder barges
through the door, and the reality of death is unavoidable.

As I drove home yesterday afternoon, I
wondered if an encounter with death was perhaps the most appropriate way
to begin a new season in life as a pastor.  We, who presume to speak
for/about God. we who are given the fearful honour of being present with
people during their highest highs and lowest lows, we who are somehow
permitted to steward the mysteries of life and death and suffering and
salvation—perhaps it is we who most need to be reminded of the shadow
that colours all that we do.  Part of life is learning how to die.

There are no shortage of expectations out
there for what a pastor ought to be and do.  Decisive program
administrators, witty intellectuals, compassionate shepherds/counselors,
skilled social networkers, creative entrepreneurs, indefatigable
apologists… the list goes on and on.  Some of these expectations have
their place… many do not.  But experiences like the one I had yesterday
add a touch of perspective to things.

Perhaps one of the most important things a
pastor can do is to refuse to surrender death to the realm of
meaninglessness and chaos and pain.  Perhaps one of the most vital
things we can ever do is to stubbornly insist that there is meaning,
here in the valley of the shadow of death—that words like “redemption”
and “resurrection” have not gone extinct, that phrases like “running the
race” and “finishing well” make contact with truths about the universe
that are real, and solid, good, and hopeful.  Perhaps that is our job,
in this post-Christian context—to tend to the embers of meaning and hope
in this death-denying space and time.

I think it is appropriate for me to begin
with death for another reason: I am quite a competent death-denier,
too.  I am as good as anyone else at pretending that death will not come
calling.  And if I am going to presume to help wrench meaning out of
death on behalf of others—if I am going to stand in front of wooden
boxes in front of holes in the ground and presume to locate all of this
grief and pain and confusion within a narrative of hope— then I need to
pay careful attention when death intrudes.

Originally posted at Rumblings.