It’s been a tough week for our congregation. We lost two long time and much loved members on the same day – Christmas Eve. So, Christmas worship took on a less celebratory, more solemn, sombre tone.
Vesta was the matriarch of our congregation. People joked that she taught me how to hug. 94 years old and could still beat all comers at cards. I told someone recently, only half-joking, that I thought it was her prayers that were keeping our church ship afloat. She had such a tremendous gift of faith. She talked about her faith as effortlessly as if she was talking about a cookie recipe. But she wasn’t given to trite Christian sloganeering. She had seen too much and suffered too greatly in her 94 years to allow such nonsense.
Anne was a kind, gentle, soul, who died very suddenly in the hospital.She had been admitted because her headaches making her crazy. She had a heart attack just after breakfast on the 24th. I always enjoyed my visits with her. I gave her holy communion two days before she died. She was a gracious hostess, even in her hospital bed, even when she could barely life her head to speak. We prayed. She always had a kind word for me. After I left her room, I wondered who was being blessed; her or me.
Vesta’s funeral was on Wednesday. Anne’s was yesterday. Both of them took more from me than I expected. Wednesday was particularly tough. When I sat back behind my desk I felt like I had been slapped by a big fat fish. But I still had another funeral to prepare. And little energy left from which to draw.
Then the phone rang. It was the daughter of the man to whom I gave “last rites” (or “Commendation of the Dying” in Lutheran parlance) on Christmas Eve following our late service. He was in the final stages of cancer. The family was gathered and asked for a Lutheran pastor. So the nurse started cold calling Lutheran churches. Our’s was the last church on the list and the first to answer the phone. I prayed with the man and the family. Then went home and collapsed.
On Wednesday afternoon I had to prepare for yet another funeral.
These funerals remind me why I love the church. We are a family. We care for each other. Some folks came back early from their holidays to say say good-bye. Everyone pitched in on short notice. It all seemed so effortless and natural.
The sanctuary was packed for both church funerals. Folks needed to grieve and hear Jesus’ promises of resurrection again. People leaned on each other. They wept openly. They smiled in gratitude for having known these two remarkable women. They wanted to sing songs of praise and lamentation, knowing that death brings both grief and promise.
I went back to my office yesterday after the reception and pulled from my shelf Dietrich Bonfoeffer’s masterpiece Life Together and sipped on this passage:
“It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren [and sisteren] is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken away from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren [and sisteren].”
So, tomorrow I have funeral number 3. An opportunity for God’s grace to shine in the midst of grief. Grace in Jesus’ promises of the resurrection to eternal life. And grace in our life together.