Monday, May 13, 2013

The Pastor's Heart in War with Death

I've been a pastor nearly thirteen years now. In all that time, the hardest thing I've ever had to do is bury a child. This was in my first parish, and I'd only been a pastor for about a year and a half. I received a phone call late in the evening from the father of the family. His wife had been delivered of a child, but she died that same day. The baby had been baptized by a pastor who was in the hospital that day--thanks be to God, for the sake of the child and the family both, that they have been able to take comfort in Baptism. But it fell to me, as their pastor, to bring the Word of God to bear, to try to bring comfort in the midst of a time of terrible affliction. I stayed with the family in the funeral home the evening before the funeral, bringing the Word to them and praying for and with them. And then the funeral was the next day. I don't remember very much of that day (except for a fortuitous meeting outside the church after the committal as I was leaving for the dinner), but I do remember parts of the sermon (which is sad, because I quoted "Away in a Manger" and I still can't sing it without tearing up) and I remember the tiny little coffin as it rested in the front of the sanctuary. I've tried to lay my own grief to rest concerning this child, but it never fully goes away.

A lot of that came to mind today as I carried my congregation's funeral pall into the sanctuary of a neighboring congregation. Four children from a nearby community died in a fire set by an arsonist this past weekend, and as it so happened, the children were baptized members of a Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod congregation. As I walked in, I could see the four caskets lined up at the communion rail. The funeral director and his colleagues were there, working on the logistics and arrangements. I took the pall to the pastor's study, and we came out to the sanctuary to figure out with the funeral director how to make a full-sized pall fit on a casket less than half the size of the usual casket. That was when the funeral director broke down--probably not for the first time, and certainly not for the last. When the pastor and I took the pall back into the office area, I asked how he was doing, and he mentioned that this funeral was on the heels of two other funerals, one of which was done on short rest after ministering to this family after the fire. He said that the funeral he did that day--a funeral for a mature Christian who lived a full life and was a lifelong member of the congregation--would usually have been easy, but that he was emotional during that funeral because of this situation. I certainly understand that. My only involvement in this funeral is delivering a pall, and I found myself getting emotional.

Being a pastor can be pretty easy at times. Preach a sermon; lead the liturgy; teach Bible study; hold Catechism instruction; visit the hospital; see the shut-ins. Even things like funerals are usually not so bad, because usually it's an elderly member of the congregation who has lived a full life, or it's a member who has been sick and suffering for a long time, and the suffering has now ended. But burying a young person is hard--and I can only imagine burying four at the same time is exponentially harder. There stands the Law. This is the wages of sin laid out before you in as horrible a manner as you will ever see it. You can close your eyes or try to look away, but it's not going anywhere. You stand convicted. This is your fate. This is what you've earned. As the pastor in this situation, you are in that odd place where you are both a mourner and the one expected to bring comfort. You are expected to display a certain professionalism, and yet you can't help but remember holding them over the baptismal font, praying with them them in Sunday School, teaching them the catechism, and all the other times you've shared time with them over the course of their short lives. Reminders of the joy of baptism help ("I am baptized into Christ! I'm a child of paradise!"), but at that moment death and the grave seem very powerful.

A pastor has a heart. (In my case, I've had the x-rays to prove it; otherwise there are those who might not have believed it. *wink*) It doesn't turn off when he performs pastoral care, and it often works overtime for funerals. Even Jesus wept as He performed His duties. Displaying the love of Christ to the congregation he is called to serve means a pastor can't help but be overcome. That does not make him weak. That does not make him a poor pastor. He is doing what he has been chosen by God and selected by the congregation to do, and his own sorrow will not keep him from doing what he has been Called to do. He loves you with the love of Christ...and maybe even with a bit of his own love. Pray for him; share the Word of God with him; remind him of his own baptism; love him with Christ's love. More than anything, that is the greatest blessing you can give him, especially when he is called upon in times of tragedy. I can assure you, he prays for you, especially when death draws near.

In your prayers over the next little while, please remember the family and friends of the four Owen children who died in Percy this past week. Please also remember Pastor Janneke and the members of St. Mark Lutheran Church in Steeleville as they bring the comfort of the Word to bear in this terrible situation, and also remember Mr. Bill Wilson and his colleagues at the wonderful Wilson's Funeral Home as they serve the family. It is not easy to bury children--not for the family, not for the pastor or congregation, not for the funeral director.

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