A few weeks ago I was at a concert for our family’s favorite artist and writer, Andrew Peterson. His shows are my favorite kind of concert because he talks to the audience about the creation of his songs, which come from his life and the many people he has encountered. At this show he was talking about his dad who retired after fifty years of parish ministry. Andrew shared a conversation in which he had asked his dad about the number of weddings and funerals he had officiated. The number of weddings seemed reasonable for the fifty years, so reasonable I did not even remember it. But it was his dad’s response to the number of funerals that caught my attention. His dad’s response was that he ceased counting at 300. The crowd murmured lovingly in response. I nodded and let the tears fall freely down my cheeks.
Death has been a regular part of my time as pastor in this community. In my first years there were so many people I did not know who I stood next to their casket and proclaimed words of God’s grace and eternal life. Now however, there are so few people I do not know. Even when I do not know the person directly, I know their family a circle or two out. I know their friends. I know how they fit in the community and I know the hole they leave behind. Now when the funeral home announcements come, even if it is not a funeral I am officiating, I know the hole left behind with that person’s death.
I still stand and say words of God’s grace. I talk about the next life. I talk about the healing to come, of pain that will change, and of the ways we come together as a community to remember and continue that person’s legacy. I talk and I sit, I remember and I mourn.
I have not yet reached 300 funerals, but I am well on my way. I still recall each person’s name, the faces of their loved ones as we sat and planned the service together. I recall the families who have sat with me more than once, a little less confused, a little less overwhelmed each successive time. I want to believe it is because the first time I faithfully spoke of God’s grace in a way that was instrumental in their healing. I want to believe in this time of pain I did my job in a way that glorified the God I believe in by bringing comfort to those in need. But I always feel as if I am bumbling through a minefield one mistake away from making their pain worse.
It keeps me sane to know there are others who are bumbling through these times the same as I am, trying their best to speak words of grace when heartache is so visceral. I wonder if I ever make it to fifty years of parish ministry if the stories I will leave behind will be stories of grace.
I sure hope so.