Today I led the funeral for a woman whom I hardly knew. I had just met her in the last weeks of her life and was glad to bring her prayers and communion as her health steadily declined. When I gathered with the family to pray before the service, I noted my heart wasn’t breaking like it was the last time I did a funeral. Being relatively new here, I haven’t had time to fall in love with my new congregation yet. I like them very much and I’m sure I will love them soon enough – but for now I’m still at the brief, easy stage of ministry in this congregation where it’s still kind of just my work.
But in this life as a pastor, I have found that this stage passes quickly. Soon I will feel at funerals here like I did at my last funeral in Texas – when I walked up the stairs to the church with 92 year-old Olee as we were about the begin the memorial service for his wife of 65 years, Maxine. The tears were right behind my eyes and my throat was thick and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get the words out when the time came. Or just as hard was a few months before that when I made that same trek up those stairs with Joe as we got ready for his wife’s service. His wife, Audrey, had been one of my favorite parishioners of all time – so wise and kind and altogether lovely. I didn’t want to commend her to God’s keeping at all – I wanted her to stay alive and well so I could keep visiting with her and absorbing all the good things that one felt whenever you were around her. I felt the same with Estella, the queen of all quilters, who died three days before Christmas, and Maurine, who died shortly before that of a quick and brutal cancer. Right around the same time Mickey died, a husband and father and active parishioner, whose death kicked the stuffing out of all of us as he left behind his beautiful wife and two high school-aged daughters. The pain of all these deaths in the months before I left was so hard on our congregation – and harder on me than I can even still understand. None of these people were my family and of course it was my job to visit them and then preside at their memorials…but when the funerals were over, and all the crowds were gone, I would walk out to the cemetery and watch the Texas wind whip up the dust and occasionally some flowers left behind, and I would cry like a forlorn child.
Most of my career I have felt very lucky to care deeply about the work I do. But sometimes, especially my last year at Norse, I knew I cared too much. I loved them so much and I knew they loved me, too. But I think a pastor has to be able to keep some distance – if only so that when one needs to push a congregation toward change, he or she is able to do that and not be crushed by the resistance.
Yet I knew I could be too easily hurt if I stayed at Norse. I no longer had any kind of professional distance in my heart – I just loved them to pieces. I knew that for their sake and for mine, I had to go. I needed to go so that my work was just my work again and not every all-encompassing moment of my life. They needed me to go so that someone new could come in and see them with fresh eyes and challenge them in ways that I couldn’t anymore.
I’m thankful for my new church and all the new life that there is here. I’m reading all sorts of good books about keeping myself healthy and how to be connected but not entirely enmeshed in my new congregation. It’s good.
But today after doing this funeral, my mind and heart have decidedly taken a detour to Texas for the day. I’m thinking of hot breezes blowing through the cedars, a red brick steeple rising high into the sky, a limestone fence surrounding an old Norwegian cemetery, and so many friends buried there.