It was my first church where I was a full-time minister.
I recall spotting the best man striding purposefully towards me. It was after the wedding service, but before the reception had begun. He was pale, skinny, and so (so) young! In a tuxedo looking like heâ€™d co-starred in a teen slasher film that ended badly and predictably at a prom, he stopped in front of me.
â€œThanks,â€ he said, â€œfor doing Tommyâ€™s wedding.â€
â€œYouâ€™re welcome.â€ (I donâ€™t remember the groomâ€™s name, but why not Thomas? Tommy to his pals.)
â€œHe wanted me to give you this.â€ The best man reached into a jacket pocket and then handed me a folded envelope.
â€œGotta go take pictures for the wedding party thing,â€ he said. â€œBut thanks, again.â€
I slipped the envelope in my Bible. Since the wedding was for the granddaughter of one of the long-time church members, I knew quite a few in attendance. I socialized, soon moseying over to where pictures were being taken and posing for a friendly photo with the new newlyweds. The reception followed. Boring me, I left early.
Iâ€™m just kidding about the â€œfunâ€ in the title.
Or perhaps not.
How many funerals have I done? Were they fun? Not one.
But were they tenderhearted, memorable, andâ€”if not a Hollywood happy endingâ€”a way to provide some solace for the living who eventually retreated from the freshly turned earth?
I hope so.
Several years before wearing my official ministerial robe, before a Bishop laid his hand on my head to bestow ordination, a seminary professor assigned me to Presbyterian Church in Southern California. A student pastor, I shadowed church staff to witness their work. I probably had to write a paper about my experiences. Thankfully, any paper I wrote was lost. However, decades later, I have a note from that churchâ€™s associate pastor. Near the semesterâ€™s end, he told me to wait in his office while he scribbled on a blank 3×5 card.
â€œHere,â€ Bob said (and his name was Bob), â€œThis is what youâ€™ll need for the funerals of folks you wonâ€™t know.â€
He handed me the card.
â€œTrust me, Larry,â€ Bob continued, â€œyouâ€™ll do lots of funerals for people youâ€™ve never met. Just keep this card in your Bible, and youâ€™ll be ready for any of â€˜em.â€ Continue reading →
Near the end of serving my last church, I helped a family bury their forty-four-year old brother. But he was also son, husband, father, and grandfather. Letâ€™s call him Sam. One of eight children, Sam met and married his wife when they were teenagers. Soon, they gave birth to two daughters. And the daughters had children.
Many at the funeral were under fifty, and quite a few were parents with kids. Throughout the service there were bursts of giggles and sudden loud cries. For the children, a sanctuary was unfamiliar, even unsettling. Like a classroom, but not; like a theater, but not. The adults around them and holding them kept oddly quiet. And maybe the children even noticed that some adults cried. Unlike the children, the adult tears were hidden by a well-placed hand, or accompanied by soft sobbing.
Yes, Iâ€™m sure for the children it was a strange experience.
And yet, I think it was more peculiar for the adults. Church, for them, was a foreign land, a country with a border they had likely only crossed at a friendâ€™s wedding, or a funeral like this, or forced Sunday school attendance during adolescence.
Why was I standing before them? I suppose an answer could be that it was a â€œMethodist thing.â€ Samâ€™s oldest brother was part of a United Methodist Church in the Bay Area. When Sam died in Fresno, and with the extended family having no connection with any local church, the brother called. My church was at the crossroads of a web search, a friendâ€™s recommendation, and an ad in the Yellow Pages.