“Scott has died. Cancel today’s church meetings, postpone the conference, clear my schedule. I have a funeral.”
It begins by being a steward of death’s pain—the pastoral act of showing up at a parishioner’s home only to sit down, to silently be with his distraught family, to invite their sadness to sink, their grief to grip, their despair to deepen.
The absence of my words, after the hours of futile negotiation and sloppy acquiescence, is then replaced by their words about Scott. Stories shared around the mantle of memories about his distinctive life lived—about aspirations publically met and dreams kept secret, about peculiar haunts and typical routines, about brokenness and beauty—and now his distinctive life lost. As the tissues are passed and the tears flow, so does the tip of my pen as I scribble notes and footnotes.
And then I’m back in my study, exegeting the deceased on paper: alone with paper stacks of biography to consider, alone with the prophetic burden of speaking past the casket and about the cross. Alone to narrate obituary and scripture, to join the particular eulogy of one with the universal Easter of all. Alone as pastor and prophet and priest trying to organize dramatic liturgy around the movements of salvific history, trying to plan worship and nothing less.
Now, serving as an urban minister after traditional appointments at traditional churches, I frequent the day center where street siblings press their faces against the glass, wondering if the disability check is late again this month. I spend nights in the swollen barracks where skin sticks to plastic mattresses, where crack rocks are traded for bathroom blowjobs. I shuffle in line to slurp out of a disposable bowl sloshy with liquid sodium and clumps of soup flavoring. I give priority to the poor made most invisible, most marginalized, most hushed.
After the evidence has been collected and the crime scene tape rolled up and the morgue called, I get the call. The police blotter announces, “Single white male, no ID, middle-age, suicide by radiator fluid.”
My response, “Cancel today’s church meetings. I have a funeral.” And the process begins, just not like before.
He was homeless, his illegal camp slashed last week along with his meager belongings. There’s no context to visit, nothing to learn because there’s no place to inhabit. He disowned and was disowned decades back, the relentless assault of unmedicated illness medicated by bottles and needles too much for domestic relationships. There’s no family to sit down with, no mantel of memories to gather around, no narrative to construct.
Back at my desk, I stare at blank pages, scratch about at exegeting emptiness, fraught with how to perform an anonymous funeral. Without a biography, scripture is all that’s available. Without a story, The Story will have to be preached.
The bulletins are printed, the flowers arranged, the candles lit, the white stole shouldered, the cardboard box of unclaimed ashes placed. After the church bells stop swinging and the organist stops swaying and the liturgist stops reading, I step to the pulpit to say, “They were living in the fields, vagrants trespassing on other people’s property. Until the shepherds were trusted with the Gospel that a Savior was near, a child born in a feeding trough. So they went to Bethlehem with haste to see and then returned to witness with glory and praise.
“At midday, darkness covered the sky and Jesus, forsaken, cried out. Wine was offered and a last breath was taken and the temple curtain was torn. The centurion stood facing him and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’
“After Magdalene found the stone rolled away, she told Peter and the other disciple and they set out running. The other was faster, reaching the tomb first. He went in and saw and believed.
“Hear the Good News, in his life, death and resurrection, Jesus gave primacy to the obscured and silenced, the unknown and unacknowledged, those without distinctive characters. He came for the nameless.”
Images: Blodeuwedd. Homeless Rough Sleeper. Available from: Flickr Commons.
Henderson, Jamie. Textures Tuesday – The Boxes. Available from: Flickr Commons.