Friday, December 31, 2010

Funeral Work

Actually, some of my best work is done at funerals. I am often asked by the funeral director to hold services for those families who do not have a minister because he knows I’ll be nice and I won’t say stupid things.  

The goal is to help the people attending to be able to access their own memories of their loved one. Usually, I can visit with the family beforehand and get them to share stories. I’ll ask about the person’s work and hobbies. When it’s working, I can stop asking questions and let them talk to each other. In the service, I’ll convey some of these same stories to the audience.

Lately, I’ve encountered a lot of shame in families. Their loved one did something wrong, or committed suicide or caused a lot of pain with other members. In some regions, families keep them secret, but I’ve noticed in the town I live in now, they’re more forthcoming about their pain, or maybe I just see it better than I used to.

It’s better for me to know than not to know. If they make me a participant in covering up the deceased major flaws, it makes things worse for the family in the long run.  

I can usually reframe the negative into something with a more positive light. A person’s flaws are often their strengths, too.

In spite of the pain they cause, few people truly try to do evil. They meant to do good and I can usually get a sense of what they were trying to do even if they made a mess of things. Even if there is great bitterness within the family, there is usually love in the mix (otherwise there would be no pain). I try to tap into the good intentions and the love.  I don’t have to put it all into words, I just work to pull it out of the people’s hearts and into their consciousness.

I haven’t explained this well, but it’s the best I can do.  

I usually end with some exhortation about how it’s our turn to step up and make things better. The deceased gets to rest now but we still have some work to do. The idea is similar to recovery from surgery: Get the patients up and moving so they’ll heal faster.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Window Dressing

I remember reading about the criticism of a clergyman’s words at a funeral for a person he obviously didn’t know. The remarks were general and rang pretty hollow.  

I’ve been there.  It can be hard to do services for people who didn’t come to my church, didn’t know me or didn’t want to know me, but their families wanted the minister to come in, say heartfelt things over their salty Uncle Jed and sort of ceremonialize the guy into heaven. Afterwards, they hand me fifty and don’t want to see me again until the next funeral.

It’s the same with weddings. I usually insist that couples come to me for premarital counseling and they’ll come and sit restlessly, nodding at the right places. I tell the young ones that issues of spirituality get more important as they get older. I tell them that their values are what defines them. And they nod vacantly.

The day comes when they say, “I do.” They hand me fifty, run to a waiting car and an overpriced honeymoon, and I don’t see them again until they die or perhaps get divorced and find themselves needing someone… anyone… to talk to.  Even a clergy guy will do then.  

I wonder why so many bother. People say the clergy are hypocritical and hollow, I say people treat me like part of the decorations at their occasion. If they gripe because I wasn’t meaningful enough, I wonder what they expect out of window dressing?  

Why do I do it? I’ve thought about refusing more often but there are two reasons I don’t.

First, it’s my one moment that I can minister to them, perhaps reach them and give them meaningful words they can use later.

Second, I need the fifty. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Preventable Death?


On the day of Christmas Eve, I was shaken to hear that my next door neighbor took his life. Earlier in the week, he drove far out into the country and shot himself.

I didn’t know him. I greeted him when he first moved in, but that was all.

I’m upset because I could see he had troubles—signs of depression and drinking. I’m pretty sure if I had taken some initiative I could have gotten involved, become his friend, and by doing so, changed enough of the dynamics to change the outcome. 

I’ve done it before.

But by the time I would see him in the evening as I was getting home there was nothing left in my emotional tank.  So all I did for him was wave as I went into the house.

But there was another issue.  The truth is that he was too close. I wanted to keep him at a distance.   I didn’t want him in my house. I didn’t want to risk exposing his desperation to my wife and children. He was a risk.

In previous years, I was willing to take risks for myself, and there were some doozies, but not now and not close to my home. 

So I didn’t reach out to him. I didn’t help him. And he’s dead.  

I recognize that guilt is a normal reaction when someone dies.  I didn’t cause him pain and I certainly didn’t cause his death. I can’t save everyone. I might not have been able to save him even if I had tried.  

I’d like to say that if I had it to do over again, I would have tried harder or done things differently.   

But I don’t know how I would. And that sucks.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Shined Boots and a Crooked Stole


Look at what I got for Christmas....


No, it’s not the boots, but the shoe shine kit my son gave me makes them look good, don’t they? 

I wear these every Sunday along with my robe and stole.

Speaking of my stole, I have the hardest time keeping the ends even. The ladies are constantly fussing at me to straighten it, but I had a hard time caring about it until I saw a picture of myself at a baptism. Sure enough, the stole was uneven. Combine that with a slightly bowlegged guy wearing boots, and I look just like a drunken cowboy who has stolen a preacher’s religious garb.   

So I try now to keep my stole straight. And my boots are shined, too. 

Merry Christmas to my friends in this community. I appreciate you and wish you a wonderful day. 

Clergy Guy

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mr. Speaker, Would You Please Dry Up?

The guy doesn’t just shed a dignified tear or two. He snorts and blows. He needs people on tissue detail.  

This really doesn’t need to be a discussion on whether people can cry in public. Our emotions can occasionally overwhelm any of us.  But when leaders stand up to speak to their people, they need to show strength. Even if they want to show some vulnerability, they should look strong while they’re doing it.  

I hate preachers that make tears part of the show.  I’m sure they have it marked in their notes or teleprompters when they should turn on the waterworks.  Every time I hear someone start with the sniffling and the wavering voice, I want to stand up and tell him to shut down the waterworks and go back to work.   

Am I insensitive and heartless?

Naah.  

I cry a lot. I have a reservoir of tears that break loose at the damndest times—movies, personal conversations, grand openings of strip malls.  

But when I preach at church, I am supposed to minister to the people, not demand that they watch me collapse emotionally. At a funeral, I’m there to help the grieving cope, not be in as bad a shape as they are.  When I counsel someone, I’m not supposed to interrupt them to reveal my own vulnerability. If I need help, I’ll get it somewhere else at another time.

I can’t say I’ve NEVER cried in the pulpit. But I’ve never boohooed like the Speaker of the House, and I’ve always gotten it back under control as quickly as I could, so I could do my job.  

The Speaker can jolly well dry his tears and do his work, too.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Better


Okay, I feel better.

I went to bed and the next morning I felt clearer.

What I’ve been doing with my church hasn’t been working. I’ve been trying to manage this church by fostering cooperation between me and the various power groups. I’ve been frustrated because they’ve been managing me more than I’ve managed them.  I find myself spending hours stuck in my office listening to complaints, and fending off manipulation. By the end of the day, I just want to hide under the desk. Which isn’t me.

I’ve lost sight of the quiet crowds out there who would appreciate someone who is interested in them. Many in those crowds are pretty desperate. I need to pay attention to them, not the ones who wish to play power games.  

Regarding the power players, I’ve decided that they can win by default because I’m not playing anymore. I’m not going to be available for complaints about the decor, the spots on the commode, and the paper cups left in the classroom. I’m not refereeing any more arguments, and I’m not engaging in any of my own.  

I like cheering up sad people. I like helping people work out their problems. I like tending the sick. I like being a pastor. I’m pretty good at it and it still makes me feel good.