I came back from our overseas journey and a few days later learned that a man I knew well, who had been part of my St John chaplaincy, was in hospital with terminal cancer. I had known him at least 18 years, and journeyed with him through all sorts of experiences. I was sad about this news and from conversations I knew that many friends were visiting him in hospital, and that there the doctors were hoping to settle pain levels and send him home in the next day or so. I thought I would catch up with him when he went home. Well he went home on Tuesday and on Thursday morning, he died. It was only two and a half weeks from his original diagnosis. Yesterday I conducted his funeral.
Do it well! Do it well! I hate/love leading funerals. I get extremely stressed because I know that it is so easy to muck up. I am also deeply aware that my faith is on show as I lead. People subconsciously, or consciously evaluate the relevance of Christianity as they see it as a minister leads a funeral. I knew that most of my friends at St John would be attending the funeral if they were not on duty. I knew too that most were not active Christians, and were even cynical about "faith". I also am devoted to ministering in such a way that the family is helped by the funeral. I am conscious that it is my job to help them celebrate the life and "being" of their loved one in a meaningful way. My task is to aid them in the grieving process and enable them to draw on the support of others and find the deep resources of love. I put a lot of effort into funerals. I listen deeply. I stew on what I am saying, I craft it and shape it and am always, always nervous about how it will go.
If somebody were to ask me why I became a minister, here in short is what I would answer. I was a young plumber, attending church on Sunday, but on week days I mixed with men on building sites who never went to Church, but who often shared with me their varied life hassles. I became deeply disturbed, or "outraged" as Bernie Sanders may say. I was deeply aware that Church as I experienced it just did not speak the language of these men. What went on in Church was like irrelevant "gobbledegook" to the life issues normal people were facing. The topics, the language, the ethos was all some-how "in-house" church-culture stuff. I felt deeply that I wanted to somehow be part of bridging the gap. I was shy and wasn't sure I had the temperament to be a minister, but thought the study would help me journey, and at least make me a more useful layman in bridging the gap. I did become a minister.
The funeral... I prepared, and worked and only slept a few hours the night before, and in the morning prepared again. So I found myself, just after midday, waiting as the funeral chapel filled up with about 350 people. (The guy was only 62) Some from my chaplaincy came in, saw me and said, "Are you doing the honours?... Oh that's good!" or words to that effect. One, a team leader came and with a grin, saw my nervousness, nudged me in the ribs and said, "Don't fuck it up!" He knew and I knew that he was only putting into words what I was saying to myself. The funeral director, a lady who once worked at St John and is still there as a volunteer told me it was time to start, and she comforted me by rubbing my back as I set off down the isle. I led the funeral. It was a bit hard because the man was my friend too. The St John folks formed a guard of honour, and I marched out between them. I stand by the hearse as they load the coffin, and found myself standing next to the team leader, who was diligently uniformed and standing to attention. After he stood at ease and most people had past by paying their respects, I leaned toward him and quietly asked, "Well, did I fuck it up?" He grinned, patted my shoulder and said, "No you did well, you did us proud like you always do." That was the sentiment I received from so many. Some just came up and rubbed my arm, others shook my hand and said "Well done." Some hugged. I am always, always surprised that I "succeed".
One comment, however, I really appreciated. I had started my van to leave to go to the "after match function", and this guy, a friend of the deceased, came to my window. I wound the window down and turned off the motor. "I just wanted to say you did it well." He was hesitant and struggling to express his thoughts. "My father was a Methodist minister... I often think you guys get it wrong, its all religion and not... not... human... shall we say. ... That doesn't help these days. ... you didn't do that. You spoke our language ... you had the spirituality...it was there.. but ... you were with us. It worked for me! You said the sort of thing I think... you are a bridge! That is what you are. A bridge between the spiritual and us normal humans. Well done!" .. he stammered a few more comments trying to put into words his experience of the service. I said, "Thank you so much... I understand." and as he went away I paused before I started the motor. My mind went back to my 1960's-70 outrage and the gap between the Church and people. (An outrage I still have) I remembered the reason I became a minister and I said quietly, "Mission accomplished!" (well for today anyway) I felt that by grace, I was fulfilling my calling. I slept well last night.
A further event....
I am probably boasting a bit here, but today (the day after I wrote the post above.) I received this from a retired St John Chaplain, who has been a principal of a theological college. He is a man who has been involved in St John Ambulance all his life. I had not seen him at the funeral. He says it is a "gift"... I am not sure....It simply is very hard work, at least for me, and I tend to think that we ministers often shirk that work and hide behind cliches. At least I have been guilty of that.
The email was a great encouragement. It warmed my heart.
I didn't interrupt your conversations with people after Neil's Service on Monday but I did want to say how much I appreciated the way you had woven a spiritual dimension into what I guess was authentic for Neil's family and friends. I have noticed before your keen awareness of where people are 'at' and your ability to build around that in a sensitive and authentic way. It is a good gift. Thank you for that. ..........
It was so good that you were back in time to take the service - you knew him so well from your chaplaincy.
Look forward to chatting some time.