It’s the night before I’m leading a funeral service for a former parishioner who died suddenly this past Saturday while the regular pastor is on vacation.
Apart from the past few months, I’ve been on a hiatus from parish ministry—though it’s true that in the last few months when I’ve been back in the parish, it comes rushing back to me that this is a worthy calling: to be with people when answers no longer apply and questions are wordless, however real. That’s when people need somebody to do whatever it is I do, which is, as far as I can tell, this: to point beyond the question to the mystery that surrounds it and—somehow, but with boldness--summon hope.
I don’t mean blind hope. I don’t mean stupid hope. I don’t even mean Emily Dickinson’s fey definition (and I don’t think Emily Dickinson was fey in any way other than how she defined hope, which is “The thing with feathers/that perches in our soul.” Really, Emily? Feathers?)
I mean the kind of inchoate hope that is at once vague and yet trustworthy. There’s a paradox. Still, that’s how faith operates. Paradoxically. I can totally understand why people get annoyed by faith. I do, too. But it grips me by the scruff of my neck and shakes me and before you know it I will be saying these words, these words I know by heart:
“Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Barbara. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.”
And after that, I will say this:
“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend Barbara to her resting place, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless her and keep her. The Lord’s face shine upon her and be gracious to her. The Lord look upon her with favor and give her peace.”
What does this mean? What does this accomplish? I don’t know.
And one day—far away, I truly hope—I also hope somebody will say those words for me.