Resourcing the church

Booking for clues

Not long ago I wasn’t really a big fan of funerals. I didn’t like how artificial they seemed and how anything remotely wrong a person did was instantly forgotten. I was uneasy with how morbid they were; that a bunch of people could casually sit in the same room as a dead body. Also, like most men, I wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea of being a place where my emotions, grief, sympathy, fear, etc., might override my ability to maintain an outward appearance of keep-it-togetherness. So, it is still odd at times that I am now in a professional situation where I am called upon to not only participate in, but to lead these funeral services, to speak hope and comfort into an audience of mourners.

I got a random phone call from the hospital not long ago about a man on his deathbed that wanted to talk to a pastor. I went to see him and some family members and friends who had gathered at his side. I was there for an hour and a half, mostly listening and observing, but I also got to pray with him, which was a powerful thing to experience.

The gentleman passed away a few days later, and I was honoured when the family asked if I would perform the funeral. I asked if I could meet with a few of them ahead of time to talk about the man, to hear some stories and get to know a little bit more about him, so that when it came time to speak about him, I could speak from a position of honesty and understanding. They told me stories about his work and his play, but they also told me about how he would spend a lot of time, especially later in life, praying and reading the Bible. As a pastor I always love if I can use a part of the Bible as a building block to a public speaking opportunity, so I asked what he read. Did he read about the patriarchs, about the founding of the Jewish society, law and religion? Did he read the Psalms, the poems of praise and anxst? Did he read the gospels, the stories of Jesus and his followers? They didn’t know. I could tell they were worried that I didn’t believe them. He wasn’t always a church-going man, and his language was often more colourful than it was spiritual, and all of this was part of the reason I was randomly called in to the hospital than to have his normal pastor visit. They seemed worried, as though maybe I was trying to catch them in a lie and revoke my willingness to participate in and bless this service. I might have read them wrong, but I think for a moment they might have been reading me wrong.

“Can I see his Bible?” I asked.

A few of them looked around, unsure if they would be able to find it, but I already knew where it was. His Bible was sitting exactly where he had left it, beside the chair where he would sit and watch the birds, beside the pile of coasters on which he would put his morning cup of coffee, and among the photographs that showed memories of happier and healthier times.

I flipped through it, hoping to see certain passages underlined or highlighted, but even though none were, it was still clear that this was a well-read Bible. I held it up to the light, and I could see that the edges of the book that were once a shiny silver were now dulled and worn. A few pages were more crinkled than others, and so I opened it to those places. I could tell that he was the kind of reader who licked his thumb before turning the page, because there was a kind of round indentation on a lot of the top corners. The page with Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, had a coffee stain on it. The page were it talks about Jesus feeding the five thousand had a crease in it. The spine of the book was actually broken right where the book of Revelation starts.

Did he read these passages more? Did he like them? Did he hate them? Whatever these clues mean, I found this to be a highly spiritual exercise, to leaf through the pages that contained the words that brought hope to a dying man, and words that engaged his mind and spirit when he was more active. Maybe this will be lost in a generation that reads digitally. Maybe this will be lost when our whole society is spiritual but not religious. But maybe, someday someone will try to connect with me after I’m gone, and the things that I read and the things that I write will leave a trail for them to follow.