Monday, October 13, 2014

Anonymity is My Name

The phone call is always the same.  Sameness is not mutually exclusive with urgency.

"Pastor, this happened and so-and-so is here and the doctors said they don't think it is going to be much longer, can you please come?"

Of course I will.  Far more than meeting with city hall employees about parking lot erosion or trying to understand what our plumber is telling me about one of the church's water heaters, going to the bedside of the dying is something I am very much trained to do and called to do as a part of my vocation as a parish pastor.  Ministering to the dying is by no means easy, but it it is definitely closer to my wheelhouse than paper-pushing, and is, for me anyways, far more spiritually enriching and rewarding.

So I go, and like the phone call, the scene in the room is always the same as well.  The bed of the person who is passing away is always in the center of the room, and family are gathered around in a circle, maybe with a few folks sitting down or orbiting around the room.

Here's the thing: it's really tough to try to break into a circle, even if you have been expressly invited.  I have only known this person for a few years at most, and here they are surrounded by people who have known them for decades, perhaps their whole lives.

I am here as a pastor, but it is tough to not feel like an impostor, a gate-crasher, Vince Vaughn's and Owen Wilson's sidekick in Funeral Crashers, their ill-advised (and fortunately entirely nonexistent) sequel to Wedding Crashers.  A colleague of mine once openly wondered if putting a cardboard cut-out of him in the room might not be better because he felt so helpless sometimes in those moments.

"Will you pray with us?"

Of course I will.  At long last, something I can actively do to help, to not be that helpless cardboard cutout.  Prayer is sometimes more difficult for me than I let on, but that never stops me from trying.  The prayer usually worms its way out of my lips regardless of how much of a spiritual writer's block I'm having in that moment.  And really, in those sorts of moments, the family does not need or demand soaring prose.  They need comfort.  They need reassurance that the presence of God is truly at work in the room.

And since God conveniently hasn't come to earth in human form since we killed Him when that happened last around 2,000 years ago, big old imperfect me is who they are left with to help channel the divine spirit of the Almighty into their little circle of love and sorrow.

 Once you've taken several of these calls, you begin to notice the signs of death growing nearer.  You can anticipate when the moment is about to happen.  And when it does, it is all that you can do to thank God for the life this person led, for the people whom they loved and who loved them in return, and for the unbelievably profound privilege that you have been gifted in being present at their transition from broken earth into glorious paradise.

"Can we call you later?"

Of course you can.  I know that "later" may well be days or even weeks after the fact: some families want to bury their dead right away, others need some time and space to get back to something approaching neutral in order to begin planning their loved one's memorial service.  So I don't always know when I'll get that call, but it doesn't really bother me.  I know how to get in touch with them as well.  And I will if I'm worried about them.  I'm like God's overly-benevolent spy network.  You can run from my pastoral care, but you can't hide from it forever.

The family begins discussing what happens next, and at that point, I know that what they need now is the help of a funeral director, not their pastor.  Of course I am happy to be there for those meetings as a source of moral support, or to help point them in the right direction in making arrangements, but at this point, I know the most immediate soul-sized need has been met.  A life has been extinguished and God's presence has been made known.  Everything else that I can help them with can wait.

And so I go around the room, offering hugs and handshakes and prayers as I go.  A family member might walk me out, offer me my coat as I cram my hat back on and walk back out into the rapidly chilling Pacific Northwest weather.

I climb into my car and place the key into the ignition.  As I pull out of the driveway and make my way back onto the busy thoroughfare that brought me here, I begin to realize something: nobody else who is driving by knows what I know.  Nobody else around me has just witnessed what I have just witnessed.  To them, I am simply another driver to honk at if I change lanes too suddenly or to flip off if I don't drive fast enough for them in single-lane traffic.

I've become anonymous again.  I've become just another person again.

And what's odd about it is...I absolutely need that.  After what has just happened, I need to be just another person to someone.  I have been so moved, so drained, so emptied, of my spiritual abilities that I need to not be "Pastor Eric" for a few moments.

Even if it means getting honked at.  Even if it means getting cussed at.

I need those moments when, after something utterly profound has happened, I rejoin a world that has not seen what I have seen.  A world that is unaware of my calling and of my experiences.  A world that has no need to place a mantle upon me, a pedestal beneath me, or a pulpit around me.

A world in which I am given my own space to reflect on that loss.

A world in which, for at least moment, I simply am, and nothing more.

A world in which, for at least a moment, anonymity is my name.

What a gift from God such moments have become for me.

Yours in Christ,

(Author's note: This vignette reflects not any one particular story, but is rather built upon the many times I have been called to a death in my still-brief pastoral career.  Each of these deaths I can recall by memory.  Each taught me something about love.  And each ultimately pointed me, in their own way, towards God's glory.  Ad maiorem Dei gloriam. ~E.A.)

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