“What do you do for a living?”
I have been asked that question dozens of times. But once, when I was at a party, I was asked, “So Dave, what’s your business?”
Of course, I began to say something about working in the church in town, which is largely what I do. I wish I had that moment back.
I moved to a new position this summer after spending more than nine years at a congregation in Colorado. Folks there would chuckle sometimes when I’d insist that the best part of my role was officiating at memorial services.
“I’d do a memorial service over a wedding any day” became a mantra. It doesn’t matter whether a bride or groom-to-be is the friendliest, kindest soul on the planet, I’d rather be at a funeral.
A funeral that doesn’t seem to go quite right? A funeral that celebrates the life of someone that has died in tragic circumstances? A funeral that’s for someone that I know well? I’d rather be there.
I vaguely recall Daniel Berrigan saying many years ago that it was his calling to help people die well. That was his business.
At my current congregation, the minister for visitation attends Board meetings in order to offer her monthly report, which goes something like: “My ministry continues; I listen, I pray, we share tender moments together, we listen for God.” That is her business.
My third memorial service here was for a long-time member. His son offered a stirring eulogy, telling many superb stories that captured his father’s spirit. Towards the end of his eulogy, he began to do what I prefer those who are eulogizing not to do; he began to preach.
Now, it’s not that I’m opposed to anyone and everyone saying a few good words for God; it’s just that there have been a number of memorial services where I have preached. Shortly thereafter, a family member has stood and questioned the location of the immortal soul of their dearly departed sibling or cousin, likely offering something that is the opposite of what I had just shared.
“It’s a shame that Bill didn’t know Jesus, but it’s not too late for the rest of you.”
So, yes—a few good words for God are great at memorials until maybe they aren’t.
In any case, the gentleman that began to preach here recently at his father’s service took a different tack. He said, “I thank God for death. Death is a gift. Without it nothing would ever have changed. We’d all be amoebas without death. Our ancestors would have not had the capacity to grapple with the idea of a Creator without death. We would not have language and we would not have the same senses that we do now without death.”
I sat listening to this gentleman’s fine oratory and wondered to what degree it would be appropriate to shout out an “Amen” during his Father’s funeral (that tends not to happen in our context).
But, it occurred to me later, that this is an element of the discussion regarding the teaching of evolution that goes missing; a theological element actually. To deny evolution is to deny a great gift that God gives. We see it in the rot of leaves under our feet each fall. The forest would not be there without the falling of those precious leaves. To fall and eventually physically degrade is their business.
Now, as I gaze out of my office window, I see an old and glorious beech tree. It looks healthy enough to me, but it has a bleeding canker disease. It will eventually need to come down. It’s a reminder that in this era, an era where the shiny thing is usually regarded as the better thing, that one of the cornerstones of parish life is not only to help people lead lives that are worth living, but also to help people die as well as possible. That is our business.
Someday soon I will receive a phone call. It will be time to visit someone who is nearing the end of this journey. I won’t want to go. Initially, when I receive these types of calls, I wonder if someone else might go or if I will have anything to say or if I’ll be in the way when I get to where I’m going. In that moment, selfishly, I’d rather be enjoying another part of my life.
Isn’t it always the way? The thing that you don’t want to do, but you know you must do, that is your business. Why?
Because you know you’re going to need God’s Spirit to carry you through. And that, it seems, is God’s business.
Rev. David A. Shaw is the Senior Minister of Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Montclair, New Jersey.