It was Saturday afternoon. I was ready for Sunday, and getting ready to go out of town with my husband on Sunday afternoon, for a quick anniversary trip. Just overnight.
I got a text from one of our new members. If there is such a thing as a “desperate text”, that is what this was. Her good friend, the man who used to attend church with her and her granddaughter, was dead. Heartbroken was not a strong enough word for what she was feeling. I called her. She wanted to know if it was possible for us to have a funeral the next Friday, even though he had not joined the church.
I said yes. It didn’t even seem like a hard decision. She was hurting; how could we not do this for her? He was her best friend, had been like a father to her granddaughter. It was even more than that.
And, she said, he had taken his life. When we met together to discuss music and scripture readings, the first thing she said to me was, “What is a scripture reading that lets people know that a person took his life but he is in heaven?”
I knew my task then. We chose his favorite songs, and sang Amazing Grace. I chose Psalm 130, and parts of Romans 8. And I started to write, or tried to write, a sermon. I felt the weight of saying the right thing, and not saying the wrong thing. I didn’t know anyone else who would be there, but this heartbroken, grieving woman.
I wrote and rewrote and rewrote again. I think I was afraid of naming the reality because there have been times when people have not wanted the reality named. The most important thing is to tell the truth. But it seemed hard.
So there we were, at 1:00 in the afternoon. There were a respectable number of people there on time, but they kept coming during the first part of the service, slipping in and taking a seat. These were people that this man had worked with at two different jobs. All of them thought it was important to be there for him, for his family, for each other.
I remember that my parish member wasn’t sure about having remembrances. She couldn’t think of anyone who would be able to speak. I decided to do something a little risky, and invite people to share something they remembered. Five people raised their hands and stood up and said gracious words about their friend.
Then it was time for me to speak. By this time our little church was pretty full. I began. I shared a couple of memories. I acknowledged this man’s struggle with depression, and how depression lies, and we were here to tell the truth. And then I came to the hard part. I said these words:
“And I am glad you have come here to the church as well, to T’s church, to the place she and K and her granddaughter worshipped. Because, I am sad to say, there was a time when the church would not have had his funeral in the sanctuary. There was a time when the church believed that people who took their lives were somehow beyond God’s mercy. We preached judgment then, instead of grace. And that makes what you are all dealing with even harder.
“And so today I want to be very clear — that K was and is a child of God, athat God loves him, knew his pain, and received him as his own.”
It was then I heard it.
A chorus of voices from the pews. They said Amen and they keeps saying Amen, whenever the grace and mercy of God was proclaimed, whenever words of eternal life invoked.
This is not a common practice in the denomination to which I belong. But I felt the power of this one word. The Amen of agreement, the Amen of encouragement, the Amen of radical mercy.
In that moment I felt that the words I was saying were not mine alone, and that the ministry I was offering was also not mine alone. All of these people who came — they came to grieve, and to receive hope — but they also came as ministers and witnesses to the power of the gospel.
After the worship service, the congregation shared food and stories, hugs and tears. So many people said to us, “Thank you for letting us come here. Thank you for your welcome.” The gratitude overwhelmed us.
But also — I heard so many stories, from this man’s co-workers, stories about all that they shared with one another at work. These people who worked together were a family, bonded together both by the work they did, but also by dinners and stories and lives they shared.
I have worked as a pastor for so long that I have forgotten the kind of bonding people can do at work, the ways in which our coworkers can become our family, and even — our church. A community of support — and faith.
A community of “Amen.”
We can be that for one another. When we are afraid to tell the whole, hard, and merciful truth. When we need to name the pain, but also the love. When we need the mercy of God to be shown in each other’s arms, and eyes, and voices.
May we say it, and hear it, and be it, for one another.