Friday, February 28, 2020

Oil and Ashes

On Sunday evening, I got a phone call from a member of our congregation.  She wanted me to know about another member of the church who was dying.  She wanted to make sure I knew, and that I would go out to see her as soon as possible.

A little later I got a text from someone else with the same message.  It was already late, so I resolved to go over early the next morning.

That Sunday morning we had been on the mountaintop with Jesus.  It was a brief, shining encounter; we raised up brightly colored Alleluias and shouted and then put them away for Lent.  That morning we remembered the words, "This is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased."

Then, on Monday morning, I drove over to the assisted living center where this 101 year old woman lived.   I considered that she had faithfully attended worship almost every single Sunday, but not the day before.  One of her daughters-in-law was at the door of her apartment when I arrived.  She was sleeping peacefully.  I prayed and sang and spoke in her ear; I sang Beautiful Savior and What a Friend we Have in Jesus.  I told her how important she was; how much the children loved her. Her daughter-in-law told her that her husband was waiting for her, that everyone would be all right.

Then I got a small container of oil out of my purse.  It was something I had just received; a hand-me-down from a retired pastor.  I hadn't used it before.  I unscrewed the lid; there was not much balm left, but there was enough to put on my finger, and on her forehead, and to say the words, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked by the cross of Christ forever."

And I remember that after that, her daughter in law took the container from me for a moment and she smelled the fragrance of that small amount of balm.

It was two days before Ash Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning at 7:30 I was standing in the lobby of our congregation's pre-school.  Parents came in with babies and toddlers, and I was there to offer ashes and strange words to anyone who stopped.  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  And although not everyone stopped, some did, expressing thanks, some silently.  One man told me that he was raised Catholic, but hadn't been for awhile.  Several brought their children to be marked as well.

And even though I do this, I offer the words and the ashes, I have to wonder what it is that draws people to the ashes and the words, "Remember that you are dust"?  It seems like the last thing we would want to remember.

A little later, I held a chapel service for the children over in our sanctuary.  We heard the story of Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, and how the fourth man was with them in the flames, so that they were not burned.  And afterwards, two of the teachers and several of the older children also wanted ashes on their foreheads, in the form of a cross.

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

After the chapel service, when I arrived at the church office, and I learned that my 101 year old member had died that morning.

"You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever."

Oil and ashes, we are marked.  We are born and we die.  We die, and we are born again.

At the end of the day I got a message from a young mother from my church.  She said they had really hoped to come to the noon service, but they didn't make it.

But before she went to bed, her daughter went to the fireplace, and found ashes and marked her parents with the ashes.  With the sign of the cross.

You are dust, you are marked with oil and ashes.  You are born and you die.  You die, and you are born again.

Monday, February 17, 2020

A Tale of Two Funerals

A week ago on Monday afternoon I was here for the memorial service of one of my parish members.  That's probably not an unusual thing for a pastor to say.  I've held a lot of funerals through the years.  But, until recently, i have not had many in this little congregation.

I remember meeting with the family the Thursday before.  She wanted to have two hours visitation starting at 12:00.  The service would be at 2:00 p.m.  They chose two hymns; I urged them to include one more.  They had two friends as eulogists as well.  The man's wife and children spoke so warmly of their husband and father, memories of family events and things that he had done in the communities where they lived, including (I remember) that he liked to read to the children at Head Start.  And I remember that she was concerned that our church would be large enough.  They had heard from many people who planned to attend.  We had extra chairs ready for the narthex and the balcony, just in case we would need them.

As it turned out, we did need them.  This little church of ours was packed that Monday afternoon.  I have never really seen anything like it before.  I have been to a few other large funerals, but it felt like people just kept coming, squeezing into every nook and cranny, singing "Beautiful Savior" at the top of our lungs.  I did not see this, but i was told that there was a line of cars stretching down the highway waiting to get into our small parking lot.

It is not very often that you get a glimpse of the impact that one life can have.  One ordinary life.  This man, though beloved, was not in any way famous.  He did not have an especially large family. He was active in his church and he was active in his community.  There was something humbling about trying to squeeze all of those people into our little building that day.    It felt like God was shouting at us to have faith -- that though we are small, God is mighty.  Just look around.  Look at all of the people.  Look at how God works in the world.

That is how I felt that day.

Inevitably, though, I thought back.  It was early December, the beginning of Advent.  I was preparing for a funeral that day too.  We had gotten word that an elderly member of our congregation had died on Thanksgiving Day.  Her daughter called and asked if we could have a small memorial service in our church.   Of course we could.  This woman had been a faithful member of our congregation for many years.  I remembered where she always sat, every single week.  I remember that she wore a sweater, even when it was hot.  I remember how her son started bringing her to church, when she became ill.  During the last several months, people asked after her when she was not able to come to church.

On that day in early December, there were not many people in the church.  A few family members, a few faithful members of my congregation, who had looked out for her.  My heart warmed to see them.  One woman who came expressed dismay at the small group of people gathered.  She was as shocked to see this small group of worshipers as we were shocked to see the great crowds last week.

I don't remember much about the funeral, except that her granddaughter gave a lovely solo.  I remembered a particular sermon I had given, when I asked members of the congregation to share their favorite Bible verses, and this quiet unassuming woman had raised her voice and quoted Isaiah 59:1, "The arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor is his ear too deaf to hear."  Her family shared stories of her love and faith and strength.

And it was no less true that day in December -- though we are small, God is mighty.  Look around.

This is how God works in the world.