Ashes and Casseroles: The Business of Life

I did a funeral this morning for a beloved saint of the church. Now I’m working on an Ash Wednesday service for later this evening.

I tell you what–sometimes us Pastors have the funnest jobs EVER.

Days like today, I remember that we are in the business of death. We are in the business of comforting folks as they exit the world; of blessing people into the next life; of drawing threads of narrative to speak the purpose of it all. We are in the business of sitting next to the widow.

In certain seasons of the year, we are in the business of reminding even the healthy and whole that our bodies are not our own. We were shaped from the dust, and to the dust we shall return. Like I said–it’s a wild and crazy good time we have.

Other days of the year, you will hear me preaching about how church is not ‘in here,’ but rather ‘out there.’ You’ll hear me write about the sacred in everyday, maybe everything BUT church. But then…well then, someone dies. And I remember that, even at the funeral, we are not in the business of death. We are in the business of life,and that makes all the difference.

A secret from your pastor–we do not enjoy doing funerals at the funeral home. Thing 1 is that, when the funeral is at church, we are the boss of it. We have no such control when it is on someone else’s turf, and most of us clergy types do not enjoy not being in charge.

And thing 2 is that, in the sanctuary, we are surrounded by reminders that our business is life, not death. We are able, almost without effort, to draw the attention back to the bigger story of which we are all a part.

Today’s service was at the funeral home, but it was lovely, and here’s why: because the Church showed up. The congregation was there taking up about three rows in the middle of the room, so in my mind, it was still a church sevice. We were the hosts, we were the guests. Liturgical perfection.

I know of a man who spent many years without religious affiliation. He didn’t know what he was missing, was not at all what you’d call a ‘seeker.’ Then, his neighbor died. That neighbor was part of a church family. And that man, who had never been part of a faith community, watched a steady stream of church folks bringing food to the neighbor’s door. Soon after, he found his way to a church.

“I want that,” he said to the pastor. “I want those casseroles showing up at the door when someone dies. I want my family to have that kind of care whenIdie.” And that is how someone who never knew Christ, came to be part of his living Body.

I’m in the business of life, but I see a great deal of death. And in that business, I find that church people often deal with loss far better than those who claim no belief or community. And “heaven” is not my go-to answer as to why that is. While an eternity spent with God is certainly a comfort and a promise worth claiming, it’s community itself that brings meaning and hope to the business of dying.

The Church is far too often afraid to talk about death. We are afraid to talk to folks about bequests and planned giving; we are afraid to engage the ‘do you have an advance directive?’ discussion; we shy away from sick folks who want to plan their funerals. “Oh, we don’t need to talk about that! You will be fine!”

Why are we so afraid?  We, people of faith and story,  know better than anyone–life is our business, even when we die. While the promise of what comes ‘next’ brings a measure of peace and comfort, it is our place in a larger narrative that brings us home. This is why we ‘do death’ in church, folks. This is why we show up with devilled eggs, this is why we pass around coffee in styrofoam cups, this is why we get together and sing some old songs, and claim our place in the history that is still becoming.

This is why we take the sign of the ashes onto our frail and broken frames, giving thanks for the promise it speaks to our soul… that from dust, we are created in the image of God. And to dust, we will return, the hand of God still upon our very being. And that is such good news.

“…but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities…in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive!”

 

About Erin Wathen

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, KS (www.sacchome.org). She's a Kentucky native, a long-time desert dweller, and she writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything. For more info, click the 'about' tab above...

  • Carl Keith Greene

    Before you were in London, and probably not born. I was working at WFTG radio, started when I was in classes at SBC. One of my jobs was to read the obituaries in morning and evening. I learned a lot about those. In those days many of the funerals were at the local churches. Somehow those were the ones that made me think just a bit more about the person in the casket.
    Your column is a good form today. Maybe you can write my obit, probably not. CK


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