I confess that yesterday was one of the more surreal days I’ve ever experienced at the church where I pastor, or any church I’ve been a part of for that matter. One of our members, a homeless man named Ed Corbin, collapsed and died on the front steps of our church building just before the service. One minute he was standing outside the front door smoking a cigarette, visiting with one of his good friends—a high school student who comes early to Redemption most Sunday mornings so he can hang out with his friends who live off the grid. Ed suddenly stopped talking in mid sentence, dropped his cigarette, and collapsed lifeless to the ground… no pulse no breathing. Folks from church started CPR and called 911, but there wasn’t anything they could do.
I say it was surreal because it is so shockingly incongruent to pull into the church parking lot for Palm Sunday service to find EMS, police, and fire vehicles with their lights flashing, and paramedics on the front porch doing CPR. Death in the place of life. We stood around helplessly looking on as a friend died right there in front of our eyes. All of the sudden all of our many words about hope and resurrection pushed right through from theory into practice.
I confess that I do not know how that moment evolved into the next moment, which was worship. But it did. It was a shock to the system to be sure, but somehow the congregation naturally fell into the familiar rhythms and movements and liturgies of our corporate worship. Linguists tell us that the history of the word liturgy is found in two words, one meaning work, and another meaning public or of a people. Liturgy is a form of public-works. As I watched our congregation roll up their sleeves and get to work worshiping just moments after death had literally come knocking on our front door, I was at a loss for words…
I confess that I have a deep suspicion of the pastor who always knows the right words to say. Long on answers and short on wonder and mystery and awe, I confess that I have found these pastors often suffer under what Wendell Berry calls, “The mantle of power, but not the mantle of knowledge.” A person can get so preoccupied being the pastor, that the pastor forgets to be a person… so busy speaking they forget that no one can rightfully expected to always have the right words to say. And yet I suspect that anyone who takes the gospel seriously, and has lived long enough, ought to know at least a little bit about what to say when faced with the inescapable incongruence of life and death.
So what I said, what we all said, was what we always say when we gather to worship. Death is the enemy, but it doesn’t get the final word. We don’t grieve like people without hope, we grieve as people who believe that there will be a day when we are lifted up, dusted off, put back together again and—somehow—we will live on in the presence of God. We said, “Lord hear our prayers, and let our cries come to you,” and “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We sang our songs, prayed our prayers, read our scriptures, blessed our children, and shared the common table. It was, as it always is, beautiful. But yesterday the beauty transcended that which I have ever before seen. I was glad to be with my friends, and to see the work of the people carry on.
I confess that Ed Corbin has been a part of our congregation for four or five years, and pretty much everybody knew him. He was cheerful and generally kind and worshiped at Redemption almost every week. You could tell that he was glad to be a part of us. Ed was known for several things. For one thing, didn’t quite know how to talk quietly during church, and I could often hear him making comments in the back of the room during a sermon. There was no disrespect in it. Something struck him funny and he was just sharing a chuckle with someone next to him.
He also needed help getting around. A cane wasn’t always enough, but a walker wasn’t feasible given the terrain he travelled, so Ed used to push around an empty wheelchair to keep himself steady. Many Sunday mornings you could see Ed strolling around the church parking lot, getting a little exercise pushing that wheelchair around. It was actually kind of funny. I’d say, “Ed, why don’t you sit down in that thing.”
And Ed, moving at a snail’s pace, would say, “Can’t. I’m in too big a’hurry.”
One day I said, “Who you pushing around there Ed?”
He didn’t miss a beat, looked down at the empty chair, looked around for a second, feigning surprise. The he said, “Where’d he go?” Ed had a pretty good sense of humor.
Ed was also known to take people in now and then, to let them camp with him. He lived alone in a little camp in KCK, and had many friends, among whom his generosity was known. I confess that I am glad that Ed was a part of our church. I’m glad that he died amongst friends, and that he knew that he was loved by us, and by God. I confess that I pray that Ed will be made whole again one day.
Okay friends, that’s my confession. Your turn: