Among the most sacred duties of pastoral service is that of ministering to those who are near death and honoring them after they have passed into eternity. This week it has been my honor to be engaged in this sweet and severe duty for two members of the congregation I serve. One dear member, full of years, passed suddenly in his wife’s arms, crossing the River after a life characterized by service, selflessness, kindness and love. The other, passed away after a determined 5-year battle with pancreatic cancer, still praising her God to the end, voicing her love for Him, her family and those of us who visited her in her last hours with all the vigor she could muster – a warrior of love to the very end.
By this stage in my ministry life, I do not know how many sacred scenarios like this I have been honored to witness, but I do know that my heart continues to be moved in every case and that I remember details of most of the end of life scenarios of which I’ve been a part. I can recall my first ministry involvement for a funeral as a very young lay-leader in ministry, serving as a soloist and Bible reader for a fallen soldier who had been killed in an airplane crash in Gander, Newfoundland that claimed his life and the lives of over 250 other Peacekeepers from the 101st Airborne Division in December of 1985. I remember the first death of a congregation member I experienced as a pastor on a night of record snowfall in Cleveland, OH, when I drove a very rickety Yugo vehicle in impossible conditions to be with the family of this precious member and then burying her a few days later in record below zero conditions. I also remember the first funeral performed in our newly formed congregation in Detroit, Michigan, when our tiny congregation, my family and I buried our daughter – Samantha-Luz Bautista Jackson on a painful, cold, barren winter Day, as my mind reeled and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever smile from my heart again.
The solemnity of a human being’s death smashes through the callouses of familiarity – if one allows it to – and has the power to link souls together in an experience that can never be precisely duplicated. An openness to experience the reality of the pain, rather than hide it, can potentially give one the capacity to actually feel more alive than one might feel without ever having experienced the pain of loss. The special and hallowed nature of being with a person and their family in those last moments or in the days after their traverse to “The Other Side” has the ability to yank one’s soul from complacency and has the power to stir one’s spirit to take advantage of every opportunity to engage life, as the brevity and limitations of one’s lifespan are made evident in the passing of another.
All of these thoughts occupy my mind as I carry out my most solemn pastoral duty. I do not consider my duty or these accompanying thoughts as a burden or bother – I consider them a blessing and an indication that the Lord has kept my heart tender enough to make a difference in serving others. I challenge you to engage those who are hurting and to risk the pain of suffering by getting close to those who are in the midst of experiencing pain. You will not emerge unscathed and you will be wounded and scarred. Yet, you will find that the most painful experiences can also shape you with your scars to emerge with a deeper appreciation for the gift of life and a deeper compassion for those who struggle as they live it.