Thursday, February 18, 2016

As a pastor I have had the holy duty and privilege of being with family when or after a loved one dies. Sometimes these moments have been expected, other times they have been a terrible shock. All are losses.
One such time occurred when I was a new pastor for the congregation I served at the time. I had begun my service there only six months prior. It was a Saturday morning in late July. I was prepared for Sunday worship and my family was scheduled for vacation on Monday. I was contacted by the police department who had been unable to reach the deceased man's wife. Law enforcement, among other duties, are often the harbingers of the news of this sort. I think the officer was relieved that I would step in.
I spent most of that day trying to reach the man's wife, mostly by going to her house. Late that afternoon, after several unsuccessful attempts, I pulled up and saw her car in the driveway. Having one's pastor make an unexpected visit is probably unnerving. At least it was for her. When she opened the door and saw me she said "oh, this can't be good."
Her husband was an early adopter of the organically grown food movement.  He had done some amazing things to push the concept and practice forward, though it was financially burdensome. He had an explosive energy about him, but he also had a gentleness to his character. In the tender time immediately following his death, his memorial service was schedule and planned. I postponed our vacation for following his memorial. As pastors do, I spent time listening, making suggestions, and listening some more.  I prefer memorials to honor the individual, but to also bear witness to the resurrection. This man, in his larger than life way, would have wanted it that way.
Usually I'm able to identify something, some image or metaphor that captures the identity of the person. For this man, I remember talking about the signs I had seen when entering a nature preserve of some kind: take only photographs, leave only footprints. It worked well as I assembled some of the stories I had been told as "snapshots" of his life. As for leaving only footprints, what better illustration of his passion for reducing the carbon footprint?
The service, though a terrible experience given the circumstances, offered some healing balm.  I even recall a man who knew the deceased, but was himself a "religious atheist", approached me after the service and commented on it being the finest memorial he'd attended. He said that he particularly thought the homily was a perfect reflection of the deceased.
A day later my family loaded the car and drove about six hours to the state park where we were going to camp, hike, explore, and relax. On the way, we were still processing the past few days and talked about the experience, including the memorial. The first morning, after establishing our site, we drove to an area of trails and waterfalls, loaded ourselves with the necessary snacks, water bottles and such and began following the paved walkway to the waterfalls. Approximately twenty yards from the parking lot we all stopped and seemed to freeze, starring straight ahead. My daughter, who at the time was about 13, broke the silence and said "that's just too weird." Before us was a large wooden sign with a message routed into it: Take only photographs, leave only footprints.
It was as if a voice from beyond spoke to us in that moment. Of course, the sign had been there a long time, just as there are many others we might have just as easily discovered elsewhere. Still, it was one of those moments that whispers that there's more to what is going on in life than what appears to be going on. Sometimes we get nudges, other times they're shouts, most often though the reminders are subtle hints or clues.  So I have discovered that, along with prayer, alms-giving, fasting, service and a host of other religious endeavors, paying attention is a spiritual discipline.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

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