Riding down the narrow two-lane road my mind is racing and my body won’t stop shaking. Don, the driver, is talking about livestock mating habits, deer hunting, and other inanities. Nothing he says is sticking with me. My anxiety is so high that my five senses feel on fire and shut down all at the same time.
I am the new minister at the tiny Naruna Baptist Church. At 20, I have become the latest in a long line of student pastors who have served this congregation. One of my best friends, Kip, was the pastor before me. When he graduated from our college, he recommended me to the church. It all seemed so simple. I would drive down on Sunday morning to preach, spend the day with one of the families, and then preach again that night. Preaching doesn’t scare me as much as it once did. I have been doing it for five years on an irregular basis. Sure, doing two sermons a week is going to be a stretch, but when your church is made up of a few dozen country folks, I assume the expectations won’t be exceedingly high.
But I hadn’t planned on this possibility. When I arrived at the church this morning, only my third Sunday as pastor, Don met me at the door and pulled me to the side. He is the music director who leads the hymns as his wife plays the piano. Don is about forty, a large man with a thick beard, and his gregarious nature is always on display. Only in this moment, he is strangely subdued.
Don explains that there has been a death in the church. The Barfields’ adult daughter, Susan, was found on the floor of her trailer the night before. Susan’s twin boys were in their cribs unharmed when her body was discovered. Don explains that we will need to visit the Barfields after lunch and plan the funeral.
I’m having a terrible time absorbing this rush of information. Someone with connections to the church has died, but it is not one of the elderly members who dominate the congregation’s demographics. It is a young woman in her early twenties, apparently the unwed mother of twin boys, and no one knows how it happened. Or no one will say it out loud. This will be my first, but hardly the last experience with the awkward silences around an apparent suicide.
As Don and I turn down the dirt road that leads to the Barfields’ home, he asks if I know what I am going to say. The question only serves to increase my stress because it crystalizes the fact that I have no idea what to say. I turn the question back to Don and ask if he has any suggestions. For the first time I realize this situation also feels overwhelming to him. No wonder he was chattering incessantly as we drove along. He hesitates before finally saying, “Reading some scripture is always a good thing to do. Psalm 23 is probably the best.”
The shades are drawn in the Barfields’ den and there is only a single lamp on. The darkness in the room matches the mood of the house, but these are nice people who seem to understand better than I the absurdity of this encounter. What does a twenty-year-old preacher boy know about the death of a child? They carry the conversation and Don sits oddly silent in the corner of the room. I clutch my Bible with sweaty palms wondering when the right moment will come to read. It never does. The longer I sit with the Barfields the more I understand there are no words, scriptural or otherwise, that can make a difference. Their daughter is dead and now, in their late forties, they are going to raise two baby boys.
After deciding on a day and time for the funeral, I offer a prayer that feels utterly useless. When I look up, though, there are tears in Mrs. Barfield’s eyes and she whispers “thank you.” Something I have said or done in these moments has touched her, though in my anxious state I can’t imagine what it could be. It will take years before I understand the simple truth that just showing up in times of tragedy is all we can do and all anyone has a right to expect.
The next day my anxiety returns as it dawns on me I now have to plan and conduct a funeral. I can remember only one funeral that I have attended, a Catholic service for our next-door neighbor when I was 13. Nothing about that experience seems relevant to what I am faced with now. Feeling completely inadequate for the task, I go see my New Testament professor, Dr. Rainey. He is a kind man, sweet in temperament, and he senses my panic immediately. He tells me about his first funeral and how overwhelmed he felt. Then he walks me through each element of a funeral, me taking notes furiously as he talks. This moment still ranks in my top five of nicest things anyone has ever done for me.
I skip class the following day to drive down for the service. I do exactly as Dr. Rainey told me to do. I hear myself saying lines, verbatim, that came out of Dr. Rainey’s mouth. It is almost as though he is leading the funeral and borrowing my body to do it. I don’t care. At this point plagiarism is the least of my concerns.
What I do notice is an odd deference being paid to me by my congregants. Up until this point I have been the new, young preacher who is getting on-the-job training before he heads to seminary in a year. Now, in a tragic circumstance for which none of us has an explanation, they are looking to me for comfort and direction. For the first time I actually feel like their pastor. It feels good. It also feels like an overwhelming burden.
Lunch is served in the fellowship hall after the funeral and Mrs. Vann’s individually-wrapped fried pies are the talk around the table. This is a disorienting transition for me. Moments earlier I was burying a young woman who may have taken her own life, and now I am discussing fried apple pie with my parishioners. Is this wrong? Is it disrespectful of the magnitude of the moment? In time I will learn that in the face of death, conversations about pie, football, and other trivial matters make as much sense as anything else.
My first funeral was for Susan, a young woman I never knew. Her tragic death was my initial experience of trying to be a pastor. I thought it would get easier after that. It never did.
- ► 2012 (12)
- ► 2011 (12)