A few weeks ago, I attended a funeral. Funerals are not foreign territory for me; as a pastor responsible for pastoral care at a large church, I average about one funeral every two weeks. It is no accident that the Scripture passages I can recite from memory are the comforting words from John 14 and Romans 8 and Revelation 21. It is no mistake that the psalms that have become as close to me as my own breath are the 23rd and the 139th. “In life and in death, we belong to God.” These words from the Brief Statement of Faith are nearly a reflex in the best way possible. Regardless of circumstance, I hold tightly to that promise.
Yes, funerals are familiar to me. And yes, I love my work. I do not wish the pain of sickness or loss on anyone, but I am grateful for (and often bewildered by) the trust extended to me when a family invites me in to their most difficult moments. People sometimes assume I have the hardest job in the world. They are wrong. My job requires me to swim in deep water on a daily basis. But always, always, always, the water holds me.
Here’s what was different at that particular funeral: I was in the pews rather than in the pulpit. It was the funeral for a colleague’s grandmother. It was held in their own tradition with their own priest. And I wasn’t paying attention to the words at all.
When I’m officiating, the words matter. I spent hours carefully preparing, searching and praying for the words that will make hope seem a little more real. That will make the next week, the next day, the next five minutes seem a little more bearable. I believe that speaking the words of resurrection make a difference. I do. I cannot explain them, not in factual, scientific ways. But I have experienced them, and I will never let them go.
This time, however, the words never even caught my attention. Because crawling all over the pews were four children all under the age of five. When they got ready for the funeral, they put on their black dresses and tights, but they also packed their rainbow crayons. When they let their mother pin a flower to their shirt, they also placed a superman sticker right next to it. And when the priest instructed us to join him in prayer, they crawled under the pews.
And I admit it: I found it completely, utterly distracting. I think the priest talked about death and grief and sadness. I presume he spoke of resurrection and eternal life. I’m sure he prayed. But I can’t tell you for sure, because of the children. One child in particular.
I don’t know her name. Her hair was pulled back neatly in braids, and she held the handle of a sippy cup in one hand. Halfway through the sermon, she wandered away from her mother and down the center aisle. We heard a giggle from the back. And then, as the priest began to wrap up his comments, the little girl began her warm up. She started walking slowly, tottering around the perimeter of the room. As the prayers continued, she picked up speed. By the time we got to the final prayer of commendation, she was running laps.
It was completely, utterly distracting. In the midst of my attempt to focus on death, the persistence of life kept interrupting. As we wiped away tears and lamented the reality of death, the unassailable power of life was running circles around us and inviting us to join in.
Friends, that is the Good News of the gospel.
Jenny McDevitt is Pastor of Pastoral Care at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, KS. Originally from Michigan, she’s also lived in California, Virginia, and a few places in between. Her dog, Reilly, has been a faithful companion along the way. She loves stories — listening to them, reading them, and telling them. She is good at laughing, stubborn while running, and clueless about gardening.