Pastoring from the Midst of Death

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Media vita in morte sumus—Antiphon, ca. 750, probably from France.

That antiphon translates “In the midst of life, we are in death.” It appears in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church as well as in Latin liturgies. It was part of the “Committal Service for One Who Has Lived Apart from the Church” in the RCA’s 1968 Liturgy and Psalms. Ironically, someone on the committee that prepared that liturgy felt that those who lived apart from the Church—whatever that means; we no longer have separate liturgies for those in or out—deserved words used by Anglicans and Roman Catholics. More ironically, perhaps, I thought these were some of the best words in our funeral liturgy, and mourned their loss in 1987.

“In the midst of life, we are in death.” Until late Monday afternoon, I was in the midst of life, sorting out a number of details for both of my jobs in the hopes that I would actually take a couple of days off at the end of the week, and that my wife and I might enjoy a couple days away. Then I got a phone call: my brother, John, had died unexpectedly in his sleep, early in the morning.

Everyone who has lived through a death knows about the emotions I was facing: shock, sadness, anger, fear—John was two and a half years younger than me; what did this mean for me? There was also weariness and anger at the fact that this was the third death of somebody close to me in the midst of life in just about eleven weeks, all of them unexpected, all of them in the midst of busy living. The pastors reading this will also recognize a set of responses that kicked in, pretty much unbidden, as everything I was working on got set aside and I mentally tossed the agenda for the week out the window as I began to respond to needs around me: asking my father how he and mom were doing; calling my sister-in-law and talking to her, answering her questions as I could, encouraging her; and then, as I went to speak to a dear friend, to mourn, she beat me to it, with a death in her family, and I listened and prayed and shared her grief instead.

So what the heck is wrong with me? What is it about me that slips into pastoral mode when I am supposed to be crying, yelling, and grieving? In the interests of full disclosure, after dinner, by myself, I did yell at God for a bit; then I wept. But there are people who need me to be pastor now, both the pastor who sees them through grief and the pastor who sees them through baptism and an elder installation and a bit of wrestling with the Word this coming Sunday. More grieving will come later, but this is part of what happens when, “(t)rusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for strength, I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ, to build up and equip the church for mission in the world, to free the enslaved, to relieve the oppressed, to comfort the afflicted, and to walk humbly with God (from the RCA Form of Declaration for Ministers).” It isn’t easy; it is difficult, but, by the power of the Spirit, it becomes part of who I am.

You see, while this is an occasion where “(i)n the midst of life, we are in death,” the reverse is also very true, maybe even more so: in the midst of death, we are in life. In the midst of death, our Lord Jesus got up and turned his back on death to bring life to the world. In the midst of death, I find myself called to care for a lot of living people, with a lot of living needs, and a loving church with all its faults and foibles. And it seems that it is part of who I am as a minister of the Word and Sacrament that I respond to those needs, not because I am somehow so good, but because I can’t quite help myself.

And it seems that part of the resurrection tonight is dusting off “That Reformed Blog” after it’s been moribund a few months, because I needed to. Now I hope my fellow Reformed bloggers can pick up the gauntlet with me.

In the midst of death, there is life . . . and anger . . . and grief . . . and pain . . . and loss . . . and resurrection. And, by the grace of God, I find my way through it all, because, given who I am. I have no choice. And deep down inside, I am thinking, “Alleluia!”

And “Damn.”

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3 thoughts on “Pastoring from the Midst of Death

  1. James, I am so sorry for your loss. I hope you are prosessing the death and the life and drawing strength and comfort from your faith, your ministerial vows and your loved ones. May you have a reflective and peaceful Advent season.

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