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With poise and grace she walked toward me as if we were about to enter a dance. She was the lead and I was to respond to her invitation. She walked with gentle authority that conveyed not many have refused her invitation. It was her gemstone brouche that first caught my eye in the candlelight prayers of the evening worship. It twinkled with the dim light that I saw in her eyes as she approached me. I was just getting started in my career and she, the colors of ash decorating her hair, was approaching the end of her career. Little did I know how close to the end she was.
She reached out her hand “Hello, Pastor. My name is Elizabeth. I am new to this church though not new to the church.”
“Hello, Elizabeth. Welcome to our evening prayer service. I’m so glad you are here. How can I help you?”
She smiled, but not too exuberantly. That would be giving away more than she, a professor of ballroom dance at Julliard, would let onto. Though I could tell right away in the listening of the soul there was much exuberance in her that was quietly approaching the fate we all one day experience.
We made more small talk and then she said, “Pastor Jes, I am dying. I would like this to be my church and I would like you to walk with me as I die. Will you be the pastor at my funeral?”
Honored and tepid I responded “Elizabeth, I am honored to be your pastor and to walk with you in the last chapter of your life and help you transition into death.”
She stood with the strength of a dancer and smiled at me and said “Very well then. I look forward to getting to know you more. I know you are the pastor for me because I can tell in your eyes the joy you have is because you know death.”
She walked away and I felt naked. Seen by a stranger who was three times my age wanting me to walk with her unto the grave. She was right. I know joy because I know death. How did she see this so soon? Good ministry is the act of becoming naked in the soul to each other. Good ministry is seeing each other without shame. Somehow in that brief exchange we quickly took off masks and established the path that would take the next few months to complete.
We met on and off. Picking hymns, sharing stories of Scripture, and learning how to pray together. I met her husband, also a ballroom dancer. I learned stories and listened for the sacred. She was away from the church for years. Elizabeth decided that she needed to die in the care of her church. She needed to return to church. Death always is a path back to church.
I grew to love Elizabeth and she grew to love me. I felt degrees of undignified next to her. She felt degrees out of the times next to me. We strangely understood each other. She loved my sassy reverence. I loved her playful elegance. We both knew God brought us together.
In the last week of her life her husband called me one evening and said “Pastor Jes, Elizabeth died.” Each death is connected. The death of my friends, the death of my birth parents, the death of my beloved animals, the death of dreams quickly flooded my mind as her husband went on as to how she died. I could hear the pain and the sorrow and also the peace in his voice. We plotted the funeral date and executed the plans that Elizabeth and I already made when she was alive.
Our sanctuary was full of students and professors from Julliard. It was the first funeral I was the minister at seven years ago. I wanted everything to be perfect. It wasn’t. There was a spelling error in the bulletin that Elizabeth would have glaringly noticed right away. One of the speakers ran much too long. I somehow managed to preach a sermon though I was a little intimidated by the notable members of the congregation that day. I reminded everyone that the greatest love of all is that our savior died and rose again and that we now proclaim that death can’t separate us from this love.
The funeral ended and I remember feeling exhilarated knowing I was doing exactly what I was made to do on this earth. Knowing that this was one of the realist moments when we come together in love gathered around the ashes of the fate for all of us. Oddly enough it was in death that I came alive.
We live in a world that avoids death at every corner. The church is even culpable of this. In our proclamation of life we avoid the hard reality of the multiple deaths each day and in doing so we offer a saccharine version of the proclamation of life. If we can’t name death in the sanctuary of crucified Lord then what are we even doing?
On this Ash Wednesday we must name death. We must not rush to life everlasting and we must linger in the reality of our limited lives. Our mortality needs to be acknowledged today. All our striving is welcome at the cross today and we are asked to release the masks we put on in to present ourselves as somehow more worthy to God. Let the masks burn. Return to ash. In the ashes there is love. We do not have to be someone we aren’t in order to make ourselves more loveable before God. In the ashes we find relief from frantic achievement and acknowledge limitation. In the ashes we find death in order to find life.
In the ashes each death, each loss, and each pain is acknowledged. Don’t run to the empty tomb, stay at the cross and contemplate mortality. We acknowledge that the world is not as it should be in the ashes and we acknowledge what we desperately hope is.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust — we are born from God and we die into God. Death can’t separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We return to the dirt in which we are made from. We dance through the great ballroom of life and eventually, like Elizabeth, we respond to the invitation to death and dance from this life into the next. In the ashes there is death and there is the promise of life. What love there is in the ashes.
From dust you came to dust you will return. Rest in the grace of this promise today.
Jes, thank you for touching that one little hidden nerve today. As a minister I too walk with people on the road to the grave, the journey changes us each time. Your courage with this woman was lovely.
Grace upon grace.
I am so grateful for this beautiful essay, Jes.
Yes! This is my call, too.
Thank you Jess. Just yesterday with a group of beloved colleagues I was asked the question ” What will you give up this year ? My immediate reaction was I’ve given up enough already ( through the process of ending a 36 year marriage). But I realized then, and recognized in your blog post, that each death comes with the promise of new life. I have indeed given up much, but the stirrings of new life are already at work deep inside. The seeds have already been planted. To hold life and death together is a great paradox, but one that we in the service of God’s people and God’s church must learn to do every step of this journey in both sorrow and joy.
A really good one, Jes. Thank you.