Thursday, April 14, 2011

What happens to pastors when they die?

Unless you’re also a pastor, or a funeral director, you probably don’t spend as much time at funerals as I do. And you may not know that there is a tradition about the placement of coffins for church services. If the deceased was a lay person, the head is toward the congregation, so they are looking up to the front. But if the deceased was clergy, the head is toward the chancel, so they are looking out into the congregation. This way they’re facing the same direction that they faced for worship during their time on this earth. It’s a peculiar tradition that speaks volumes to me. Certainly, it shows a respect for those who preach. But, as one of them, it makes me more than a little uncomfortable. Is the separation between pastors and the people they serve so definitive that it must continue even beyond death?

Among my peers I’m something of an oddity these days because I actually went from college to seminary and was ordained at the not-quite-ripe-enough age of 26. This is the only life I’ve ever known as an adult, so sometimes I’m not sure who I am apart from the role that I fill. I’ve struggled with this throughout my life. While I feel blessed to be in ordained ministry, and am thankful for the rich life I’ve enjoyed because of it, I also am keenly aware of the fact that this is what I do and it’s not who I am. There is so much more to me than the role I fill for other people as their pastor.

I have relished those moments in my life when I have been with people who either: (a) didn’t know that I had a “Rev” in front of my name, or (b) couldn’t give a rat’s ass about it. While serving my second parish, for a time I played with an orchestra in the next city over and enjoyed being known as “Nancy who plays the piccolo.” After seminary, when I returned to school, it was in a public university setting where I was simply another grad student. And one of the reasons why I love contra dancing these days is that for the people I dance with I’m just another middle-aged woman who tries to twirl around in a thrift-store skirt. Without these treasured people in my life, who don’t know me as “Pastor Nancy”, I’m afraid I might lose myself completely.

So, do I really want to be marked as a pastor even after I die, as if that’s the essence of who I am? The very idea of having my coffin turned in a different direction than the other dear saints in my church disturbs me and it gives me one more reason why I’ve chosen to be cremated. After my vital signs have ceased, they can harvest any body parts that might be of use to anybody and then freeze-dry the rest of me. Please know that when they do, I will not become pastor dust, thank you very much. I will just be dust!

Of course, in whatever life that follows this one, the fact that I served as a pastor won’t amount to a hill of beans. In fact, I suspect that in the next life the most useless job of all will be that of the professional holy person. I mean, why will anyone need to have someone pointing them toward God when they’re in the actual presence of God?

So whatever will I do with myself? Who will I be? I suppose it’s possible that many of the things I’ve been preaching about will turn out to be true and I could strut around telling everybody, “I told you so” but who would really care at that point? I’d rather bask in God’s glory with everyone else as we experience the breadth and width and depth of God’s love for all creation in a way our narrow minds could never comprehend in this lifetime. That’s when I’ll know that I’ve finally become the person God created me to be.

Yes, this gives me something to look forward to -- the day when my body will be dust and Pastor Nancy will become absolutely useless. Oh, yeah!

But I’m not in any hurry. I’ll wait my turn.

No comments: