There’s a saying that “Death happens in threes.” I don’t know where that saying originated, but my Dad got to experience that piece of consistent coincidence recently; all three were within the context of his role as a pastor, the most frequent witness of death and life.
The first was about two weeks ago on Sunday. Just as the service concluded, a woman in our church received a call that her ex-husband had just passed away. Though not unexpected, it was still unwelcomed. The woman and her son decided to skip a visitation and funeral and just have a quick graveside service. It was just my Dad and I, the woman, her son, a nurse, and the funeral director; Dad read some scripture, said a prayer and a few words, we sang the first verse of ‘Amazing Grace’, and that was it. From the gurney to the grave.
The second was a few days later. Lights flashed outside our apartment; my Dad and I went out to see what was happening. A neighbor we knew was holding the door open for the paramedics. My Dad’s also a police chaplain; he knew the responders and the neighbor, and he was currently on call, so I left him to do his thing. The neighbor’s wife had stopped breathing and had to be defibrillated three times. She passed away a few days later. The neighbor said he and his wife were not religious folks, but, for the sake of religious relatives, asked my Dad if he could read a psalm and say a prayer at the service, to which he agreed. They were married fifty-two years; he will be keeping her urn in the apartment with him.
The third was a friend of some of our church friends. I’d met him a few times when we all ate at a local steak buffet. He was a quiet, older gentleman; he always rolled his own cigarettes. When our church friends hadn’t heard from him in a few days they called the fire department, who then entered his residence and found him. Dad didn’t say any words, but he and my Mom attended the graveside service, and then spent time with our church friends at the steak buffet. As far as weather, the man couldn’t have asked for a prettier day.
Being a pastor, you have to be able to share some words at various moments. But there are many moments when words fail, won’t do, or just aren’t there. I think those are the moments when a pastor does what he subtly does best—being the witness. Whether strolling through scripture and learning its ways or walking with people, living day by day, the pastor inevitably finds himself with one foot in this world and one foot in the next and, having found that footing, he just observes. Those observations are what give shape to a witness that casts a gaze through the long black veil where we might just catch a glimpse of a far greater wonder than the world we know now.