In the past twenty-four hours I have experienced an unrivaled melange of personal emotion. By personality type I am an introvert, so most of my emotional work is internally processed. By ethnicity I am a northern European, so emotional expression is genetically impaired. By geographical location I am a Minnesotan, so public display of emotion is considered socially uncouth. But I have wept more in the past twenty-four hours, I think, than I have in the past ten years.
Claudia and I had a delightful Fourth of July with friends from Luverne. We enjoyed our visit, our kids enjoyed spending time with their kids, and it was soothing to be with people we've known for seven years now. When they set off for "home" it felt a bit strange, for when I think "home" I still think "Luverne." I am not quite emotionally situated in Mankato enough to see it as "home" yet.
So anyway, after that enjoyable diversion on the Fourth of July, I awoke early yesterday to get three of my kids and myself ready to be in the church parking lot at 8:00 AM, not an easy feat after getting to bed very late after the evening prior's fireworks extraveganza. In our new community the three United Methodist Churches have a three-day camp at one of our Annual Conference's camps for 4th, 5th and 6th graders from the churches. All the pastors and the churches' childrens' staff people are a part of this annual event. It was a strange feeling to be the unknowns in this large group of parents and campers gathering outside the church that is now "ours." I recognize only a few faces and after two Sunday's "in the pulpit" there aren't that many who know me yet, and some who have not yet met me.
After we loaded into vehicles, we began our two-hour trek to the north. I was fortunate to have as my navigator one of the other UM pastors in town, and we had a spirited discussion along the way about church politics and pastoral life. On the way we passed through one of the communities where I had experienced a very difficult three years of ministry in another denomination. Just driving through the community brought back to me the disillusionment of those days, now fifteen years past.
We kept pressing on toward our camp, which is situated within fifteen minutes' drive of the pastoral appointment I served prior to my seven years in Luverne, so I began to think about the early days of Claudia's and my marriage. The camp we drove into is the first camp our oldest son Kyle attended shortly after we adopted him, so I was drawn back to the early days of adoptive experience.
At this point I was beginning to feel the melancholy sense of disorientation. Where is my home? In the course of less than one day I had experienced my home of fifteen years ago, my home of ten years ago, my home of seven years ago, and my new "home," which really isn't "home" yet.
Late yesterday afternoon I received a cell phone message from Claudia, describing for me a horrific tragedy in our not-quite-forgotten-"home" of Luverne. A high school junior (this fall) was tragically killed in a car-semi accident, and the family was hoping I could return "home" to Luverne to officiate. My heart fell. My eyes ached. My emotions collapsed.
One of the complicating factors of the request regards pastoral transition ethics. In our United Methodist system, which is appointive (that is, our Bishop sends us to our places of pastoral service; it is not congregational polity), we have a very clear ethical understanding that once a pastor leaves his or her appointed place of service, it is not appropriate to return back, especially not within a few weeks' time since departure. Within a few minutes I discovered that their new pastor is away for two weeks for continuing education leave, so he couldn't be immediately contacted. I contacted our District Superintendent, explained the situation, and asked for his advice. He agreed to call the new pastor to see what would be his preference. Within a few more minutes I received a gracious call from Pastor Donn who affirmed the family's choice and consented to my return for the service.
As I stood in the midst of the prairie grass at the campground (that's where I could receive the best cell phone reception), I reeled from the emotional melange ... I had revisited the past fifteen years of my life and ministry and stood facing one of the most formidable pastoral challenges of my career.
I have officiated many funerals in my twenty years of pastoral work. I would estimated that I have buried between 150 and 200 people in these years, yet I have never had to bury someone as young as this sixteen-year-old. I have had difficult funerals, but none in which I have watched the person in question grow up from the age of nine to sixteen. I have, likewise, confirmed the faith of numbers of high school students, but never have had to bury someone I have confirmed. I have preached to varying numbers of people over the years, but never to the multiple hundreds expected to be present for this funeral on Saturday afternoon. (It will be held in the school gymnasium, appropriately enough, for a student athlete who spent many hours of practice on the very floors which will now support his life-riven body).
I am deeply honored by the family's request, but I am terrified by the significance of this moment. To return to my "home"-that-is-no-longer-my-home to preach to a community-that-is-no-longer-my community in the midst of trauma and grief is a task that brings me to an emotional and spiritual place I have not yet experienced in my life. I alternate between denial and grief-stricken sobs. In my home-that-will-become-my home where I now reside, I can afford to be broken and filled with fear, but when I return to the "home"I am most familiar with but no longer a part of I will need to find an inner strength and serenity that I have not previously had to summon.
In the melange of emotions, I believe I will find a renewing strength that comes from God's very own self. I have yet to find this strength, but I must press forward ... to be Christ's ambassador to a family traumatized by the unthinkable, to a community seeking answers to the unanswerable, and for myself, human messenger that I am of a divine Parent who understands what is to lose His only son.
May God's strength be revealed in the days ahead.