Melissa Florer-Bixler: The grace in grief

Church is viewed through a rain-spattered window. Rain on glass is in focus; church is blurry.

Bigstock/James Lee

A pastor wonders whether the tending that happens in death and burial offers a new vision for church -- a space for the reception of those who are in moments of profound need, no strings attached.

The window slid down slowly, and I could tell Tom was barely holding it together.

“Here’s a book for John,” I said. We had only a few seconds before the car line at the church preschool needed to inch forward. “It talks about dying and walks kids through a funeral. I know you want a life where you don’t need this book. But if you can read it to the kids, I think it will help a lot with the next couple of days.”

I could barely get the words out. “I’m so sorry, Tom,” I managed to say before the tears wet my face. “We’re here for you. You’re not alone.”

My voice rung in my ears, a choked sob.

Tom was trying to hold back his weeping as John was buckled into the back seat of the Camry. They were making one more stop -- to pick up his seven-year-old sister from her elementary school.

Then Tom would start the long drive to Kentucky to bury his children’s mother.

“Thank you. Thank you for everything,” he said. “I’ll be up there soon, one of these Sundays,” he added, gesturing toward the sanctuary.

I nodded my head and squeezed his shoulder.

It’s not the first time someone has told me he’ll come to Sunday worship after the death of a loved one. Early in my pastorate, it would give me hope and excitement.

“I didn’t know church was like this,” a mourner would say during the funeral reception. “You all are so kind. You were so kind to us. I want to be a part of something like this.”

They would say they’d be back that Sunday to be a part of our regular worshipping community. Yet I can’t think of a single time I saw one of these mourners again in the sanctuary.

It’s easy to become jaded about comments such as these. It’s easy to feel cynical about people using the church as a spiritual Band-Aid during times of grief, only to get distracted by golf and Sunday morning cartoons and brunch when life settles back into the new normal.

Yet we cannot ignore -- or entirely disclaim -- the widely held perception of the church as exclusive and judgmental. And we cannot deny the increasing secularization of American society. We read again and again about the rise of religiously unaffiliated people in our communities, and how the average age of these “nones” is dropping while the age of our faithful parishioners is increasing.

In the midst of this decline in institutional affiliation, I wonder whether the tending that happens in death and burial might offer a new vision for church -- a space for the reception of those who are in moments of profound need, in profound grief.

And if we continue to maintain this space of grace, unmerited grace, I wonder whether those deeply rooted negative perceptions about the church might slowly be displaced.

I have found that funerals are often the primary space for people outside the church to receive the beloved community.

The longer I’m in ministry, the more I’ve grown to appreciate the leveling offered by death.

There’s physical leveling, of course. Naked we came from our mothers’ wombs, and naked we shall return. But there’s another leveling that comes with death. We are given equal access to the church that tends to our grief -- no strings attached.

I first heard this in seminary when professor Craig Dykstra implored my class to “turn down as many weddings as you want, but never turn down a funeral.”

I took that rule to heart, and saw it expand into grief care beyond the hour for the memorial service. In my ministry, I’ve come to appreciate the way time stands still when death approaches, how boundaries dissolve, how I sense myself pulled into action.

As a mother of three little children, I meticulously guard the boundaries of my time as a pastor. But when someone calls to say his beloved is in her final hours, I am on my way, day or night, weekday or weekend. It doesn’t matter how remote the connection, how little I’ve seen that person in church.

When death is nearing, when the door between this life and the life to come yawns open, I drop everything to be there.

There’s something tender and hopeful about this immediate and unmitigated response to death’s approach. The one time when all bets are off for clergy -- when we’ll climb mountains and plunge the depths, or step away from a child’s soccer game or return from vacation early -- is when we are attending to those who can offer us nothing else in this life. Time stands still to sit in the stillness of these moments. All other priorities are forgotten. The pastoral duty to which we attend with greatest urgency is waiting.

In these moments, I am reminded of the wisdom of Judaism that our greatest deeds are for the dead and for animals, because neither can repay us.

Now I am never troubled when family members tell me they will be back to church after a funeral. I know that for some mourners, these words are a kind of divine bargain, a wager against the fates; for others, a confession born of guilt from a lifetime of exposure to church as a divine quid pro quo.

Some are sincere when they tell me they will be back. They found hope and care in this place, experienced the surprising warmth conveyed by the trays of tea cookies and egg salad sandwiches in the church parlor, the bells ringing out their grief from the steeple. These mourners have been loved with no strings attached.

In death, no one belongs any more or less than anyone else. In burial, we do not consult your tithe or check to see that you were a regular volunteer in Sunday school. All funerals look virtually the same, all infused with the same pathos and love and sadness, all of this a ritual where we gently place the life of one of our own into the hands of a God who loves us and gave himself for us.

The greatest gift I am able to give to grieving families is to show them that there is nothing they have to do to deserve my presence at a deathbed or a funeral. It may not add to the numbers in the pews, but I hope the work of grace is deeper than that.

I hope the work done here is that our sanctuary becomes a place of last resort, a place known for its willingness to receive those with no other recourse, with nothing left, with their hearts on their sleeves.

I hope the nonchurched and the not-returning-to-church discover that here -- as with God’s love -- there is nothing to be earned. What we have in our sanctuary is gratuitous. It is grace.

If someone comes back through our doors and commits to the life of this particular church, there’s grace there, too.

If not, we’ll still be here the next time grief needs tending, when someone needs to be received without condition, without judgment, when death’s leveling finds its way to each of us.