Being with people after the death
I’ve got a great ministry idea. I keep talking to churches about it. So far, no one has done more than smile and nod.
It first came to mind in the basement of the Litchfield Congregational church in Litchfield, Michigan. Litchfield is small. The church is smaller. The church is about 20 feet from the elementary school, where Nancy went to school. The school has been closed for decades because of asbestos.
The church basement is the kind of basement you expect a small-town church to have. One big room, metal folding chairs, three posts down the middle of the room. There are Jesus pictures on the walls. There’s a tiny kitchen in the far corner, with a pass-through window. There are about 5 tables on each side of the center, of the poles. There’s just enough room on each end of the table to walk.
And they have potluck and pie.
The potluck tables run right down the middle of the room, between the poles. The pie, and the rest of the desserts, are in the far corner, on their own table. By the kitchen and drinks. A bunch of people show up in the room and find their places at the tables with plastic flowers in the center of each table, with a paper placemat at each place. One of the ministers in the room says “grace” and then people go through the line and they eat. Eventually, people start to laugh a little, they drag chairs from one table to another. They have conversation and potluck and pie.
And they begin a process of healing, a little, in the church basement.
What you haven’t noticed yet, because I haven’t told you, is that they are wearing clothes that aren’t exactly comfortable. There are black dresses and seldom worn suits. The minister is there because this is a group of family and friends who have come to this basement to eat and to tell stories after they buried someone that they loved.
This is a funeral dinner.
At this particular dinner most of the people in the room haven’t been in a church much at all. There isn’t much that appeals to them about the churches around. And some of them, at the moment, aren’t sure what to do about a God who allowed their wife and sister and sister-in-law and mom and grandma and friend to die at seventy something, much more suddenly than anyone expected.
But the potluck and the pie and the hospitality of a small group of ladies gave a family the setting for those conversations. In the basement of a little church. A little church that doesn’t ask, “Do you attend our church?” before saying to hurting friends with loose church ties, “Come and eat here.” That’s the ministry idea I keep trying to sell. Potluck and pie. Funeral dinners. For people who aren’t a part of your church.
Here’s part of my understanding of God.
That God made us to eat.
And God made us to tell stories.
And God invites us over and over to tables.
And God has put an expiration date on breathing that applies to just under 100% of us.
As a hospital chaplain, I know this. Every week, almost every shift, I show up to a hospital room where someone is about to die or has died. That’s what chaplains in our hospital do. We show up to say, “I’m sorry” and to say “what funeral home.” We’re compassion and administration.
And as helpful as compassion is, administration is helpful too. What happens here, next. What do I do now, in the next few minutes. What are you going to do with the body. And I talk to people and sit with people who are in those moments of pain.
“I can’t do this” said a young adult recently, as two doors down techs were pushing on her dad’s chest. And I knew what she meant and I knew that she would. And I knew that she hurt. And I knew that I might help a little. As I helped her and her family know what next steps to take.
There is an incredibly rich ministry that exists in helping people take next practical steps.
God has gifted some people to preach funeral services and some people to make remarkable pies and some people to have the money to stop at the market house in Hillsdale to buy broasted chicken. And God has walked through the most painful moments of life with people, like losing a child and losing a parent and losing a spouse. In fact, God has walked through the most painful moments of life: losing a Child, and being rejected by a parent and being betrayed over and over and over by a spouse.
And all of those things that are true can intersect in an intensely practical way in the basement of the Litchfield Congregational Church. Or in your church basement. Or in your living room.
I teach spiritual formation to graduate ministry students. And we talk about spiritual disciplines, like solitude and silence and lectio divina and fasting. You know all about some of those. You may be, like some of us, pretty cynical about some of those things. Or you may be pretty obsessed, trying to measure up, to make God happy. You are not the first people to do either of those things.
God talked to the people of Israel through Isaiah. In what we know as Isaiah 58, God started talking to them about fasting. And here’s what God said, loosely paraphrased.
Fasting. You talk to me about fasting.
You stop eating for awhile, and you say that you are doing it for me.
But a couple things you do.
You fast for a few hours and then you say, “Do we have your attention yet God? Are you doing what we ask yet God?”
And then you are cranky. You treat the people who work for you, who keep working while you fast, like dirt.
That’s not what fasting is all about, God says.
Making me do things for you.
Making everyone else miserable too.
You want to do know what kind of fasting I want?
And we read from Isaiah:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.”
I don’t want empty bellies. God says. That’s not what connects me to you.
I want open hands and I want clearable calendars.
Empty of you, open for me.
I want you to take that food you were going to give up
And sit down at a table with people who don’t have food
And eat it together.
Your belly is only half empty.
But you emptied your calendar. And as you sit with them, absorbing their pain, sharing their story, I will be with you.
I want you to invite people without a home into your home.
Not sending money and feeling good.
Not sending a prayer to feel good.
Empty out a bedroom and bring someone home.
And I will be with you.
I want you to invite people with one change of clothes into your closet, to shop with you there, looking at what you have that fits, regardless of how new it is.
Empty your closet and be their mirror. Tell them how good they look…wearing your best clothes.
And I will be with you.
And your family.
The family that you want to abandon for Jesus.
Ah friends, we are so afraid of empty, so afraid of measuring up, so afraid.
As humans, we hold onto control.
No matter what our age.
No matter what our denomination.
No matter what our view of God.
We want to hold on.
There’s some debate about when Isaiah passed on God’s words, to the people BEFORE exile or to the people AFTER exile, after they were back home in Jerusalem. Were God’s words about how to fast what took the people into exile, or how he wanted them to respond after they returned from exile?
Are you living when you will watch the American evangelical church enter captivity? As Luther critiqued the Babylonian captivity of the church 500 years ago. Maybe. But today, tomorrow, the next day, there is an invitation to you. For you, simply, to act.
Will you join God’s faithful of all generations who are choosing to fast with God, people who understand that hands on, compassionate, calendar-emptying, heart-breaking, heart-expanding, Jesus-following living doesn’t scale, it lives day by day, commitment by commitment, mistake by apology, story by story, relationship by relationship, breath by breath.
And now we go back to potluck and pie. And eating with. And funeral dinners.
Some of you have lost someone close to you. In fact, during this whole time I’ve been talking, you’ve been fighting with the tears and the hole in your heart.
I’m sorry. I took a risk, and I knew it. But between you and me, I took a risk with my heart, too. A risk that you and I might have a hard time talking about my sister-in-law and your dad, about my father-in-law and your best friend, about our daughter and yours.
I knew that all the rest of these people are hearing about funeral dinners as an interesting thing and you are thinking about what happened last summer.
Here’s my invitation for you, in particular. What if you figured out an amazing Mac and cheese recipe. Straight out of the box that you can buy for .89 and cook in your coffee pot. And when you hear that someone’s heart is empty, you learned to fix them a meal (or at least Mac and cheese) and to welcome them in, to sit quietly and eat together in a place where it is safe to cry and to laugh.
What if you and four friends said, “No one is eating alone after a funeral. Churches have meals for members. We’re going to offer meals to families who don’t have churches.” And you became known as the people who were there in the hardest moments of life, not with answers but with presence.
A presence that’s rooted in the incarnational presence of Jesus.
A presence that you understand, a little, from the inside, because you know that well-meaning people say the stupidest things, but you know that at just the right moment God provided one of those well-meaning people to sit silently with you. God’s presence with you.
Because empty isn’t always empty. Not if it’s full of the presence of Christ. Empty isn’t absent. Or gaping. Or it doesn’t have to be. Empty can be open. Empty can be what we do with our schedules and our wallets when death shows up at inopportune times.
Eat with people. Offer food AND time. Offer prayer and presence. Because when you sit at a table, eating potluck and Nancy’s amazing apple pie, and you say, “Your mom must have been pretty remarkable”, you are pouring out your life. And when you are the one who knows what it’s like to lose a mom, as you empty your tears with others, God brings healing to our hearts. I know. Every time I walk into a room where a family has lost an infant, my tears mix with theirs, my healing offers them a glimmer of peace.
Potluck and pie. It’s not a trademark. It will never scale. You never want to set up a central kitchen where standard meals are prepared and shipped out.
I don’t want that.
I want a place where people I know make the macaroni and cheese that they have perfected because it captures the love of Jesus and the brokenness of their hearts. And they empty their schedules, just a bit. And they fast by sharing a meal with me. And 100% of the people around you will have the opportunity to want that too.
You. You can do that. It doesn’t take many words. It doesn’t take much training. It’s isn’t gourmet. But potluck and pie can open conversations with people who need someone to eat with and to talk with. And who will let God’s love seep into the conversation through tears and smiles and emptied schedules and open arms.
- Isaiah 58 ↵