Life in the front seat of a hearse

Posted: Sunday, February 28, 2010

I miss the undertaker in Michigan where I was once pastor. No offense against the undertakers in Juneau, but they haven't brought me chocolates.

I'm never sure if the undertaker's chocolates at Christmas were a thank-you gift for drumming up so much business or his way of staying in my good graces so I wouldn't yell when he snuck out of church to eat the deviled eggs and homemade pie the ladies had prepared for the luncheon.

They were really good chocolates, and he always got me the assorted nut kind, not the nasty creme-filled ones that are just wrong. (None of this has anything to do with the point of the column; I'm just looking for chocolates.)

In actuality, outside the whole two pounds of chocolate at Christmas, I miss riding in the hearse. Life looks different in the front seat of the hearse. I'm sure it really looks different from the back, but I haven't experienced that yet.

Something interesting happens to a neighborhood as the hearse pulls through with the parade of mourners following behind. People stop on the sidewalks, cars pull over and children point.

Life pauses right in the middle of ordinary acts with a dramatic reminder that someday we'll all take that ride. It's a pause in the ordinary acts of life to remember that we are mortal, everything is finite, that this moment and this breath are an absolute gift.

During that ride, I would often have to sit captive through many bad jokes and stories with too many details about how the deceased got that way before we would finally arrive at the cemetery.

The cemetery is always the hardest part of the process. Up until that moment, we can fool ourselves with all kinds of distractions and defenses. It is only in the wind, and the cold facing a big hole that the finality strikes with such force. Words are spoken, prayers said and dirt cast.

We look straight into the face of death and have the boldness to hope. The Christian hope that death does not have the last word is not a sentimental sweetness to soften death; it is a defiant statement in the face of great gaping holes that life is not meaningless, that darkness will not be the end, that Jesus Christ is risen.

Lent, this season of the church before Easter, is the front seat of the hearse. We look into the black holes of our lives instead of trying to avoid or hide them. We look into the black holes of our world instead of making excuses. We look into the black holes of our hearts where bitterness has created an abyss. We look and then we sing, we pray, we might even throw dirt if we get a little zany. We laugh, we dance and we get shaken out of the numbness and ordinariness of life to see the hope, the gift, the joy of abundant life.

I think the undertaker gave me chocolate for some of the same reason that we eat chocolate eggs and bunnies at Easter. In the midst of the darkness, in the midst of death and brokenness, we are called to affirm life, hope and joy.

Watching the hearse go by, we are called to savor the gift of the day, the gift of being loved, the gift of this wonderful world, and maybe even the gift of a two pound box of chocolate-covered nuts.

• Tari Stage-Harvey is pastor at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church.

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