Posted tagged ‘funerals’

The Scent of Remembering

December 4, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          December 4, 2019

                                   

I had a dream the other night that, strange as it sounds, caused me to tear up. In the confusion of the moment perhaps it was as I awoke from the dream that the tears came, but, whatever the progression, it was an emotional moment.

The dream centered on those who have passed on. Some of the saints whose funerals I’ve officiated at— Charles Slusser, Rex Davis, Ralph Kothe, Jim Newsome, Ben Dickerson, Rita Morris, Phyllis Smith, Greg Davis— came back to my mind in the dream. 

And then my mom and dad. In the dream I could not discern whether my parents were still on this side of eternity or had crossed over. They seemed to be speaking to me as I sat in a church parlor talking to Charles Slusser’s son-in-law and daughter, Dieter and Tina. 

This morning I made the connection between the vividness of the dream and why I experienced it. On Thanksgiving Day our oldest daughter, Kecia, opened a container of my mom’s that had been handed down to her after my dad passed away almost two years ago. When she opened it she remarked on how the scent reminded her of my mom. Or, as Kecia refers to her, MaMaw Wolfe. She hovered over the container and inhaled several times.

My mom’s possessions—dishes, linens, clothes closet— had a distinctive scent that I can only describe as smelling like a combination of southern, cared for, and homey. Kecia closed the container after a couple of minutes in order to preserve the memory. MaMaw has been gone five years and the scent still blesses us.

I lingered over the container for a few seconds myself. Visions of family dinners and savory casserole dishes came back to me. The memory of my mom always greeting our kids with the words, “Give me some sugar!”, and then the giggling when Kecia brought her two sugar packets as we arrived on one visit.

The sweetness of those memories triggered the “deep into the night” emotions. I miss my parents, the Sunday night phone conversations with Dad, Mom’s questions that sought to find a five letter word for “fast” to fill in on her crossword puzzle, her pickiness and my dad’s patience. I miss their practices and their peculiarities.

It’s interesting how a scent from a container can bring the blessings of memories, and life back to those who have long since been lowered into the ground. 

The sense of smell comes out as a strong theme in scripture. Some of the sacrifices that the Jewish people offered God are described as being aromas pleasing to God. The Magi brought gifts to the newborn King, Jesus, and two of them had strong scents that communicated something about who Jesus is.

Kecia closed the container back up and put it away until the next time our family gathers at her house for a special event. When that takes place the scent of remembering will descend upon us again and we will experience the blessings of those who have been pleasing aromas in our journeys. 

Speaking Hope In the Christmas Shadow

December 26, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                               December 26, 2017

                                  

Yesterday our three grandkids ran around our house like sugar-hyped squirrels, excited about the wrapped presents that they would soon tear into. It was a great day of brisket chili, chilled shrimp, homemade Chex mix, and pie. The bounty of food items on the kitchen island was simply dressing for the family time, laughter, and the playing out of various family traditions.

Yesterday was a feast in the midst of a time when Carol and I have encountered several families in the midst of emotional famine. This Advent Season seems to have been more about speaking hope to various folks in the shadow of Christmas.

On Friday I had attended the funeral of Ray Lutz, a fifty year football and basketball official who was one of my officiating mentors. At 77 he had passed away suddenly. Funerals close to Christmas have a sadness to them regardless of how old the departed is.

On Saturday the wife of my friend, Mark Miller, went into the hospital…and is still there…with some serious health complications. Crystal, the mother of four, spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day laying in a hospital bed, a time that had always been spent gathered around the family Christmas tree and dinner table. There is something deeply discouraging for a mom having to be monitored by ward nurses on Christmas Day instead of being the monitor of the family festivities at home.

And then on Sunday afternoon Carol and I went across the street to our neighbor’s house to express our condolences. Their eighteen year old grandson, a young man I had watched grow up, played basketball in our driveway with, and had coached in middle school football, was murdered a few weeks ago. We hadn’t heard about it until a former neighbor told us. We sat and talked to the grieving grandparents whose hearts were broken. To go through Christmas with the absence of one of the young ones is a journey walked with heavy emotional boots. We could not understand the depth of their grief, but we could sit at their kitchen table and listen to their hearts.

And finally to talk to my dad later on that same day and offer him encouragement. Just a few days released from his latest hospital stay, he has slowed down a good bit and now has to make choices about what he has the energy to do and not to do. Each day he is a gift to us, but each day is also a struggle  for him layered with uncertainty. I’m so thankful for my sister who watches over him since I live four states away.

Ray Lutz’s funeral was a community sharing of hope. The hundreds of folks to attended brought hope and encouragement to the family. The laughter caused by the staring of stories was like a soothing ointment to the wounds of loss.

With Mark and Crystal Miller I was simply a presence that symbolized hope in the midst of confused despair. With our neighbors Carol and I assured them of our prayers and support. It was an assurance to them that we will walk alongside them as they take each day ahead.

With my dad I simply spoke hope to him about his grandkids and great grandkids. That things are good with them. It provided some laughter in his soul as he pondered the stories of their lives.

Christmas sometimes is all glitter and lights; and sometimes it’s simply a word of hope that we suddenly realize is the greatest gift we could ever give!

When Your Friend Passes On

October 23, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                           October 23, 2016

                               

Yesterday I officiated at the funeral service for my friend, Greg Davis. “Officiated” is an interesting word to use in this context since Greg and I have been basketball officials for years. In fact, I think that’s how we first met…being a part of the same high school basketball officials’ group.

Then we discovered that he was teaching at the same middle school that my youngest daughter attended…then we discovered that he had been on the summer staff at Black Forest Baptist Camp…then I discovered that he had been raised in the First Baptist Church of Sterling, Colorado, another American Baptist Church! It was a series of discoveries that forged a deeper relationship.

Then the cancer was discovered!

Then I became his pastor!

Greg and Jordan had exited the church they were a part of and, to put it bluntly, they were done with church…an organized church, that is! I noticed that they still had a support group of friends who had exited the church scene along with them, and this group was on an unusual faith journey together.

Then about a month after his brain tumor was discovered I entered our sanctuary one Sunday to begin the worship service and was surprised to see them sitting in a pew on the right side about four rows from the back. Cancer has a way of putting things in perspective for a person. The church I pastored became a safe place for them to ask God the hard questions, a place where they could ask for prayer and have the congregation gather around them…literally!…lay hands on them and pray! They relocated as time went on to the left side of the sanctuary about five rows from the front and many Sundays Jordan would share the latest news of Greg’s MRI or oncologist appointment. I would see Greg sitting beside her and weeping. When I retired from the pastorate at the end of 2015 it was gratifying to see my former church continue to journey with Greg and Jordan through many difficult days, and they will continue to be a support system for Jordan and Kayleigh in the days ahead. She knows that she is not alone.

Yesterday was an emotional day for many people. The sanctuary was full of family, friends, teaching colleagues, and church folk. I found myself riding the roller coaster of emotions as I sat on the platform and then while I was speaking. I’ve presided over probably 150 funerals in my years of ministry and I rarely get emotional during them, but yesterday was different. As I thought about it last night it occurred to me that my flood of emotions may have been connected to the six year journey I had traveled with Greg, a road that was filled with as many praise-filled occasions as gut-wrenching test results.

The funeral was two hours of laughter and tears. One person commented to Greg’s parents that he had never laughed so much at a funeral. That’s good! Laughter is the sugar cube in a cup of tears. People laughed at the sharing of some of Greg’s old sarcastic comments and his brothers’ sharing of past stories, and people cried as his nine year old daughter read the letter she had written to her dad after he passed.

Death is harsh. It will hold hands with each one of us whether we are willing or reluctant. As I told those at the service yesterday, for the follower of Christ it is a confusing blend of grief and joy. There is deep sorrow over the physical departure of the person and a simmering joy because of his eternal relocation.

I miss my friend, and I’ll continue to miss him. In a very weird way one of the blessings of friendship is the sorrow of loss.

Saying Goodbye To My Colorado Dad

September 24, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     September 24, 2016

                        

My father, Laurence Hubert Wolfe, lives in Proctorville, Ohio. He turned 88 back in June. He is, and has always been, a man of integrity and compassion. Living in Colorado has minimized my time with him in recent years. Sunday night phone calls are our meaningful habit, about thirty minutes of conversation about what is happening, punctuated with a few stories that we each chuckle about when shared. I’ve been blessed to be the son of a man who is Deacon Emeritus at his church, not so much for his biblical knowledge, but rather for his humbleness and grace.

God knew I needed another dad…a resident papa, if you will…and he blessed my life these past seventeen years with another man of humbleness and grace named Rex Davis. Both Rex and my dad were government employees- Rex with the Postal Service and my dad with the Social Security Administration. And both Rex and my dad were caregivers for their wives for a number of years, treating their spouses with respect and love as ailments and conditions slowed their mobility.

The only difference between Rex and my dad is that Rex preceded his wife, Ann, in death. Today I speak at his funeral. He passed away about a week ago after battling cancer for the past three years or so. Rex was 95.

As I speak this afternoon I expect that I will become emotional. Sometimes pastors become accustomed to grief, to loss, and tragedy. It becomes a part of our occupational routine, and quite frankly, seldom touches our hearts. There are, however, those people whose lives have entwined themselves into your lives that ignite the sorrow and awaken the emotions. Rex is that person for me! His funeral is an event I have dreaded, and yet, feel very honored to be a part of.

When I was his pastor he would squeeze my finger each Sunday when he would pass the offering plate to me, and then he’d whisper to me “Praying for you, Pastor Bill!” He was my golfing dad, hitting them short and straight and then patiently waiting for me to find my drive that usually went long and sliced to the right. He appreciated my ministry and, with sincerity, told me so frequently.

I walked some lonely days with him, as he grieved the death of his only son in a motorcycle accident. I was a listening ear in his time of loss and confusion. When my mom passed away he came along beside me with words of comfort, and found a few more times each month to give my finger a squeeze or embrace me with a hug of support.

I expect that the sanctuary will be close to capacity this afternoon, a testimony to a man who outlived just about everybody of his generation. It will be a bitter-sweet celebration of his life and his witness. There will be outbursts of laughter and ears streaming tears of sorrow.

I miss my friend. I miss my Colorado dad!

A Worship Funeral

May 23, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                            May 23, 2016

                                     

In 37 years of pastoring I had never combined the Sunday morning worship service with a funeral. I’ve led a number of worship services where it felt like I died while delivering the sermon, but that’s different.

So this past Sunday was a new experience. The small congregation in the Colorado Eastern Plains community where I travel to speak twice a month saw its attendance jump from the typical twenty up to eighty as the family and friends of the dear man who departed filled the congregation.

Some may think that combining morning worship with a funeral is a little too sober and depressing, but it wasn’t. The man who had passed away, Larry, had lived a full eighty-five years of life, had been in poor health the past couple of years, and was ready to be done with the pain of this life and make that transition step into heaven He had played professional football back in the last few years of the 50’s for the Raiders and the 49er’s. Some of the aches and pains of those years of playing had taken their toll on his body, even though he had lived almost another sixty years.

I talked about living through loss, that grief is part of this journey of life, and I also talked about the hope that followers of Jesus have in the midst of this journey. What I’ve learned over the years about funeral gatherings is that the most appropriate funerals are a mixture of grieving and peaceful joy. That it’s appropriate to laugh…and to cry, to ask God questions of why and to thank him for the specialness of the person.

That’s the road we traveled on Sunday with Larry. His former pastor who came to the service donned an “Oakland Raiders” cap for a few moments. It was a few moments of humor that people appreciated. In the moments of silence and prayer the sounds of weeping could be heard. A few people shared stories of times shared with Larry, expressions he would use, his use of the name “Buckwheat” when bringing someone to understand his point of view. It was a good time of sharing memories.

And it was also a time of acknowledging the loss, the departure, the harshness of the moment of saying goodbye to the person.

I’ve learned that a gathering because of death can be a very confusing time for Christians, as well as those who don’t follow Jesus. Christians, so often, try to make it a celebration of life and detour around the grief. Other people who have no interest in the spiritual meaning gather to grieve, but have no sense of the hope.

And so, on Sunday we acknowledged the grief and the sadness, but also rejoiced in the memories and the promise.

And it was good! There was a meal served right after the service and most of the eighty stayed and spent time eating roast beef, baked beans, and macaroni salad, while sharing more stories about Larry.

And it was good. We walked with our grief and punctuated it with tearful laughter.

The Hardest Part of Ministry

May 11, 2015

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                                     May 11, 2015

                                     

Two weeks ago three of us from our church- my wife Carol, a woman named Kathy, and myself- went to check on a lady who hadn’t been at worship that morning…which was out of character. After finding the hidden key that Kathy knew about, we discovered her body in the house. Even though it was a difficult thing to discover, we were glad that we were the ones to discover her passing instead of her daughters.

The next Sunday afternoon we had a gathering in our sanctuary to celebrate her life. Eulogies and letters were read that honored her. The service was a mixture of laughter and tears. Death is a peculiar subject for Christians. Our faith is rooted in a death experience- the death of Jesus on the cross, and then the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The words “death”, “dead”, and “dying” are used over eight hundred times in the Bible. Death is unavoidable for each one of us, but it’s also unavoidable as you read the story of God’s people and Jesus’ followers.

And yet the hardest part of ministry is dealing with death. It’s as certain as birth, but difficult to rub elbows with. As a pastor I talk quite often about life after death, the promise of eternal life…that comes after death! We firmly believe in that promise, and yet struggle with the death part.

People say I do an exceptional job officiating at funerals, and yet I dread them with a passion. I prepare people for Glory, and yet I struggle with the releasing of the loved one. Almost all of the funerals I conduct I know the departed one deeply. I remember where they would sit each week in worship, their uniqueness, and stories that stay with me. The lady who just passed on to Glory made her own birthday cards for people, and they were always special and unique. I asked for a show of hands at her funeral of all those who had ever received a card from her. the show of hands were more numerous than the dandelions on the church’s front lawn. Those are the moments that are special.

The pastor, however, must lead the people in the journey of grief afterwards. Last week the Senior Bible Study I lead had it’s first gathering since the funeral. The dear departed woman was a part of the group. We studied the Word that morning, as we always do, but we also found comfort in being together in the midst of loss. Even as we sat in our tabled circle that day we journeyed together in our grief.

The pastor leads, but the pastor also struggles…with emotions, emptiness, adjusting to the change. The promise of Glory is a soothing embrace in the numbness of loss.

Dealing with death is the hardest part of ministry, and yet we convey the message of hope that is linked to it. Goodbyes are painful, but the certainty of their arrivals are comforting. My ministry had been blessed by preaching about eternity, and yet my ministry is burdened by the heaviness of death.

What a odd combination!

Condolences and Companions

September 8, 2013

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                           September 8, 2013

 

 

     Going through the loss of my mom has been a journey. It has allowed me to see the despair of Jesus in his Garden of Gethsemane darkness. He was utterly and completely alone. His disciples had eyelids heavier than a Sunday morning Baptist listening to a long-winded monotone preacher.

Jesus had no one. No shoulder to lean on, no one to embrace him. No one to pray with him or hold his hand.

And I now know in a very real way how difficult it would have been to go through an experience of loss by myself. The last few days of grieving and mourning has included a long list of journeying companions.

Let me tell you…the kitchen counter at Mom and Dad’s house has resembled a food buffet line without the sneeze guards! Fried chicken, lasagna, meat and cheese tray, veggie tray, vegetable beef soup, chicken casserole, chicken casserole #2, salad, potato salad, cole slaw, chip dip, potato casserole, peach cobbler, apple pie, chocolate cake, brownies, chocolate chip cookies…you get the picture? Food is a consoling agent! Somehow grief is made easier with a chicken leg in your hand.

And the flowers! People sent enough flowers to fill a nursery. Mom loved flowers. Dad’s yard is a picture of gardening excellence. Flowers are expression of love and concern that bring a hint of beauty to a gray moment of life.

At the visitation before Mom’s funeral service there were a multitude of people who kept streaming in to pay their respects. Everyone knew that Mom’s time had come. In fact, the past couple of years were almost like a second epilogue…one more extra that wasn’t needed. But still the people came to say farewell to Mom, and offer condolences to our family. Former neighbors, church folk, workmates, classmates, distant cousins, and people whose paths had crossed at some time with Mom and Dad. I saw my cousin, Annette, who I had not seen in a good forty years, and my cousins Michelle and Matthew that I wish I could have a week with.

Companions for the journey. Encouragers in the midst of discouraging times.

I’ve had people ask me during my years as a pastor “How do people make it through this who have no faith?” I’d revise that question and make it “how do people make it through this who have no faith or friends?” (Food is a bi-product of having friends!)

My best man, Dave Hughes, came by yesterday for a couple of hours. My former partner in ministry, Artie Powers, journeyed down from West Virginia to the visitation and funeral service. My church in Colorado Springs sent flowers. My good friend, Mike Fairchild, who lives outside of Rochester, New York now, and his brother, Mark, sent flowers.

Companions for the journey.

Which takes me back to Jesus! I can’t imagine walking this road alone. It makes his death walk seem even crueler…that there was no one there for him…and yet he continued. Instead of a shoulder to lean on he had a cross he had to bear.