Grace at the Graveside

“Be still and know that I am God” the Psalmist instructs us.   

Be still.

Be still.

Be still.

With varying degrees of success, this has been my mantra as of late.  Ministry is quite the opposite of stillness; ministry requires moving—running ahead of deadlines, walking with the hurt, throwing out hope, catching blessings, dancing and leaping for joy.  Stillness won’t write the monthly newsletter, prepare a congregational prayer, lead retreats, authorize bus repairs, exegete a text, teach Bible study, answer e-mails, serve communion, visit the homebound, and then squeeze in time for a social life.   

And still, I try to take a moment each day to be.  Stealing away to the sanctuary during a particularly hectic day, sitting outside in the beautiful fall air.  Sometimes I simply shut my office door and close my eyes for five minutes.

Stillness.

Being.

Knowing God.

My hope, in doing this a little each day, is that this stillness will sustain me when I’m on the move.  That in the inevitable movements of hectic hospice visits and frantic phone calls, I can be and know.

Lovely, isn’t it?  Peaceful, even.  I’m finally on my way to becoming one of those people I’ve always admired, who are centered, set aside time for God, prize silence and sitting.  You know, Ghandi, Henri Nouwen, Mother Superior in “The Sound of Music”.  Trying my hardest to overcome my extroverted, ambitious, multi-tasking, over-analytical tendencies, even if it’s just for a few moments each day.  Being still. Being still. Being still.   

Until yesterday, when stillness betrayed me.   

I found myself on the move, literally.  Sitting in my Honda Civic, headlights and flashers blinking, as the cop had instructed me.  Following a hearse and leading a mourning family.  Cops on motorcycles dashing around our procession, halting traffic, clearing the way. I was on my way to my first burial.  Moving between the celebration of a life and the committal into the ground.

I was sheer panic.  Turns out my brief, random moments of stillness hadn’t turned me into the Dalai Lama.  Darn it.    I was being many things, but still was not one of them.   

Neither was quiet. I found myself repeating, in a loud voice in my empty car:

Oh God

Oh God

Oh God

Not a contemplative, Benedictine chant.  Not a calm, Buddhist mantra.  More of a Mick Jagger, open-mouthed kind of yelling.

Instead of being still, I was being frenetic: being tense, trying to hold back tears so I could be present for the family (besides, you can’t show up to give pastoral care looking like you need it yourself); being lonely—sitting in my empty car, all by myself, nobody with whom to share this experience;  being scared--to be the minister, about to perform a ceremony I haven’t witnessed, much less led.  Being sad—this was a loving, inquisitive woman, who became my friend at the end of her life.  And in the midst of this panic, realizing this will be the first of many times, over decades, I will be making this drive, behind a hearse.  Being doubtful: really, this is the life I chose? Spending beautiful fall afternoons at gravesides? Then, as if my emotional musical chairs weren’t enough, my stomach began to move.  I was too anxious all day to eat, and now my belly was starting to notice.  I managed five diet cokes, yes, but food I could not stomach.  Now my stomach was speaking to me.  Oh God, I thought, please don’t make loud rumbling noises as I bless the body.

Oh God

Oh God

Oh God

I’d love to report that in the midst of my panic, I closed my eyes, recited a Psalm, and sank into calmness.  Became still.

No such luck.  And still, I managed.  I didn’t cry.  I greeted the family as we poured out of our cars, giving her son permission to cry, hugging the grandchildren, gathering people to sit near the grave.  I greeted in the name of a resurrecting God, read scripture, prayed, blessed.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, earth to earth.  More hugging at the end, words of comfort, sharing memories and stories.  Somehow, I was able to be.  Be present for the family, be present to the scripture, be present for the one who died.

As soon as I got in my car and drove around the block, I fell apart.  My body releasing what I had been holding inside.  Oh God, Oh God, Oh God.  Only this time, words said in sheer gratitude, not panic.  And then, the Psalm did come to me: “Be still, and know that I am God”.

This time, however, with an addition.  I realized after my experience at the graveside (and my panic-ridden car ride) that the Psalm was saying to me: “Be still, and know that I am God, and you are not God you-control-seeking-mortal-you”.   

In my car ride home, grace slapped me upside the head.  I’d like to say grace wrapped me in loving, gentle arms.  But really, this was more of a kick-in-the-pants.  A not so gentle reminder that I don’t do any of this alone.  That, yes, I am worthy to be in these sacred places, with these hurting people, to bury their mothers.  I, in all my panicky, 25-year old, overly-empathetic, teary-eyed self, am worthy.  And at the same time, I am not worthy, to commit a body to God, to send a person to eternal life. This is God’s doing, not mine.

Not mine, not mine, not mine.

And that’s why God is there with us, holding us, letting us lean on those everlasting arms.   

When we’re still, and know, really know….we know that God is grace.  Grace that is giving and forgiving, abundant and awe-inspiring, before us and after us.  In our stillness, we seek to know this, and believe.  But, the amazing thing about grace, is that it doesn’t only show up in our stillness.  When we’re at our most monk-like, contemplative, model-Christian moments.  No, the amazing thing about grace, is that  even when we’re on the move--panicky, busy, feeling unworthy and lonely--God is still there, knowing us.  Knowing us and loving us, giving us strength and wisdom, humility and hugs. 

Yesterday, grace at the graveside added to my mantra:

Be still, Be still, Be still.  Let go, Let go, Let go.  God knows, God knows, God knows.   

How sweet the sound.

Comments

What a beautifully crafted testament about ministry and grace. I will lead my first funeral service tomorrow and your article came just in time to give me a new mantra to make it through the day.

Oh my goodness-this was me last December, two days after Christmas, in my car going "ohgodohgodohgod..." You have perfectly captured it. Thank you for your reflections on how your spiritual practice morphed into spiritual practicality.

Amen. For everyone who has ever sat in their car and been scared to death of the ministry they are about to offer - your words are a comfort...

Beautiful words, Kate.

I once had an OT prof say that a truer translation of that psalm might be, "Cease striving, and know that I am God..." which maybe speaks a bit differently to our human angst.

Thank you for sharing this story with us!

What I love about these articles is the unique voice each one brings. Thank you for sharing your experience.

last spring was particularly crazy for me and I used this verse a lot - my mantra version of it was "I am still, you are God" and when I said it I would emphasize different words at different times...

Kate~
It is easier to be still when you know. Apparently you do! Your article is so helpful in its honesty. Shalom, John (Lane's Dad).

Kate,
SO well put. How many times I've been in private, wondering what in the world I can offer to people who are a) grieving b) rejoicing c) utterly confused. There's not much I CAN offer, besides being present, and somehow God gives me the grace to do that and it's enough. I can still feel the first funeral--2 funerals ago--and how anxious I was. I am finding that my favorite part of this calling is just the *being* with people in whatever crazy or amazing circumstances they find themselves in. Thanks!

Thanks for your new mantra. I also struggle to find stillness, and harbor desperate secret envy of those who seem to have achieved inner peace (famous and not-so)!

I have those oh God, oh God, oh God moments as I run down the hall to a code blue in the children's hospital. I have them when I rush toward the emergency room at 3am during an on call shift. I have oh God, oh God, oh God moments when I get a trauma alert that says "infant cardiac arrest." I have them as I stand with a family who hears the words "we have done all we can." I have them when the beeping stops as the machines turn off.

But when the doctor looks frantic because the parent has collapsed wailing and pounding the floor, I am still. When I stand behind a mother, injured in the same accident, tries to stand on wobbly legs beside her daughter's stretcher in the trauma room, I am still. When I make hand and footprints for the family of a child who has died, I feel that stillness.

I know that my presence in those moments is both a representation of and a conduit of God's love. I am reminded most clearly of this when I pray with these families, because these are truly moments when the Spirit intercedes with sighs to deep for words. My simple and constant prayer is for God's loving presence to be in this place, to be with these people.

Kate, I am inexpressibly glad to have you as a colleague in ministry. And I am glad for this space to share these experiences.

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