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Monday, Mar. 10, 2014
Keep your distancePosted Tuesday, September 6, 2011, at 2:43 PM
I lost a friend last Monday night. Betty Sendmeyer had been in the Greencastle community for nearly 45 years. I first met her when she had just turned 88 in age. She was 93 when she passed.
In some ways pastors try to keep our distance from others. We make friends with as many people as possible and we grow close to some. However, in the back of our minds we always know that we might be called upon to help with any number of crises that an individual or family might face. It's called being available to serve in a professional manner, and that constant possibility serves as a reminder that we can't get "too close" or we will loose our effectiveness. Indeed, I know pastors who will move from a church after two or three years for this very reason.
There is a difference between having empathy for others and having sympathy with others. Empathy means that I might understand what you are going through, what you are feeling and that I can be a helping presence in your life because of my gifts and training. Sympathy means that I feel what you are feeling, that your feelings of being overwhelmed in situations are now my feelings of being overwhelmed, and that I can't use my gifts and training because I'm ... overwhelmed.
In my first few years of being a pastor I ranged from over-involvement in the experiences of my parishioners to being detached. I made scores of mistakes with those first funerals because I was too close to the families; their grief had become mine and I lost the ability of even reading the Scriptures without pausing to sob. Vowing to be more professional I became stone cold to the experience others were facing and that, too, limited my ability of being of help. I remember one wedding where the father of the bride offered to pay me a larger honorarium if I would smile and act like I felt joy for the couple! It took me a while, maybe longer than most, but I finally found my range of involvement.
I can be professionally empathetic and care in authentic ways. And then there are people like Betty.
Upon our first meeting she and I "clicked." You always knew Betty's opinion about something or someone and she was always very upfront about her opinions of me. You might say that she could be feisty at times; she certainly was with me. Within a month I started returning the favor and soon we'd be talking and laughing and enjoying the goodness of life. "I didn't know that!" she would exclaim with one side of her head tilted and I knew to prepare for a remarkable response to what I had just said. If she didn't like a sermon she would immediately "inform me" and instruct me to do better next time! Tuesday nights at the Putnam Inn became a feast of laughter if Betty was present. "I want what you're having, and what you're having, and what you're having," she would declare, and sure enough she would return from the buffet lines with samples of everything. She came to nearly every public event that she could: worship, Sunday School, summer concert series, meals at Almost Home, even the County Fair. She had more drive and energy than I can ever hope to have even in my seventies. Nothing got by Betty!
And then three weeks ago a series of events began that seemed like dominoes falling one at a time. Betty had overcome so many other things; surely she would make it this time as well! The family gave permission for me to come and pray with her, and then over her, at the nursing home even during the few times that they were not by her side. The loving and very attentive staff told me that she would calm down and enter a period of peace after my prayers. Ten minutes after my last prayer she peaceably breathed her last.
Now I have been given a high honor. I've been asked to officiate at her Memorial Service. I know that I'll have to keep my "professional distance." I won't be able to allow myself to be overwhelmed by my feelings of loss and grief, and compounding this process is that her memorial service will be on the first anniversary of my mother's death. Some pastors "remain professional" by reading the entire service so that they don't make eye contact. Some traditions encourage pastors to never mention death or the name of the deceased. My approach is different. I use ritual, meaningful ritual, powerfully spiritual ritual, and then I don't have to say a word.
I lost a friend on Monday night. And, I get the opportunity of doing something that very few people in our society are allowed to do. I get to speak in her Memorial Service. I get to lead others in our memories of her. I get to select the Scriptures that I believe will speak to us and help us. I get to process aloud how I make sense of life and death, joy and sorrow, and our love-based relationships with others. I'll speak of faith and God and the afterlife.
After the service I will disappear. Hours after the last hymn is sung I will have moved from empathy to sympathy. I'll no longer be professional. I'll be grieving the loss of a friend.
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P.T. Wilson is the senior pastor at Gobin Memorial United Methodist Church, Greencastle, and is also the University Chaplain at DePauw University.