Pastor Wendy Mohler-Seib served as a TIM Associate Pastor at Chapel Hill Fellowship United Methodist Church; Wichita, KS from 2012-2014.
Seminary prepared me to identify the four steps of practical theology, thoroughly exegete a passage for sermon preparation,use Lowry’s loop, ancient perspectives on theodicy, and much, much more. It wasn’t the classroom or field education that prepared me to face 13 funerals in the first nine months of my first appointment. Instead, my walk through the valley of the shadow of death and the loss of 25 friends, family members, and former students that shaped my understanding of death and resurrection. In my dark night of the soul, I learned how to face my own mortality, talk openly about death, to face the sadness and joy of celebrating a life well lived, and to wrestle with the difficulties of premature deaths, trauma, and questions of the goodness of God.
The first year of ministry has been wrought with lessons. I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to know about the role of Staff Parish Relations Committee. I’ve worked with teams, taught Disciple, baptized babies, and served communion. I’ve walked the streets of Nazareth with parishioners, listened to the deep cries of those with broken hearts from disappointments, diseases, broken relationships, and school bullies. I’ve buzzed around Kansas in my orange VW bug to make hospital visits, attend district meetings, meet with colleagues, attend covenant group, purchase “thank you” gifts for volunteers, sit down and discern spiritual gifts with another, and participate in countless other sacred meetings. And, in it all, I’ve discovered the “thinnest places” with parishioners emerge in the death and funerals of loved ones and in conversations on the topic of death and resurrection.
We preached a funeral sermon in seminary. I found it strange that I loved that sermon. Looking back, I know the absurdity of it is directly linked to my lack of context. In the context of real life, real people, and a real word of hope and encouragement to a family, the words we proclaim in death give direction to the manner by which we proclaim the words of everyday life.
One funeral I attended this year was the funeral of a dear saint, Ken Norland, from FUMC Winfield. Pastor Dave shared one of Ken’s greatest concerns for himself, “What happens if we live life as zombies? It is possible to be among the walking dead – alive, but still dead.” With each funeral, with each death, with each proclamation that “Jesus is the Resurrection and the life,” I am living more fully into each moment and better celebrating what it means to be alive in Christ. Ken’s words make more sense to me with each passing day. Living a life in tune with my own mortality reminds me to be even more aware of the manner by which I’m living. Am I living a life faithful to the call? Am I spending my time in the right places with the right people? Am I spending my energy on the wheat, stubble, and the hay? Or, am I moving where the Spirit leads me with unstoppable tenacity and conviction like that of the disciples in Acts?
Jesus’ words, “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” continue to alter my living, especially as I face death alongside families at Chapel Hill. Jesus’ words invite me to be a beacon of hope in the world.
In 2010, on a trip to South Africa, Rev. Kyle Woodrow walked me around one of two congregations he serves. As we talked about the outreach in the community he surprised me by asking, “What do you think is the greatest evangelistic tool I have here in South Africa?” I thought about the helping ministries of the church, Kyle’s incredible gift for preaching, and the programs for the children. With deep compassion, Kyle disclosed his greatest evangelistic tool to me – funerals. Kyle’s willingness to provide funeral services to families in the neighborhood surrounding the church ministers to people and offers them support and hope. Kyle’s participation with a family in the horrific aftermath of an untimely death and his willingness to proclaim hope to unchurched families during their darkest hour gives him the opportunity to invite individuals and families into faithful discipleship with the one that defeated death once and for all.
In a society that avoids death and dying conversations, strives for youthfulness, and despises growing old, we hold the message of hope. In death and dying God’s gives us opportunity to share compassion with those hurting from the effects of cancer, car accidents, suicide, and aging. God places clergy in a unique position to assist people through the grieving process, and gives us the opportunity to encourage people that we serve the God of the living. May we offer the good news of the resurrection to a world where dying is terrifying to many. And, may we help others to become fully alive by acknowledging and celebrating our humanity, and living into the fullness of a life hidden in Christ.
The bottom line is this. Dealing with death helps me stop, to enjoy the precious moments God gives us with the people God calls us to shepherd and to love with less with less reserve. For me, living in the awareness of death and in hope of the resurrection is to be alive in Christ.