I visited with a woman on a Thursday morning, before lunch. I hadn’t met her yet, so we made space in her small room at Raybrook for the three of us to chat. I was with the pastor of visitation at our church, who’d sat with Jane time and time again over the years. Not five minutes into our conversation, Jane’s daughter stepped into the room, eager to see her mother. She’d met with a care team, and there was news. She invited us to continue our conversation while she waited for more family to arrive, but almost as she finished her sentence, two step-daughters knocked at the door. The room filled quickly, so we whispered peace to Jane, and then left so they could meet together.

When I came to church the next Tuesday morning, our administrator told me Jane had died. At her funeral, I found myself alone at her open casket, looking down on a face I’d just met the week before. A hot and electric pulse coursed through my body, like the shock you receive from an exposed wire, only longer-lasting, and warmer. It’s a feeling I’ve experienced before standing at open caskets—maybe it’s the mystery of life and death and resurrection materialized in my nervous system, a collection of overcharged and confused synapses traveling through my body.

A week or so before our visit with Jane, I sat in a conference room at church with the cancer support group. They’d invited me to sit and listen. Because it was my first time there, the group shared their stories, one by one. I’m not sure I’ve ever been part of an hour so harrowing and so holy. They told of endless chemotherapy treatments, surgeries, tumors, months in the hospital, near-death moments, and miraculous recoveries. And they told stories of loss: friends and group members who died, sometimes after days or weeks or months of horrible pain.

“Do you have any questions for us?” they asked me, and I floundered for anything to say. The true response to that question is yes. I have questions. I have a thousand questions. What’s it like to not remember almost dying? How does it feel to be pumped full of a poison that might rid your body of another evil? What do you say when you pray? What does food taste like now? How do you…? How? How?

I knew pastoring would bring me face to face with sickness. With death. But it’s one thing to know that and another thing completely to stand at the casket of someone you met only a week ago or sit in a room of people more familiar with death than anyone living should be. The temptation might be to rationalize death (it’s a part of life, it’s natural), or to skip the tragedy and aim right for the hope of resurrection. But really, I don’t get it. I don’t understand. I never will.

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