Canon Jim Irvinethe penultimate WORD

Series 2002 - April

A ministry of presence.


The Irvine Tartan  My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican


A ministry of presence. A few hours ago I returned from a funeral.  It was the funeral of a man I hadnt known for very long.  But for the short time I did know him, I admired his friendly demeanour and good humour.  While he suffered from dementia and was often confused, he would recognize me. Hed raise his arm and wave his hand as I approached.  I think he recognized my collar.  And my face.  But not my name.

I was a recognized stranger, nameless with no personal identity.  My ministry with Russell was a ministry of presence, you might say.  And he was different when I was present. 

Today, with his family present, prayers were said, scripture was read, and I committed his body to fire.  Tomorrow I will drive to the cemetery and lead in the prayers at the disposition of his ashes.

Moments of transition in our lives are always significant.  As a priest, I have learned that I am privileged to share in these intimate moments.  The grief of a family is such a moment and graciously I am allowed to approach.  At the cemetery, greetings of recognition at a distance will see arms raise and hands wave and the welcoming of approach repeat itself in a ministry of presence.  Then with Russell, now with those who were close to him.

This evening Im sitting here in my living room, reflecting on the contradictions that accompany us each day.  In the midst of life we are in death, Ill rehearse tomorrow.  The cycle of life and death is familiar.  And its painful.  As with others who suffer from the every-increasing indignity of dementia, goodbyes have long since been said.  Death simply calls for an encore and the sense of losing a husband, a father, and a friend is reluctantly repeated for the last time.

Some grieve the memory that stretches farther than mine.  My memory is more recent, more immediate, shorter.  My memory is of a man who joined other men in prayer and weekly worship.  My memory is of a man who enjoyed singing hymns, and listening to others sing as well.  Quiet and unassuming, Russell would arrive early, by ten minutes and raise his arm and wave his hand in greeting as he strode to the chair that was on my left.  Wed talk briefly before the first hymn, Russell and I.  Hed make a comment about his day, perhaps about some news, possibly an event that caught his attention and interest.  Hed smile.  I might detect a chuckle.

I recall my last conversation with Russell.  His dementia was more acute, and he seemed more confused than usual. But there was a sign of recognition in his eyes, and in his voice.  His handshake was a familiar gesture and while he did not know me by name, he acknowledged familiarity.  Leaning over his chair so that he could hear me better, I kept his handshake and stroked his back.  And I blessed him.  The words of blessing were my last words with him.  Until today.

I remember his vitality of life and faith: my memory of a man with hands cupped and extended to receive the Body of Christ as I would move through the community maze of walkers, wheel chairs and canes.  I remember his reverence as I etched ashes in a cross on his forehead for Ash Wednesday.  Remember, Russell, that dust you are and unto dust you shall return, I had said.  I remember his attentive look during my homilies, listening to every word, noticing every gesture.

The ministry of presence was not my own but that of the One who calls us and invites us to be present in his Name.  With others, in the midst of life.

My memories are both fresh and raw. 

Perhaps Id find my grieving less heavy, my sense of loss less overwhelming had I remained aloof, distant, circumspect.  It would certainly be less painful.

Death is a visitor whose arrival we fear.  Death robs us of the joy we have shared with others by removing them.  Death is never a long way off, it meets us in the very midst of life!  Its approach is inevitable.  It meets us in the midst of life.

Easter hope is contained and affirmed and reflected in this life now gone, shared with others and me.  Here was a life lived out in length and breadth until breath was no more.  Here was a life that approached the One who also died but also rose in an Easter assurance of forgiveness, forbearance and love.  The ministry of Presence that sustained Russell in his confusion, loneliness and fear sustains me still. 

Copyright 2002 James T. Irvine

Series 2002

Sermon delivered at St Matthew's ELCIC, Fredericton