People sometimes ask me how I’m able to do what I do for a living. As of July, I’m a funeral home chaplain. I meet with grieving families after they’ve lost someone they love. All of the sermons I preach are framed by tragedy. I won’t even bother to describe the parts of the job of which, frankly, only morbid curiosity wants to know. “How can you deal with death day after day?” people ask.
While I’m tempted to offer a canned response—“Someone has to do it,” for example—I’ll tell you that anyone working in funeral service has to bridle his empathy to survive. On the one hand, he must be empathetic. To some degree, he must weep with those who weep (Ro 12:15). He must be understanding of the people he serves. On the other hand, he cannot immerse himself in their sorrow or he will drown. As callous as it may sound, he must keep their grief at arm’s length.
I fight this battle almost daily, trying my best to maintain a healthy balance between empathy and sanity. Since my natural disposition leans towards empathy, perhaps the struggle is more challenging for me than others, but I manage. By God’s grace, I’ve managed.
Today, however, the scales tipped. I preached the funeral of a man my age. He died suddenly and unexpectedly without any known health problems. He was the father of two young children. I have an infant daughter myself. That could be me, I thought as I glanced toward the casket.
First Peter 3:15 was the starting point of my message: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” I attempted to defend my hope as a Christian believer. I wanted everyone to know the difference between false, fleeting hope and true, secure hope found only in Christ.
Admittedly, though, my sermon wasn’t as compelling as I prayed it would be. I fumbled my words and lost focus several times. Why? I was distracted by the seven-year-old boy in the front row who was sobbing because he missed his dad. My heart broke with his. I wanted to rush to his side and hold him. I wanted to rush home and hold my daughter. At the very least, I wanted to hold myself together long enough to finish the sermon.
How do I do what I do? How do I deal with death day after day? I pray a lot. I read the Bible every night to refresh my perspective on life and death. I also embrace the constant reminders of my mortality. After all, it is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart (Ecc 7:2).
In short, I may strive to restrain my empathy as much as necessary, but I don’t completely detach myself from the pain of others nor do I ignore the harsh reality of death. If I did, first of all, I’d likely be a terrible pastor. Secondly, I’d be denying the wisdom of Scripture. God calls us to be empathetic, to weep with those who weep, and the Bible assures us we need to be confronted by mortality for our own spiritual good (Ro 12:15).
Keeping the right balance isn’t always easy, but Christians should not be perplexed by the thought of someone willingly and happily working in funeral service. Each day is filled with new opportunities to help hurting people. Plus, as hard as it can be at times, I believe every reminder of life’s brevity is a blessing disguised as misfortune.