Today, as I painted walls, my Inbox became home to a couple of emails which, very graciously, thanked me for a funeral that I officiated at earlier this week. I never expect such notes, but would be lying if I didn't claim delight in receiving them. It is the same week when I received a very nice card thanking me for a baptism that I performed. Again, it was unexpected, unsolicited and wonderful.
I am not writing this as a preface to a post where I tell you all that I am good at Occasional Offices. As I ponder ministry in the light of a very imminent move, it strikes me once again the particular privilege of what we hold in our hands for brief moments.
Life is full of uncertainties. How we live, how that life is manifest in the context of disease or misfortune, success or good luck all go to show that there are a few certainties. We will only have one funeral. We will only have one baptism (if that is the route of our lives). In the most hopeful of circumstances, we will only have one marriage. In the life of a Christian, these are events where they will coincide with a priest - who have but one go at getting it right.
I 'do' many funerals, a fair number of baptisms and a good few weddings. There is a very real danger of letting them all become the same, habit-formed and routine. When one has four funerals in one week, it is hard to make them distinctive and unique, save for the choices of music. Computer technology helps with this, as I have a pallet of liturgical resources which means I enjoy variety and so does the ceremony and its guests. The danger is also in the mindset. I might have a distinct service in my folder, but I could be in easy peril of turning the deceased into 'just another dead person who needs a nice send off'. I hope I have not fallen into this trap in funerals, or its like in weddings or baptisms - but I still have 30 years for that to potentially happen.
The paths of priests and people criss-cross in funny ways, but when they coincide, we have a profound opportunity to do good. I wonder if it is not the greatest joy of our ministry, that we can take these 'once only' moments and make them special. That is my perspective at least. I believe too that if we miss a trick when these moments come around that we do immeasurable damage to the people monetarily in our care. We may not get to hear about it, quite possibly, but we may have cost them their faith in our faith.
I think that the greatest successes of my ministry here in Aylesbury has been in these unique moments. They had the potential of being my greatest undoing too, but I hope not this time around. However, I have to be clear to remind myself every once in a while that what I am entrusted with is so precious that it makes gold and diamonds look like hemp sacking. One 'hello', one 'goodbye' - that is what we are granted as humans, and so we as ministers (as I do accept that other ministers as well as priests share this wonderful ministry) must never for a moment take that part of our job for granted, or take it lightly.