“Hey, honey, you have a gorgeous voice. Listen, I work in Las Vegas, and I bet I could get you a gig.”
I laughed self-consciously. This was the father of the young man whose funeral Larry just officiated. He spoke with a gravelly smoker’s voice. He was shorter than me. He elbowed me conspiratorially. “What do you say?”
“Yeah, thanks, but I don’t think so.”
His son had collapsed suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 23. The family wasn’t a part of the church or any church, so the funeral director had referred them to Larry. The young man had been engaged to be married that summer.
Since the funeral fell on a weekend, I was home from school. When they needed someone to sing for the funeral, Larry volunteered my services. The devastated fiance requested that I sing “Young Love” by the Judds and “The Dance” by Garth Brooks. To that point, I’d never sung anything at a funeral that was outside the realm of traditional church music. Our organist was good, but didn’t have country music in her repertoire, so we managed to find the accompaniment music on cassette at a store in Lincoln. Both of the songs were challenging, but Garth and I aren’t in the same range.
I didn’t know the family, but I was moved by the family’s grief. The young man had had no prior health issues. Such things unnerved me and made me feel like life was much too unpredictable. I realized then that I’d lived a pretty sheltered life, protected from a lot of harsh reality. I didn’t feel like I would have known how to comfort the family, so I was grateful that Larry was there for them. He’d done work with hospice and trauma already and had Clinical Pastoral Education training in Summit, New Jersey. He was a strong comfort to those who suffered devastating loss. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do what he did.
In my family, death was something we didn’t talk about. That and sex. When it happened too close to us, as with Sandie, we cleared our throats and sucked it up. Which really meant we stuffed the pain inside where it festered and became a lifelong infection. It reared its ugly head every time I stood in the face of others’ loss and grief, reminding me it was always there.
The Ceresco and Valparaiso congregations were very kind to both of us. There were a lot of young adults with small children in the congregation who were glad to have a younger pastor and his newlywed wife. We were invited to dinner at parishioners’ houses many weekends and were even treated to tickets to a Nebraska football game in Lincoln. We had seats behind one of the goal posts. Sitting in a sea of red in a game that was won in the last few minutes, I became a Husker fan that day!
Ceresco was a small town just 20 minutes from Lincoln, so we had the best of both worlds. Downtown, which consisted of a couple of blocks, there was a small family-owned grocery store, a bakery, a car dealership, the community center where the seniors met, and Ernie’s of Ceresco. Ernie’s is a major furniture store that some complained took over the town. On the other hand, there might not be a town if it weren’t for Ernie’s.
Gene Peterson owned Peterson’s grocery store a couple of blocks from our house. I enjoyed going to the grocery store because Gene would always greet us himself and follow us around as we shopped. His mother-in-law was Verna, whom I stayed with before Larry and I were married, and Gene loved to play pranks on her. One day, Gene approached us as we entered the store.
“Hey, you two, do me a favor. Go drop by Verna’s house after you’re done here.” He was giggling, so we knew he was up to something. “Would you?”
After we put our groceries in the car, we walked the two blocks to Verna’s house and rang the doorbell. When Verna opened the door, her mouth dropped open.
“Hi Verna, we were just at the store and thought we’d stop by. Can we come in?” Larry asked her.
“Uh… sure!” she said a bit nervously and turned toward her kitchen. You had to go through the kitchen to get to the living room. As we walked through the kitchen, she turned to Larry, wringing her hands.
“So, how are things? What are you two up to today?” she walked with her back to the kitchen counter. As she did, I noticed quite a few bottles of alcohol lined up on the counter. I knew why Gene had told us to come.
We didn’t stay long, just made small talk, and went on our way with the excuse that we had refrigerated items in the car back at the store. Verna nodded and nodded, nudging us out the door.
Later, we got a phone call from Gene. He was laughing so hard he could barely speak. He’d said that immediately after we left he got a call at the store from Verna.
“I got all this alcohol out here on the counter ready for the party, and guess who shows up at my door?? Pastor Larry and Peggy!! I was so embarrassed…” Gene confessed to her that he’d sent us over there, knowing that all the alcohol would be out. She hung up on him in a huff, but he knew he’d be forgiven.
I’d grown up in large New Jersey towns where people didn’t really know each other. The churches my father served were also very large, over a thousand members, so I’d never known the simple joys of a small town community. Kids in these small towns couldn’t wait to get out, thinking it was too stifling and complained that everybody knew each other so you couldn’t get away with anything. But to me, it was a gift of grace. I loved being able to walk downtown and have people know me, greet me, and wish me well. I liked going to the bank and having the teller call me by name and ask about married life.
The small choir I started was a success. We didn’t do complex music, but we had a lot of fun and they were actually very good. I was encouraged by doing something I’d never done before.
I loved assisting Larry in worship every Sunday. Serving communion was again one of my favorite things, as people came to the rail with their hands cupped, ready to receive. Larry had a way of making it personal. He looked each person in the eye as he gave them the bread and put his large, warm hand over theirs as he said, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” And so I would offer them the chalice of grape juice, their eyes still looking up as I said to them, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” And they smiled shyly as they dipped their bread in the cup.
Both of us had had the same professor at Drew, Dr. Ken Rowe, who had instructed us students to always give big hunks of bread at communion. “After all,” he said, “the bread is a symbol of God’s grace, and we need all the grace we can get!”
We both appreciated that, and so for the rest of our ministries, we always gave huge chunks of bread. People joked that they should have brought some meat and they could have made a sandwich. Sometimes I noticed the little old ladies would discreetly break the piece in half and stuff the rest in their pocket. In case they got hungry later?
I developed more confidence in my preaching at Ceresco. People were very kind and gracious with their feedback. Gene Lowry’s narrative style of preaching felt just right to me, as I was first and foremost a writer. I liked to retell the biblical story in a way that people felt that they were there. They told me they could see, smell, feel and imagine the story. I often, like Gene, threw in some modern images, like Peter looking at his watch, or the brother of the Prodigal Son jumping off his John Deere. It helped people relate to the ancient story. I had fun trying different things, adding stories of my own to connect to the biblical story and to what I believed we were to learn from it. I quickly sensed that preaching was my strongest gift for ministry– and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
One day, Mr. Burkland approached me. Mr. Burkland was a sweet, elderly man who liked to flirt a little with me. It was harmless. He also encouraged me weekly in my studies and my training. He liked to tell Larry and I jokes as he came through the line after the service. We’d been to his house for dinner. His wife was a grouchy, serious woman who could be very intimidating, but she was a kind woman underneath that gruff exterior.
One Sunday after I’d preached, Mr. Burkland wanted to give me constructive feedback. I think the folks at Ceresco and Valparaiso felt they were part of my education, and so they took that role very seriously.
“The sermon was very good, Peggy,” Mr. Burklund said, “but there was just one thing I wanted to tell you. I don’t know,” he said, searching for the right words, “You need to do more. I mean,” he wrinkled his face in concentration, “I think you need to wave your hands around more.” He demonstrated what he meant, and waved both of his hands in front of me.
I chuckled. Ok. “Ok, I can do that, thanks!” I shook his hand and he went on his way.
That afternoon Larry got a phone call. “Wes Burkland fell and hit his head. It sounds pretty serious. I gotta go to the hospital.” I volunteered to go along.
When we arrived at the hospital in Lincoln, all of Wes’ family was gathered in the hallway outside of his room. Some of his grown children were in the room by his bed. Everyone was crying. I felt the heavy weight of dread and fear as I realized what was going on.
“He’s dead,” one of his sons said to Larry as we approached. His face was wrenched in sorrow. “I don’t know, they think he had a stroke before he fell, … God. He’d just gotten home from church and went to get something out of the basement…” he broken down and walked into Larry’s comforting arms.
Death. It felt like my heart froze in my chest. This was one part of the job that I never really thought about. In all the excitement of the inspiration and call and doors opening, I didn’t think about the dark side of ministry. The pain. Tragedy. Death.
Wes was 85 years old, but he was such a good soul. People like that ought never die. I didn’t go in the room with Larry. I just couldn’t. I stayed outside, but I did peek around the door frame. There was Wes. Lifeless. I’d only seen dead bodies after the funeral director had done his or her work, all prettied up. Or not. It was the first time I’d seen someone right after death. I felt sick. Terrified. I just stared at my old friend who was no longer there. I’d learned too well from my parents to stuff my emotions to the point that I couldn’t feel them until they built up. I couldn’t cry. I just felt terror. And admiration that Larry could go in there, calmly and be such a strong comfort in the midst of such sorrow. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that.
I did offer hugs and offered my condolences. But I couldn’t get the image of Wes’ body out of my mind later. I went home and had a good cry.
But every time I preached again after that, I made sure to wave my hands more. For Wes.