DEATH ON SUNDAY
The church sat in a wood just off the highway, small white and steepled. In the late fall of my senior year in Bible college I accepted a pastoral position there.
Every fall the gravel parking lot was littered with orange and brown maple leaves.
In those days I was excited to have my own place. A small salary and a pulpit were my ideas of accomplished adulthood.
I was not prepared for Ed.
Ed was an elderly man. At ninety-two he was still capable of walking, driving, and running a soundboard. He wore a long white beard and still had a full head of white hair. His eyes were crystal blue and except for his box-like bony frame, reminded me of Santa Clause.
Ed was our sound man and all-around tech guy. Every Sunday he sat in the small booth running the computer and soundboard. In a church of twenty-five the job did not consist of much. Out of everyone, Ed was the most capable. To be honest, I was surprised what he knew on the subject.
That Sunday morning, I turned on the lights and started the coffee. The leaves had fallen outside and I decided to grab a rake and clear what I could; before peopled arrived. The day began like any other. Announcements were made, songs were sung, and everyone enjoyed Edna’s hen pecked version of ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’ for special music.
The time came for communion. A slender, well dressed man approach the podium. His appearance was neat and orderly, every hair on his head set in its place. The very picture of the retired banker he was. Bill told a moving story for the Meditation and added a few insightful comments interspersed with a smoker’s cough and the occasional eyebrow raise to emphasizing a dramatic pause.
A prayer was prayed and the trays were passed. I sat with my head bowed, running over my sermon in my head.
The introduction was perfect, the main point and supporting materials flawless. I even smiled at the thought of the conclusive tear jerking story to bring it all together in a neat little package.
It was then I heard a loud sigh followed by a grunt. A swift brush and the squeak of plastic shoes told me someone was coming down the isle. Bill’s hand firmly grasped my shoulder. Bending down he whispered into my ear,
“I think Ed just died.”
My hands clenched. I couldn’t have heard him correctly.
“What do you mean, you think Ed just died?”
“Well we can’t find a pulse, and he is sitting on his stool slumped over.”
Was it possible for someone to be dead while in the sitting position?
I had never seen someone die before, but I am sure it was not announced, except maybe by a sigh and a grunt.
I turned to find Ed. People were speaking softly now and looking back in the direction I was looking. I swallowed hard at the weight of responsibility just placed on my shoulders.
“What should we do?” Bill breathed.
My mind was racing, what should we do?
You’re the banker, what would you do if one of your tellers died?
Why was he asking me?
I took a quick breath and choked out, “let’s pray.”
I stood behind the podium, my mouth full of cotton. The pianist continuing to play directly to my right, leaned over and asked if I had called 911.
That was a great idea.
I left the podium and was met by John, he had a phone; motioning me towards the podium he began to dial. Cell reception was rare in those mountains.
I turned to the congregation. Many heads were down while others were looking and pointing. I thought, how insensitive of me not to go back and see how he was doing.
How could he be doing?
He was dead.
I quickly left the podium, without a word, and joined the growing crowd in the back.
“Is he okay?” I asked.
“We think he's dead, but we’re not sure… We can’t find a pulse.”
“What do you mean you’re not sure?” I looked to each of my elders gathered around the entrance of the sound booth. I received blank stares in return.
Ed sat on a stool, inside, slumped over, hands hanging between his legs, palms up. People no longer sat in quiet meditation, they were now whispering.
I ran to the podium and looked over the twenty people gathered that morning. Alice continued to play the piano with a pained look on her face. She looked up at me and mouthed, “should I stop?”
I mouthed back, “what do I do?”
Alice’s eyes grew wide as she leaned forward whispering, “I don’t know, you’re the minister.”
A voice from behind the baptistery called my name. John stood in the doorway motioning to the church’s cordless phone.
“I called 911.” He said.
With a sigh of relief I told Alice to stop playing, and turned to address the congregation.
“We believe, Ed is dead….
at least, we think he is….
we can’t find a pulse. We have called 911 and they are on their way. I would like to lead us all in prayer at this time.”
Lead in prayer? What are we going to pray for? That his journey to heaven may be swift?
“Let us pray that God might bring Ed back – if he is dead. Or if he isn’t, that God might heal him . . . please pray with me.”
After we prayed I checked on Ed once more and led in prayer once more.
Bill waved me over while the ladies ran to get Ed water. Finally, Ed opened his eyes and groaned. We were far from any hospital, forty-five minutes far, on average, and I say on average because I learned my aging congregation would require it often.
There had been a brief argument on whether to attempt CPR. No one was qualified, but some had an idea of how to do it. Others even offered to lay Ed on the floor and push his knees to his chest. I'm pretty sure they had not practiced since the early twentieth century.
Fortunately, Ed came to and began to speak. He wanted me to continue the service. I agreed, since we were waiting for the paramedics to arrive.
I asked Bill to begin with the offering. He began using Ed as an example, to the uncertainty of the future, and moved into a closing about storing up worthless treasure.
We had our best offering that Sunday.
I preached to the quiet questions of paramedics and a distracted congregation. Suddenly, my illustrations and points were not so perfect. The closing story just seemed an empty attempt at reality, my talking only seemed a distraction to the true story taking place.
As they took Ed out on a gurney we stopped to say good-bye. That was the best part of the service knowing Ed was okay. The nervous laughter, when he sat paralyzed, mumbling apologies for not running the power point. His daughter, declaring her father would do anything to get her in church.
Friendship and joy in the midst of chaos; this had been Ed’s life to the church, and I believe, it was the greatest lesson preached that Sunday. We closed the service in prayer, and this time I knew what to pray for.