I rarely open the Book of Occasional Services in my ministry. While it means well, I've found the pages too formal for the grief I encounter among solemn strangers or new parishioners. The liturgy is too high for small hospital rooms or quaint living rooms filled with antiques and family photos.
Still, I clutch it when I am called into the unfair and unfortunate places. It brings me comfort to know that others have also held it while they wish for the right words or patience during the long silences of sorrow. And though I rarely open it, the book is usually there.
I found it in my hands the other day and opened it to the black bookmark - the consolation of the dying - before going to see someone I am going to miss. Out tumbled scraps of paper and post-it notes filled with names, illnesses, hopes and idiosyncrasies. I sat down on the floor in my office and read through them one by one.
While I cannot connect some of their faces with their names, I remember how holding the hand of a dead person first felt or the holiness of gathering family around a bed to share their love and say goodbye. I remember baptizing a dwarfed and stillborn baby named Jose - not because it was theologically correct, but because it sealed his broken mother with new promises and affirmed her role as Life Giver. I remember walking out to my car in the monsoon rains one night and sobbing in my humid car with the death of a saint aching within me. I remember painting the fingernails of a swollen stroke victim who needed to feel beautiful before she passed. I remember burying people without knowing much about them at all.
While some of these notes are only a name or room number, they are filled with promises from God and moments that have sealed the unfamiliar and acquaintance in my depths. And so I could not discard John, Ruth, Jose or the phone numbers of families I met with to plan funerals. They remain in the book where I will find them written, occasionally or rarely, though I always hold them in my heart.