I was a latchkey kid.
Mom was a Registered Nurse, and Dad worked away teaching at community college in Port Hawkesbury. To be honest, I liked coming home after school when nobody was there. I had my own brown key. When my mom worked backshift, I would sneak in, drop off my school bag, and sneak back out, and come home a few hours later, just in time to eat.
It’s not much of a surprise to me, then, that I landed in a profession where someone gave me a key to a church and said, “Welcome.”
And that was it. No “Intro to Churches 101”. Just, “Here’s a key to everything we have valued for hundreds of years. Our buildings and our hearts. Please don’t mess it up.”
Yet, I’ll be completely honest. Sometimes the key was taken away, mostly because of miscommunication. But, sometimes, the key was taken away because I challenged a matriarch or patriarch of one of the churches on my pastoral charge. I used to argue endlessly with the oldest member of one church, an eighty-year-old man with a Scottish accent who had never been to Scotland. That’s how deep it went.
Yet, a definition of ministry as “latchkey” is quite liberating. Even if people don’t tell you things right away the door is open in front of you. Even if you have to keep knocking. Even if you have to keep reminding them that you’re not a previous minister. Even if you have to remind them that you’re not there to hurt them. Even if you just want to love them. Even if it takes years.
I once did a funeral for a man named Chris who died from a drug overdose. I was told it was a “partial embalming” due to the risks to the funeral home staff because of disease. He was a well-known drug dealer who was buried in his football jersey and sunglasses, and in a cloth casket. There were RCMP present at the wake and the funeral. In the front pew sat a different mother for each of his children, and his grandmother.
Yet, I was at a loss. I had no access. No key. It took sitting down with his blue-haired grandmother; it took sitting down with each of the women in his life; it took sitting down with his friends; it took sitting down with his kids. And that’s when the door creaked open. That’s when his current girlfriend said, “He loved Pink Floyd.”
And within a few conversations, the opening hymn changed from “In the Garden” (his grandmother’s favourite) to “Comfortably Numb” (more appropriate.) To this day, it holds the record for longest opening hymn for a funeral that I’ve ever done. But, we all needed to abide in the healing love of Dave Gilmour’s guitar solos.
And then, when we were all honest, we celebrated, and lamented, his life. The one thing I do remember is that his children didn’t cry.
Because it was winter, we buried Chris later that spring. When I arrived at the cemetery, there was no grandmother, no former girlfriends, no children: just me and two funeral home directors. I was told, “Just a heads up. The body has turned.” When I arrived at the grave, I finally understood what that meant.
That’s when it struck me that the keys we are given actually belong to God. That all we do is in the name of the sacred and the divine. And I took with me that somehow, in this moment, all was not lost. All was not lost for Chris; and all was not lost for the rest of us, who would be in the grave in our own due time.
There was a certain holiness to the aroma of death (though it stuck to the insides of my nostrils) and to the reality of life.
So, I opened my book and I said the prayers for committal; and I made a mental note that sometimes they keys of ministry open the doors to that bring us to the grave of a drug dealer with no one left to mourn him.
Ram Dass writes, “We’re all just walking each other home.” I believe that.
So, the next time someone hands you and me the key to a church, it’s always good to remember and be reminded: they are giving you the keys to their spiritual lives in a world which desperately needs to hear that goodness and love are pursuing us, and not the other way around. It’s an awesome task, to be sure, but it’s one that we accept when we open ourselves to discernment, theological study, and ministry.
And we do these things in Jesus’ name.
Aaron Billard serves in ministry at St John’s United Church, Moncton, NB.