Pastor Earnest Bourgeois stiffened slightly as the word rattled in his ears. If not for the wrinkled nose of the blushing bride standing before him, he would have denied saying it. He was the consummate professional. Nothing like this had ever happened during one of his meticulously scripted ceremonies. The nervous groom, listening for the question that would activate his practiced response, didn’t even hear it. But the bride heard. Pastor Bourgeois scanned the faces of those standing on the stage and of others leaning forward on the front row of the church. The raised eyebrows and questioning glances told the whole story. He had committed a huge blunder. And at such a meaningful moment in the ceremony no less. As the stunned wedding party languished in the awkward silence, the tall, stately minister relinquished all hope of escaping his faux pas. He really had said funeral instead of wedding. "And so, my son, we present your bride to you, for all eternity, on this much anticipated day of your funeral."
How could he have said such a thing? The magic of the evening quickly vanished. He noticed the light from the video camera bathing over him and imagined hearing it zoom in for a close-up. How could he have committed such an error? He consciously took a deep breath, trying to clear his head. Then he remembered.
"That’s a good one preacher," guffawed the burly young man standing next to the groom. With his snort the entire audience settled into muffled laughter. "He’s putting on the ball and chain for sure today." Pastor Bourgeois felt his face flush as he forced a grin, thankful that the best man had lightened the moment with his comment.
"Pardon my slip of the tongue. Shall we proceed with the joining of this beautiful couple in the bonds of matrimony?" Pastor Bourgeois managed to plunge forward. And he spun a wonderful web of words that recaptured his audience and brought the focus of the crowd back to the magic of creating an everlasting union. Vows were taken. Rings exchanged. A lovely siren sang about love and life while the couple lit a unity candle. When the ceremony was over the congregation gathered in Fellowship Hall for a reception stocked with finger foods that had been prepared by the Women’s Ministry of the church. Pastor Bourgeois breathed a sigh of relief as he took a cup of bright green punch to a chair near the gift table and buried himself in his thoughts.
There had been another ceremony that morning. A funeral. This had been no ordinary funeral. A young child, an eleven-month-old boy, wandered into the kitchen of a day care and tried to climb into a mop bucket. And did. And drowned in three inches of filthy mop water. He remembered the horror of that day. At the hospital, the mother would not let go of her lifeless child. She was in shock. Pastor Bourgeois had been called upon to take the baby from the mother who was muttering incoherently to her child. He couldn’t remember what words he had spoken that evening as he approached the weeping mother. He had not become a pastor for days like that one. At least, from his perspective, he had not planned on such days. He remembered taking her from the hospital to her home where the baby’s toys and trinkets laid like mines on a field of battle...on the floor, in each corner, inside every room.
The days spent waiting for the funeral had been excruciating. She never strayed from the baby’s tiny casket. It seemed so unreal: that casket, that tiny dead body. He had buried many people, but never anything like this. What do you say to the questioning faces searching for reasons, for purpose, or for answers? What a day! Both ceremonies had been scheduled for the afternoon, but he convinced the mother to move the baby’s memorial to the morning. The wedding couple, children of church elders, had sent invitations months ago. It was the most anticipated wedding in the history of the church. The young couple, dripping with charisma, had captured the imagination of the entire congregation.
"Hey preacher man!" The groomsman who had earlier broken the awkward silence interrupted his retreat. "Mighty good sermon in there."
Pastor Bourgeois sat up straight, "I’m sorry. I didn’t see you standing there."
"You seem a bit distracted today. Been a bear of a day hasn’t it?" The large, dark-haired man with a coarse mustache and goatee seemed seriously concerned. There was a warmth in his words that disarmed the pastor.
"Oh, I’ve seen worse," he lied with a wave of his hand.
"How d’you do it?"
"What’s that, young man?"
"You know. This morning. I saw you bury that kid. How do you move on to this?" He gestured towards the revelry swirling through Fellowship Hall.
Pastor Bourgeois looked the young man in the eyes. He knew that an hour from now he would simply dismiss any inquiry into his private thoughts. It was the way he survived such attacks against his sense of justice. He simply ignored them. Perhaps he would share a sigh or a nod of the head with his wife later. To his surprise, however, with the sounds of laughter washing over him like a stormy sea, he decided to talk to this young man. He leaned forward. "Earlier, while the groom was taking his bride’s hand into his own, steadying her there on the stage, all I could think about was the baby’s father taking his grieving wife’s hand into his, squeezing to give assurance."
"Uh huh." The young man leaned forward, the side of his hand brushing the knee of the pastor.
Pastor Bourgeois didn’t break his cadence. "When I charged that young couple to do the right things, put their priorities in order, so that God would watch over their union...their new life...their future, I thought about how I eulogized that little angel for the confused mourners, trying to make sense of something that made no sense at all, trying to explain to them that we can’t understand everything. That sometimes things happen we have no power to prevent or postpone no matter how hard we try to play by all the rules. While these young lovers whispered vows to one another softly, tears of joy welling in their eyes, forever pledging to have and to hold, no matter what lurked in the darkness ahead, all I could see was that brave mother, shoulders slumping, teary-eyed and drained, whispering vows to God through clenched lips into her baby’s lifeless ear."
"Talk about your best of times and worst of times." The groomsman put his hand to his chin, wondering if the pastor even heard him.
Pastor Bourgeois narrowed his eyes as his voice rose slightly. "While this couple stood for the first time as man and wife, gleaming face after gleaming face lined around the corner to pump a happy hand or hug joyous shoulders, congratulations ringing in the air like bells pealing on a crisp winter’s morning, another grief-stricken man and wife, the magnitude of their loss sinking in, tried unsuccessfully to look into the faces of nervous, tortured friends who reached out with trembling hands to touch an arm, back, or shoulder, condolences spilling out like muffled, hollow clangs of some old, cracked cymbal." Pastor Bourgeois caught the face of the young man and wondered how long he had been rambling. "I’m sorry. I am sure you needed to hear all of that much less than I needed to say it."
"It’s fine, preacher," he nodded and put his hand on the pastor’s shoulder. "I knew you were thinking about that kid when you said ‘funeral’ earlier. That’s why I cut up like that. I didn’t want you hanging out there like a fat possum on a skinny limb, you know."
"You are a very thoughtful young man," Pastor Bourgeois grabbed his hand to shake it, genuinely moved by his concern.
"I’m with you, preacher. I believe in every word you said to comfort those folks at the memorial service. And I believe in all of those hopes and dreams you talked about at the wedding, too."
Pastor Bourgeois wondered if he believed in those words himself...his own words. He couldn’t help but wonder if those young lovers could ever fathom the depths of darkness that had settled over the tragedy-stricken family. Or if the mother and father of a dead eleven-month-old could ever again fathom the hope and joy the young lovers innocently feasted upon that day. Best and worse, indeed! Even Dickens would have raised an eyebrow today.