Firemen's Memorial Service, Valley Stream, New York
October 20, 2002
The pastor of a local church gathers responsibilities beyond "tending the flock of Christ." Stay long in one place and these community responsibilities accumulate. So I found myself on this bright mid-October morning leading the annual memorial service for the five members of the Valley Stream Fire Department who died in the pursuit of their firemanic duties. Yes, I left South Nassau for Central Connecticut in June; but the Department had yet to firm up a commitment from another local Protestant pastor to be a chaplain. In response to an Email announcing the service, I volunteered to help. We drove the 130 miles Sunday morning arriving in time to buy a cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts before the company had assembled in dress uniform.
Having participated in this service twenty times, I know the principal expectation: make it short, especially if there is a nip in the air. No problem for me: I have made a career in the pulpit of going directly to the point without fussing around with non-essentials. Shortly after 11:10 AM the assembly was called to attention, the flag was raised to half mast, and the memorial service commenced. The Chief, once upon a time a member of the youth fellowship for which I provided supervision every Sunday, spoke to the troops. I followed with a brief message about (you guessed it, didn't you?) heroism, how it finds those who simply do their duty and have no thought to be heroes. The Apocrypha was read ("Now let us praise famous men...") and a prayer offered by the Catholic chaplain. The bell tolled five times. Wreaths were placed by the granite memorial stone situated on a broad lawn in front of the railroad station. The benediction was pronounced and the Department turned about face for a group shot taken by a photographer perched on the railroad station waiting platform.
I greeted several firemen, three of whom were members of the congregation lately pastored. Everyone was most cordial. But, very lame duck that I am, I gained insight into Lazarus' likely experience after he returned from the dead. Once you say goodbye it's best to stay away, because even old friends don't quite know what to make of you in your return to scenes where once you were in the flow of the life around you. In other words, if you die, you had really better stay dead. And if you leave a church and a community, you had better stay gone. So we quickly took our leave of familiar scenes and hightailed it to other familiar scenes of a far more ancient past, and had stout and coffee in Murphy's Townhouse Cafe in Stamford, Connecticut. If you are inclined to read more about that adventure, then look in on Essays, "Sunday Exorcism."
Rating: everything considered, meaning the limitations imposed by this kind of service, I would give the Valley Stream Department and its former Protestant chaplain four haloes. Well done, pastor; just please don't return in an official capacity.