The miraculous part


Okay, so I was exhausted yesterday, and I couldn’t be very eloquent in my reply to the college student. The blank stare was followed by a whole lot of laughter, but not much in defense of the profession. But, she’s a regular, and I have an entire semester and three bonus weeks to talk to her about the seminary thing. We’ll catch up.

She is not the first student who’s talked to me about going into the pastorate. In fact, she’s the fourth in two years. We have two young adults who are planning to go as well. And that’s one of the many reasons why I hope our denomination doesn’t abandon our campus ministries, it’s just extremely important. I often compare our Local Governing Body’s CM meetings to a group of vultures fighting over a half a piece of sausage, because the pot of money shrinks drastically every year and all of our jobs depend on the money….

But that was not the point of this post. The point of this post was to tell you what I would have said to the student if I weren’t suffering from the gray fog of post-service exhaustion. The reason I’m writing is to tell you why I’m a pastor. I mean, just one of the reasons, of course.

It was a few years ago, at a Good Friday service, and I was preaching for the community. The ministers from all the churches got together and had one service at the Episcopal Church. No one ever said why it was always at the Episcopal Church, but I was sure that it had to do with the dark sanctuary. It was a bit gothic and perfect for such a somber event.

I was surprised by the whole procession of the cross thing. I had to help carry in this big wooden heavy cross, but I didn’t get the warning, so I wore really high heels, and everyone else was still about a foot-and-a-half taller than me. I was actually reaching up just to touch the cross. While the other pastors were walking in a dignified manner, I was trotting in these heels trying to keep up. It was a stone aisle, an echoey space. The longest procession of my life. It was an ugly scene.

We finally made it down the aisle, without me breaking an ankle. That was my year to preach, and I was a little nervous, because it was my church and all these other churches. It wasn’t a huge crowd, but you know how it is, you just don’t want to do anything to embarrass your congregation…and I had just gotten back from trotting down the aisle….

So I preached about a painting in the Rhode Island School of Design’s museum. It’s a loud, gold and red, Italian painting with all kinds of soldiers and armies and chaos. And Jesus is there, hanging on the cross, looking at his mother. John’s trying to comfort her. I talked about how hard it must have been for Jesus to be taking care of the sins of the world, but not be able to take care of his mom. And how Jesus took that time on the cross to rearrange the family (“This is your mother.” “This is your son.”), and how all of our families have been rearranged. Now we’re responsible for caring for each other in new ways. Because we’re Christians.

I got a note after the service, with a name and a telephone number. I called the number and talked to a woman who usually spends every Good Friday service at the RISD museum, with her children, looking at the Italian painting. That particular year, though, her children couldn’t go, so after much debate, she and her husband decided to go to the service instead.

She had just been diagnosed with cancer. Stage four. She was beginning aggressive treatment, but she knew that she was slowly leaving her children. That was the one part about dying that she just couldn’t bear.

When the sermon began, she couldn’t believe it (“I couldn’t go the museum, so God brought the museum to me”). As she listened to the sermon, she just cried and cried. For the first time, she knew that her children were going to be all right.

And that’s why I’m a pastor. It’s just a profession where this sort of thing occurs. So, what about you? All you church leaders out there, why do you do it?


7 thoughts on “The miraculous part

  1. I was called in to the HOS’s office 28 minutes before worship was to start. She said, “I’m throwing up. I’m going home. You’re preaching. You can read mine or do your own. Either way, I’m leaving.” Let me back up and say I have a very positive working relationship with the HOS, and she knew I would think this was fun.

    It seemed that to read her sermon would have been like wearing somebody else’s shoes. So I checked the Scripture, checked my favorite commentary, and made some notes. The Scripture was Luke 13:1-9, and the topic was random suffering. My basic point was that the only honest answer to random suffering is “I don’t know, but I will stay with you as long as you would like.”

    The next day I got a phone call from a member of my previous call. (It’s in the same presbytery.) They were still without a pastor. A young mother who had been diagnosed with lung cancer shortly before I left was dying. The family wanted to see me and wanted me to officiate at the memorial service. When I arrived at the hospital, the husband had just taken the children home from saying Goodbye to their mother for the last time. As I sat with him he asked me, “Why is this happening?” I said, “I don’t know, but I will stay with you as long as you would like.” She died the next morning.

    I don’t believe God gave my boss the flu anymore than I believe God gave this woman cancer. But what I do believe is that God was all mixed up in that event. It seemed as if God knew I could use a dry run through that topic.

    It’s times like that, most much more mundane (having a surprise guest for dinner, but still having plenty of food, etc.). When I know God is with me, that’s a good feeling.

  2. Gosh, ya’ll are making me cry. Sometimes I think that I am a pastor to give testimony to simple things that otherwise may never get seen or heard. Since I have been at my current church at least two elderly women have told me that they don’t understand why they have lived so long, that they are tired and ready to die. It always shocks me that these where almost exactly the same words my 106 year old great grandmother said toward the end of her life.

  3. I don’t have a brilliant story like these right now anyway, but it is things like this… like preaching my first sermon for Lent, and what it felt like to be “in front of people” for the first time. …like the summer I worked at an inner city children’s ministry and felt like quitting, and then was told by the pastor that someone had requested me for a funeral of a relative.

    Your story was so powerful. And you’re right, this is a vocation where things like this happen, where someone hears just the right thing from you, and you know that it isn’t “just you.”

  4. Patrick,
    Your initial story was an amazing testimony to what is real. That is real life preaching flowing into and from pastoring. But your second comment that “Sometimes I think that I am a pastor to give testimony to simple things that otherwise may never get seen or heard.” is also part of preaching and what I believe it should be more about. We can’t always do a Sermon on the Mount – as good as it was. But we can be real. Thank you!

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