John wrote this article as a reflection on his retirement from 13 years of ministry at St. Luke Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Glen Ellyn, Illinois and 37 years of ministry as a Lutheran pastor. It is published in a version slightly edited from this copy in the Aug. 24, 2010 edition of The Christian Century magazine, pp 10-11 and is used here by permission. http://christiancentury.org
My life in pastoral ministry had its share of ambiguities. At a couple of points I considered a teaching ministry. Many times I’ve felt that I was giving my best in the parish and the results were underwhelming; many times I’ve been disappointed in myself. It’s not that I didn’t love parish ministry. In the 37 years since my ordination, I had never served a congregation where God didn’t surround me with gifted and generous partners. I always loved the congregations and people I served.
Yet in seminary I dreamed of pews filled to overflowing as I preached with conviction and the illumination afforded by my midnight-oil studies. As a pastor, I often longed to feel what Jesus must have felt when the crowds grew so enormous he had to hop in a boat to get some breathing room. Yet although years ago I had begged God for a sign that I was called to this work, that sure sign had never materialized. As a result, I performed my ministry with a recurring doubt in my head: “Am I truly intended and called for this work?”
Then, during the last weeks before my retirement, I was granted a sign–the most pure, profound and real sign that I’ve ever experienced. The first moment of that sign came during the farewell dinner for my wife and me. For weeks members had been asking me how I was feeling about retiring, and I had no answer. I was caught up responding to everyday duties and tying up loose ends. But when I entered the church for the banquet, I felt in my gut the enormity of the impending change in my life, and I was not at all confident I could handle the emotional impact of a congregation’s well wishes for pastor and spouse.
Fortunately the evening included roasts and jokes and laughter. I received “Olympic medals” that marked such things as the record number of cars passing by the sanctuary window that one member had counted during one of my more long-winded sermons. My face ached with laughter as one skit depicted me giving a tedious and academic answer to a simple question-in-passing about Adam and Eve. In another skit, children from the congregation delighted in interrupting my children’s sermon with their crazy questions. The choir sang newly minted lyrics to “Thanks for the Memories.” There were other precious moments, but the glory of the evening was captured as we did necessary work of tidying the fellowship hall late into the night. Women were cleaning up in the kitchen and running the vacuums while the men stacked tables and chairs. Our financial secretary and favorite Elvis impersonator turned to me and said, “Isn’t this what it’s all about?”
We looked at each other and we knew this was most certainly true. Something had happened to us through the years. No matter what we did together, it was beautiful, and much of it was fun—even setting up and cleaning up. We were in this work together.
The next moment came on Sunday morning. After I made my announcements, a man spoke up from the choir loft. He wanted to thank my wife and me for our ministry. He had been a part of the call committee and believed that the congregation had gotten a “two-for-the-price-of-one” deal. On a more personal note, he was thankful for the prayers and support after his first wife had died and for loving support as he celebrated his remarriage. He thanked God for all God had done for him through his church.
At this point I was in trouble. This little litany of thanks pushed me over the edge emotionally. I was at the baptismal font ready to lead the congregation in the Confession of Sins, but I was coming undone.
In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote that being “in Christ” causes us to see people in a new way. In Christ there is a “new creation.” For me the sign that congregational ministry was my calling was that I was allowed, in this moment, to witness and live that new creation. Almost every member was there that morning, even those who regularly found it difficult to get to worship. Each time I looked into someone’s eyes I noticed a spark of shared recognition of this new creation. I knew how hard it was for many of them to cope. But here they were, celebrating their walk through difficult times—celebrating the fact that we have walked on because we have walked together. Our life stories had been woven together in Christ. We knew each other’s secrets and wounds and sins and weaknesses. . .and it was okay, because Christ was there too, healing and encouraging and recreating.
During that last Sunday at St. Luke’s, the heavenly sign expressed itself in its most powerful form. During the farewell banquet, the Holy Spirit had taken our collective breath away only to breathe it back full of new life. Now it had become a whirlwind that was way beyond our control. By the time the Eucharist came there was no telling where it would all lead.
The people came forward. As I served the bread, each face I looked into shone with the glory of God. As trained astronomers find echoes and ripples of the Big Bang in the universe, so do communicants and pastor feel the echoes and ripples of the last supper of Christ passing between them. They experience it as they share all that they are with each other and place it all in the tender hands of their God.
There is no easy formula and no short-cuts for genuine ministry. Programs and ideas come and go. Technologies sparkle and grab our attention for a time. But in the end, one thing matters and endures—God’s love in Jesus Christ. The Christian Church is this love at work, the movement on earth that springs from the Spirit’s breath and strives to gather all people so that they might live forgiven.
My sign from God had been in the making for 37 years of ministry. All this time this one worshipful moment had been taking shape. These people taking the Body of Christ from my hands—these people and I had been living as that very same Body. We had learned together that because we trust the love of God we can face down the assaults of Satan. We do not have to flinch when we confront the absurdity of cancer, indignities on the job, the stabbing pain of the death of someone we love or the enduring, numbing pain of divorce, rejection or loneliness.
Together we have stared down demons and refused to allow differences of opinion scatter or discourage us. We recognize fear mongering for the evil it is and renounce it. We are gathered by God and have allowed God to hold us. As we’ve endured and let Christ bind us together, God has made us ever stronger. This is the truth that was breaking out in front of us in our singing, sighing, laughter and applause, silence and tears.
At the end of the service, after the members of the church had filed out, sharing last tearful exchanges, I noticed a visiting couple bundling up an infant child at the rear of the sanctuary. I greeted them and apologized for all the weeping, which I thought must have seemed bizarre to them. They wisely responded, “This is the way every Eucharist should be.”
I had my sign—not a sign that my work was excellent, but that God had made me a full partner in the excellent absurdity of ministry. Congregational ministry was the right calling for me. It would be narrow-minded of me to think that this new creation of grace-filled community could not also have happened for me on a seminary or college campus; or to insist that it cannot blossom for others in an office or neighborhood or military unit. Perhaps such a powerful way of living can even be jump-started with the aid of Facebook or Twitter. The Spirit blows where it will.
But I am most grateful to have received my sure sign at last. After all these years, I know that parish ministry has been my calling. It wasn’t I who choose it, but the Lord, who grabbed me and planted me deeply in a life in which I could truly serve and belong.
permission from the Aug. 24, 2010, issue of the
Christian Century. Visit http://christiancentury.org.