“So, You’re The Adulterer!”

(Over the next few posts, I’m going to talk about several reasons why the book “Fallen Pastor” is for anyone concerned about the future of the church. We are in the midst of a crisis and need to understand how to approach it).

I love talking to people who work in funeral homes. They have some of the most amazing personalities. They deal with people and care for them at the worst point in their lives on a daily basis. Yet, most of them have the best attitude when you get to know them.

The other day, I was riding in the pallbearer car back to the funeral home with a lady who helped manage the funeral home. We had been talking a bit and she said, “What do you do?”

We had already talked enough that she knew I worked in sports medicine. What this 50-something woman who knew people really wanted to know was, “What was I doing as a pallbearer at this funeral?”

I said, “I used to pastor this church that most of these people went to.

She said, half-joking, “What did they do? Kick you out?

I had to smile because she probably wouldn’t have asked it like that if she had known. Or maybe she would have. She had a great sense of humor and, like most funeral directors, shot pretty straight.

I committed adultery,” I said.

Her mouth dropped wide open, “Ooooooohhhh!” I thought for a second the car was going off the road as she adjusted her sunglasses. Then she looked at me and said, smiling, “I’ve heard about you.

I said, “Most of it is probably true, I’m sure.” Her statement would have bothered me two years ago, but thanks to a lot of helpful people, time and forgiveness, I just smile.

She said, “You wrote a book! Didn’t you?

Yes ma’am, I did. Did you read it?” I asked.

No, I didn’t think I needed to, I’m not a pastor,” she said.

Well, it’s not just for pastors,” I told her. “It’s for everyone. It’s about learning to forgive, what we expect of our pastors, how we can restore people, how we’re all sinners…

She stopped me and continued my thought, “You know, you’re just a sinner like me. You’re no different. We all mess up. Why is it people find it so hard to forgive pastors?

That’s a great question,” I said. “We are all sinners. I disappointed a lot of people who expected more from me. And they should have.

But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t forgive,” she said with a slight frown.

No, it doesn’t,” I said. “It just takes some longer than others. Hurt can last a long time. I haven’t always been perfect and no one else is either.”

We talked about other stuff on the way back to the funeral home. For instance, I found out it was easier to make creme brûlée than I thought.

She let me out at my car and said, “Thanks for sharing that. You’re a good person.”

I knew what she meant. And I appreciated her saying so. But I’m not good. None of us are. None of our heroes are good. They are all stained with sin and mere moments from a fall. When they do fall, I pray we all have courage to forgive.

Finding Meaning At The End Of Life

I’ve always believed that no matter how long or how short your life is, as long as you are drawing a breath, God will use it for His glory.

I saw it the other day in a dear friend. Those of you who know me well know who I’m referring to. An old friend who has been overcome with cancer. Those of you who have read my book or blog might know him as the church leader I first shared my infidelity with. He’s much more than that. He’s a father figure to me. He was one of the first church members to offer me unconditional forgiveness.

I remember the day I approached him, in his pole barn. It was a year after my adultery. I laid it all out on the line. I had even been mad at him for how things had gone after I got caught. But there I sat, humbled. He said finally, “Yes, I was disappointed. All I could think of was all of the good you could have done. But I forgave you a while back. I’m glad you’re here.” A few months ago, before we even knew he had cancer, I saw him and he wrapped his hard-working agrarian arms around me and said to me unexpectedly, “You know I’ve always loved you, don’t you?”

I grew up with a rocky relationship with my own father. When I met this man, he mentored me as a young pastor. He lead me in the right direction, give me a kind kick in the pants when I needed it, encourage me on the days when I must have looked frustrated, and he looked after my family. I remember the day my mother was killed in a car accident. The nurse came into the room where he, I, and another deacon were waiting. She asked, “Who is going to identify the body?” She was looking at me. I began to descend into a panic attack. He stood up without hesitation and said, “Can it be anyone?” She said, “Yes.” He said, “I’ll do it.” I wept. When he came back, he was crying.

When I heard about his cancer a few months ago, I went and saw him. It hadn’t slowed him down too much yet. But we found we had more to talk about. He said, “I wish I had a little more time. There are a few more things I’d like to do.”

I about lost it. I started coughing uncontrollably. I said, “Really?” (For this next part, you really have to have been sitting where we were.) I said, “Look around these eighty acres you own. You bought them from hard work at coal mining and bull dozing. Not only you live here, but you have made it so three other families can live on your property, including my ex-wife and your own daughter. You built a covered, wooden bridge. Really? I built a wooden bookshelf once. And it fell apart. You have done more in your life than most men could accomplish in two lifetimes. What’s more is that you love people from your heart. You are an amazing man that gives and gives and sets an example. I wouldn’t be sitting here if that wasn’t true.

He’s the heart of that little rural church. He was there the day the doors were first opened as a kid and he’s still the heart of it now. His heart beats for that place. If I could give you an example – there was an awful ice storm about four years ago here. The power was out all across the county. Except for two places – the parsonage and the church. We were the only church that had services that Sunday after the ice storm, dagnabit. But we were there. All eight of us. He led songs, I preached like I had a cathedral full of people whose hearts needed to be warmed. And it was enough.

He led the choir. And he did more than lead a choir – he led it with his heart. He had sang in a quartet for years and just loved to praise God and that’s pretty much what he did while leading that choir. Sometimes, when the music got to him, a tear would come to his eye. And that was the best kind of worship.

He loves his wife and daughter and granddaughter. They are the world to him. He would fight fiercely to defend them, work his tail off to provide for all of them, and yet a tear comes to his eye when he talks about any of them.

He loves people. If a man showed up at church, regardless of his story, who needed $20, he’d fish it out of his wallet and pray with him. He just loved people. He loved people like Christ told us to love people. And he didn’t do it because it was being dragged out of him or because it was legalistic. He did it because it was the nature of his heart.

Most of all, he loves his Savior. I told a lot of stories about him in this blog post to get to this point. Finding meaning at the end of life. He’s in extremely bad shape and I told him what I tell everyone at the end of life – “God has a purpose for each breath and every heartbeat.” Then I said to him, “Is there anyone you haven’t talked to that you want me to contact?” He whispered, “no.” He’s unable to talk, eat or drink. His esophagus is completely destroyed.

I guess he had a little time to think about my question, though. I showed up a day later and asked his wife, “How are the visitors? Anything new?” She said, “He had me call two people up here who haven’t been here. He witnessed to both of them even though he can hardly talk. He gave one of them his bible. Both of them left crying.

I got choked up. Every moment we have in this life is worth something. Every breath we draw, even in suffering, is worth the glory of God. My friend won’t be around much longer, but I know he loves his Savior enough to make the best of it. He looked at me about a week ago. He’s not able to swallow the ice water that is given him. It can’t make it’s way to his stomach. He has to suction it back out.

He looked at me and said, “I’d give a million dollars to drink a glass of water. But soon I’ll have my fill of the living water.” Yes you will. Yes, you absolutely will. I said to him, “I don’t envy you right now, but soon, I will heartily envy you and your position right next to Christ.” He smiled and we shared a tear together.

Thank you, Lord, for a friend like that. A man like that who showed me forgiveness, kindness and the model of what a father should be. May we all remember and learn, especially if we end up in the same circumstances one day.

Whitney Houston and Humanity’s Most Important Question

I put up a new article over at Provoketive Magazine: “Whitney Houston and Humanity’s Most Important Question.” It deals with the death of Whitney Houston and a question we all need to answer.

Here’s an excerpt:

I do know something about how fragile all of us are. I do know that we start somewhere simple. We can get placed on a pedestal and fall. We can make terrible, tragic mistakes and even if we do, our God is there to love us when we fall.

Take time to read it and thanks for stopping by.

What To Say To The Grieving

Losing someone close to us is always a difficult thing. It’s especially tragic when death comes suddenly and without warning. In the county where I work, the high school has been beset with its own share of tragedy this year. Students, administrators, teachers and parents have been dealing with a great deal of grief this year.

Sudden loss is no stranger to me. I lost both parents in separate accidents and my college roommate was killed in a car accident at the end of my junior year. Each time, I struggled with grief. Actually, there are days I still struggle. None of us ever completely recovers from losing someone.

We all need to express our grief in times like that. And we all want to reach out to the families hurt have been affected the most.

The most common question I’ve been asked I by people is, “What can I say to people who are grieving? What can I do to help them?”

I’m not a grief counselor or expert, but I’ve been around a lot of grieving people and done my fair share of funerals. I’d like to share a few things to maybe help answer that question.

First, realize that there are no magic words you can share that will take away their pain. We want to, I think, remove their hurt. When it’s our turn in the visitation line, we want to offer some sort of word that will comfort and maybe bring them solace. But it probably won’t happen. If you’ve been in that situation, you know how true that statement is.

When you’re standing next to the casket of your loved one, you are an exhausted, empty shell of yourself. Distant, emotional and fragile. The barrage of people is comforting at times and at others, it is emotionally charged.

There are definitely things we can do. There are words we can say to help.

The first thing I would encourage someone to do is share a special memory. Most people who attend a visitation or funeral have a unique story about the departed. A story that the person’s family hasn’t heard. It’s usually a story about how that person touched your life.

I would encourage you, if visitation time allows, to share that story with the family. If it doesn’t, take the time to write it down in a card or a letter. Even if you share it with them, write it down anyway. Most funeral homes collect cards to give to the family later. It’s hard for family members to process everything during the day of visitation and the day of a funeral. Imagine how precious it is when they open up a card that has a handwritten note from someone that shares with them a new memory about their loved one.

Did the person who passed on ever give you anything special? Maybe you have a nice photograph that the family doesn’t have. Maybe they made you a bookmark, gave you a card once that encouraged you. You don’t have to give it away, but have it professionally copied and share it with the family and let them know how much it meant to you. If you have a photo of them on your phone or photo album, have it printed, stick it in a card and leave it for them. These keepsakes often mean more than any words we can share.

I remember after my college roommate died, a friend of ours came to see me a week later. She handed me a picture. My roommate and I had taken her camera as a joke and taken a picture of ourselves two weeks before he died. I had forgotten all about it. She had a copy made for me. It meant more to me than anything else I had.

When you do get to talk to the family during visitation and you don’t have much time, just share your heart. If you don’t know them, tell them who you are and how you knew their loved one and how much they meant to you.

If you know the family and know them well, I want you to encourage you to do something. If you are close to them and they will listen to you and visitation has been a long,weary process, encourage them to take a break for a few minutes. Take them to the funeral directors office for a Coke. Tell them that the visitation line will really be okay without them. That if someone really wants to see them, they will find them soon enough. A five or ten minute break can do a family member wonders. And another family member can fill in while they are away for a few minutes.

Finally, don’t forget that the week after the death is a whirlwind. But the family’s toughest time is often the weeks after. They have personal belongings to go through, an estate to think about, and worst of all, a huge empty hole. The food stops coming, the calls stop coming, and it suddenly gets quiet.

Don’t let it get too quiet. Let them have space if that’s what they want. But invite them to lunch. Send a card or an encouraging email. Love on them.

For more information and help (outside links):

What to Do, Say, and Wear at Funerals

A Guide to Thoughtful Behavior at Funeral Homes

Living David’s Prayer of Repentance

I have had a remarkable week, but it’s not been about me. On Monday, I shared a providential moment when I ran into a former church member who I hadn’t seen in quite some time. We were able to mend a broken relationship.

The next day, I received a call from a former deacon. His mother had passed away following a short illness. He asked me to perform the funeral. To say I was stunned would not come close to how I felt. I knew his mother well, loved her and thought highly of her. I didn’t hesitate and was honored to do it for them.

She was an amazing woman. Three years ago, after my mother was killed in a car accident, she showed me great love. The Sunday I decided to step back into the pulpit, she stopped me in the sanctuary. She gave me a big hug like she always did, then she did something she had never done before – she gave me a kiss on the cheek. She said, “Your mama isn’t around to give you a kiss on the cheek anymore. So I’m going to do it for her.” She never missed a Sunday, either.

Her family also included the former head deacon of my church. Both of these men I have approached in the previous year, asking for forgiveness, desiring reconciliation on some level. They have both been gracious to me. That has been miraculous to me. When I first fell, I was told by many fallen pastors that reconciliation with former members was impossible. I prayed they were wrong.

When the phone call came, I was immediately concerned about other issues. I knew many from my former church would be at the funeral. I called and spoke to a member of the family. She said, “We knew there might be some who might be concerned about you doing the funeral, but you were the last pastor who really knew her.” I said, “If I do it right, it will be all about her and Jesus. No one will even know I’m there.”

Details are unimportant at this point. The love shown to me and Allison was overwhelmingly positive. Sure, there was a little awkwardness at times, but I stayed in the background. The death of a loved one isn’t about the minister, it’s about grieving and loving the family.

Several former members showed me great love and said extremely kind things to me that I will cherish forever. My former head deacon, the one who had first found out about my adultery and reacted with such great disappointment, approached me right before the funeral and said, “You know I love you, don’t you?” I said, “I do. And I love you too.”

About an hour before the service, the funeral director wanted to change the order of service a little. I was to give my normal eulogy, but he wanted me to add a small five minute talk between a couple of songs. I thought, “No problem.” I had her bible in my hand and I went to the Psalms. She had marked up her bible, noting passages that were very important to her. The Psalms are always very important to people and always help people who are grieving. I decided I would share part of the Psalm she had marked the most.

I thumbed furiously through her bible and found it. But it couldn’t be right. I looked again. And again. It was Psalm 51, David’s prayer of repentance. She had marked a set of verses halfway through and written the following statement, “A life lived in Christ is a life lived with virtue for all to see.” She had touched my life so many times before and she had done it again, even in passing.

I rose to the podium and read these words: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;  you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;  a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:14-17 ESV)

I remember when I interviewed Hershael York, professor from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, for my book, he told me two things that really stuck with me. First, he told me that if people were going to be mad at me for my fall, let them. I was the one who sinned and created the situation. I had to show them grace and love because it was something I expected as well.

Secondly, he told me, “Your repentance has to be more notorious than your sin.” I don’t know if I’m quite there yet. I do know that when I was done with the funeral, people were grieving. No attention was being paid to me. That’s the way it should be. People came and shook my hand and said, “You knew her, thank you for your words.” And that was it. That was what it was supposed to be about.

There was a fellowship meal after the graveside at my former church. I went for a little bit, but left. On my way out, a close friend of hers chased me out of the church and stopped me in the parking lot. He said, “I want you to know something about her. She never judged you for what you did. She always loved you.”I hugged him and told him thank you.

That was something I needed to hear. And it was worth more than anyone will ever know. I am thankful for my God, who continually works to restore His people, reconcile them to one another and to Himself.

The Christ Who Overshadows Failure

I’ve always had a nagging question in my mind after my fall. “Will the people of my former church remember any of the good I did for eight years or will it be overshadowed by my sin?”

Last weekend, we heard of a former church member whose father died. The family no longer attends the church and we’ve run into them recently. They were very gracious to us, especially their oldest daughter who has been taking the death of her grandfather particularly hard.

Allison, the girls and I decided to stop by visitation. That always makes me nervous. My motivation is right. I want to comfort. But I’m always aware that others there might see me as being less than sincere. I went anyway.

When we arrived, the mom welcomed us with hugs and so did her daughter. We talked for a bit about grief and loss. Then, the mom told me a story.

“When my dad was in the last week of his life, my daughter (she’s about 12) asked if grandpa was going to heaven. I told her I wasn’t sure but that it might be a good question to ask him while he was in ICU.

“When we got to the hospital, she asked if she could be alone with him for a bit. I watched her talk to him for a while, then next thing I knew, she was lying on top of him and they were both crying. She came out and said he had accepted Christ.”

The daughter spoke next: “Bro. Ray, all I did was tell him the same things you told me when I got saved and baptized.”

I was a broken man at that moment. The tears were flowing.

I said, “I’m so proud of you!”

Allison said, “Most adults can’t even lead someone to Jesus, I’m proud of you.”

I shared with them how sad I was about their loss, but because of Christ, we have the knowledge we will all be reunited. We prayed and left.

I thought for a while about that beautiful moment. I had been anxious about whether people had remembered any good I had done. I was making the same mistake I had made over and over in ministry.

It’s not about me. All my righteousness is as filthy rags. That little girl remembered the most important treasure of my time there – the gospel. And she passed it on. And any good that will be remembered will be because Christ was there.

His light casts a much longer shadow than any of our darkness.

Mother’s Day: Hope Amidst Tragedy

May 8, when it falls on a Mother’s Day, does not hold much promise for my emotional state.

Seventeen years ago, my college roommate, Scott Cook, was killed in a car accident along with four other students on the way home from a mission trip on Mother’s Day. One by one, they fell asleep just a few miles out from the university. There were just a few days left in the semester.

That day changed a lot of lives, not just my own. He had not returned after our freshman year but had come back for my junior year. He was a changed man. God had called him to ministry and his life was changed. Scott’s life, and death, changed mine. Every year, I remember this day and celebrate his life, but still remember the sorrow that surrounded his death.

Of course, May 8th always falls around Mother’s Day. My mom died in a car accident in 2008 the day before Christmas Eve. Her death and the tragedy of it still resonates soundly in my mind and heart. She had come to live in this community after the divorce between her and my father in 2005 and was a part of my life. She was my best friend. Then suddenly, she was gone.

Mother’s Day weekend is typically not very good for me. And there are a lot of people across the country who feel the same way about it. People who have lost mothers, wives, sisters, or who have had other tragic losses and Mother’s Day is nothing but a grim reminder of what we don’t have anymore.

Sure, we have the promise of being reunited once again with our loved ones after death. We know that they rest with Christ. I get that.

But when I sat in church today, all I could remember were those days when Mom was a member of the church I pastored. Those great Mother’s Days when she was there.

We’d hand out the goofy little pens or books to the moms that probably got lost in couch cushions across the community, but I would always take Mom hers. I felt like a little six year old walking up to her with a flower I had just picked in the backyard. All I wanted to do is let her know I loved her. To tell her “thanks, Mom, for all that you’ve done. I can never repay it, but you’ve saved me over and over. I hope I can make you proud someday.”

When I was in kindergarten, we made these necklaces for Mother’s Day one year. The teacher must have been looking to waste time, because looking back, they were an awful idea. But, man, I thought it was awesome. It was a string of paperclips put together with little pieces of wallpaper taped to each section of paperclip. I picked out some awful looking piece of wallpaper, but at the time, I thought it was cool. I took it home to Mom on Friday and gave it to her proudly.

Sunday came around and she was getting ready for church. I looked on the dresser and my pathetic looking necklace was lying there. Some of the pieces of wallpaper were already losing their tape. She was putting on a gold chain. I looked back and forth between the necklaces. Tears started welling up in my eyes.

“Mommy? Aren’t you going to wear my necklace?” Poor Mom. I swear for a second she thought about rolling her eyes, but she snapped that gold chain off and put my sorry looking wallpaper and paper clip monstrosity around her neck. And she wore it to First Baptist Russellville that Sunday.

Proudly. And I walked next to her proudly. Holding her hand and smiling. Because she was proud of me and what I had done.

We went to go see my sister the weekend before Mom died tragically. Mom’s mother had passed away decades before, but her mind was still filled with grief over her own mother as we celebrated the holiday. I didn’t know it at the time.

On the way back, we stopped at a Chili’s. The bill came and Mom grabbed it. I said, “No, Mom, I’m getting it.”

She said, “I’ve got it, Son. Let Mom take care of it. You’re always going to be my little boy. I’m so proud of you. I love you.”

Two weeks later I thought of that moment and wept like a baby. Even now while I think of that moment, the tears are hard to fight back.

So what can any of us do? Those of us who have sorrow this weekend? My roommate’s death weighs heavy on my heart again this year. Mom’s presence is on my mind. Eventually, her birthday will come, then the holidays, and I’ll be thinking about my father as well, who died in an accident.

Well, the best thing to do is listen to Mom. She loved to blog. That weekend that we went to visit my sister, when she got home, Mom blogged about her pain and missing her Mom. This was read at her funeral and has served me well since her death. She was a wise woman and her words ring true today, now, more than ever:

Saturday was one of those really tough days we have to endure as adults. Despite my personal heartache it was a time to have some laughter and to enjoy seeing my 3 granddaughters playing together. We went to visit Dave, MAC and Maggie for a few hours, to have some celebration of Christmas together and to enjoy fellowship; and although it was a day of deep personal hurt, the passing of my mother some years ago, I got through it pretty well.

Remembering those we love is expected, keeping on living in the moment is a necessity; blending the two is sometimes difficult. However, the sound of happiness and laughter is always welcome; even when the soul is weighed heavy with sorrow.

Love you, Mom.

Descent Into Sin, Part One: Tragedy

I started retelling my story last time with a short prelude into how I ended up in the ministry. Strange how we can summarize our lives into one blog post.

I’ve talked to a lot of fallen pastors and have found that before their fall, they experience crisis or tragedy. The same was true for me. However, even if tragedy or crisis strikes, each fallen pastor I have spoken to is careful to point out that their sin is still their sin. There was no excuse for what they did.

I don’t write about the tragedies that occurred before my fall to garner pity, only to let you know that a fall just doesn’t “happen.” There are a typically a myriad of swirling circumstances around the event that contribute to a fall.

My parents divorced in 2005 and my mother moved to our little community. She was devastated by the divorce and I was angry at my father. He and I had never had a very good relationship. The divorce didn’t help much, either. Mom was an instant hit with my two daughters. They had never had a grandparent so readily accessible. She doted on them and played Barbies with them like there was no tomorrow.

In February of 2007, my father died in an accident when he fell. He was living about an hour away and our relationship had slightly improved, but I still harbored much resentment toward him. I sought counseling after he died to deal with my anger and hatred toward him.

I thought that his death would remove the bitterness I felt in my life, but I was wrong. It was still there, festering.

The next year, we had a crisis in the church. I won’t detail it here, but suffice it to say it was a small situation that got blown out of proportion. It lasted for at least six months. We tried to ignore it, hoping that it would go away, but it didn’t. Feelings were hurt, people left, and it kept me awake at night. It was one of the worst stretches of my pastorate. In fact, I was starting to send out resumes. I was beginning to hate the ministry. All I wanted to do was preach, but the nagging crisis was all I could see before me.

While the crisis was still going on, Christmas 2008 was fast approaching. I was hoping the New Year would bring some peace and resolution.

I traveled with my wife and children to see her family in a neighboring state. Mom stayed behind at home to get ready for Christmas. On the way out of town, we even saw her in her car and waved to her on the way out of town. That was December 22nd.

The next morning, I awoke with a horrible feeling. I wasn’t sure what was wrong, but I knew something was out of sorts. I called Mom. No answer. I called again. Still no answer. That wasn’t like her. She was OCD like me and always had a phone with her. I called and called and called.

I soon found out that she had been in a car accident. She had hit a sheet of ice and slipped off the road and hit a tree.

We left my wife’s family’s house and began to drive back home. On the way, I received a call from a hospital near Nashville. Mom was gone.

I have no way to tell you how I felt. Those of you who have lost loved ones suddenly to tragedy know how it feels. And when you lose them near a holiday, you know how intense it is. And more, you know what it’s like to have to tell your kids. I had to break my kids’ hearts that day.

We finally got back home and I had to go to Nashville and identify her body. Thankfully, one of my deacons did that for me. When we got back to the church, many of the members were there. They had been praying and mourning. It was a beautiful moment for me. Most of them didn’t know what to say to me, but that was okay. I didn’t know what to say either. They loved on me and hugged me. And I loved them right back.

I was in complete despair. Utter grief overtook my soul. My mother was my prayer warrior. She was the only one in my life who listened to my perils, my hurts, and my complaints. No one else did that for me. And now, she was gone.

Back to counseling I went, but I was numb to it.

There was another family tragedy that befell us just a few months later, but I cannot write about it. Let it be said that I was broken by that point. Was I going out looking for comfort? No. Was I searching for sin? No. But I was numb to everything. I had no purpose. No one understood me and I didn’t think anyone was listening either.

What I Miss About Pastoring: Pastoral Care

I never, ever thought I’d say this. Not in a million years. But after my fall, I found myself missing pastoral care.

If I could travel back in time to two years ago and visit myself and say, “Hey, Arthur, you’re going to miss visiting shut-ins, sick people, making phone calls, chasing down absent members, and all that good stuff,” the Arthur of two years ago would have laughed until his spleen busted. 
I don’t know if it’s just limited to Southern Baptist ministers, but most of us aren’t very fond of pastoral care. Maybe I should rephrase that. We prefer preaching over pastoral care.
You’ve probably heard it said that a minister is either really good at preaching or visiting. Even the guys I know that excel at visiting would rather be preaching.
Prepare yourself for a reality check. I heard a pastor refer to Wednesday night prayer meeting as “organ recital.” I said, “what do you mean?”
He said, just listen to the prayer requests. “Pray for Uncle Bob’s liver. Pray for Tom’s kidney. Pray for Joe Bob’s lung problem. Pray for Sue Ellen’s eyes.” He said, “Organ recital. No prayers for the lost. Just their organs.”
That’s the kind of stuff that makes pastors cynical. But he was right.
At first, it’s not so bad when you’re a young pastor. You want to get out there and visit, visit, visit. But then you realize that everyone in the church wants you to see their relatives, shut-ins, long lost members and your sermon preparation time is dwindling.
Then comes the dreaded moment – one of your church members was in the hospital and you didn’t go see them. However, no one told you. But it’s still your fault. You feel awful. You apologize profusely. If you’re lucky, they live. If you’re not, you carry a burden for a long time. If they do live, you might be constantly ribbed about it by them.
This, despite the fact, that you pray for your people all the time. You tell them to call you when people get sick. Friends, the job of a pastor in the realm of pastoral care is difficult. Pastors are not omnipresent or omniscient. I know that’s a shock.
Something else, I don’t know why it’s been called “pastoral care.” The care of the members of the church should not be limited to the pastor. Yes, he should visit the shut-ins, the ill and infirm. However, it is the job of the entire congregation to minister to the entire body of believers. However, this job in the American church has fallen squarely upon the pastor in most congregations. It shouldn’t be that way. Anyway, on to the blog . . .
Today, I visited my lovely wife at work. I had the day off and had lunch with her. While I was there, I ran into Marlee and Rich, a couple I had been terribly judgmental of while at Angel Falls but had reconciled with before I left.
I hadn’t had any serious contact with them since my fall, but saw them in the parking lot and I caught them somewhat off guard. I spoke to them and wanted to reach out to them. Rich’s dad had been ill when I had left Angel Falls and I still loved this couple and hoped they would respond to me.
At worst, they could ignore me and walk away. That would be fine. I had hurt them. At best, they could speak to me. I would receive that as God’s grace. I am at a place now where any kind of reception or kindness from the people at Angel Falls is God’s grace. I long for reconciliation.
Rich came right over to me and smiled and shook my hand like we were old friends. He told me that his father was in poor health and about to die. I listened as he recounted the past week of his father’s illness and told him I would be praying for him. The fact that he mentioned his father let me know that on some level he still trusted me. He connected with me.
It immediately hit me how much I missed pastoral care.
When I was a pastor, I would whine about the house visits, the calls, and the “organ recitals.” But now, I found myself longing for those moments. I realized that those moments were the moments Christ gives us as pastors. Those are the moments we are given to love people where they are, in their hurt, in their most vulnerable times.
We perceive that we are being put out of our way because we have more important things to do. We have sermons to prepare. We have errands to run. We have lives to live.
For shut-ins, they have walls to stare at. For the ill, they have stomachs churning and an uncertain future. For the depressed and anxious, they have a mind aswirl of impatience and horrible thoughts.
As pastors, we think of our time. Our inconvenience. I wish I had seen it then. God forgive me. I could have gone home, kissed my children, made room in my schedule somewhere. God would have provided me those moments to prepare for my sermon. For what is more important in this life than people? He will provide.
The moments that stand out to me when I think of my pastorate are not of great sermons I preached. They are of lives God allowed me to touch. They are of the moments I spent beside people who were dying. They are of the times when I was praying alongside the ill or those who needed Christ.
Was it a sermon? No, but it was the Word. It was Christ Himself, active within me, living inside me, working through me. Yes, the sermons were alive and active, penetrating. Not because of me, but because of Him.
What I really wish I had done more is gone out, like my current pastor Brad. He just goes out in the expectation that people will be saved. Armed with the gospel of Christ and loves people like they are.
I miss preaching funerals. I miss being there for people who hurt after a loved one dies, hearing the stories of their departed loved one and then sharing those stories in a way that honors the one who passed.
I miss going to visit Mr. and Mrs. McGillicutty who used to go to Angel Falls 20 years ago but now live in an old trailer with no one to talk to. I visited them twice a month. No one else would. They have no children or family. They loved to see me coming. I had the church build them a ramp so they could get into their trailer easier. I loved them even though they never heard me preach. They were precious to the Lord so they were precious to me.
I miss seeing Mrs. Law. She came for about two years of my pastorate until she couldn’t drive anymore. Frankly, she shouldn’t have been driving those two years. She could talk your ear off. She would call me whenever she wanted. When you visited her, you better have at least two hours to spend, or an escape route, because she would go on for a long time. She had three children who ignored her and were just waiting for her to die to get her inheritance. I have 20 stories about her to tell. She’s still alive and I love her. She’s 90. Hope she outlives her kids.
I miss seeing people. I know now what it means to love as Christ loved. I missed an opportunity. Maybe one day I’ll have that chance again.
 
If you’re a pastor and you’re reading this – don’t visit cheaply. Listen to your people. Visit the elderly like they’re your parents or grandparents. Visit them like it’s the last time you’ll see them.
Church members, listen. Call your pastor when you’re in the hospital. Don’t overwhelm him with stupid stuff. If you have a toenail surgery, don’t bother him. If he heads off to Disney World with his family, leave him alone. The man needs space.
The church is the body of Christ. Minister to one another. Love one another. You all belong to each other. Act like it.

Margaret: A Friend Late In Life

Cynthia and I went to a funeral today of a sweet woman whom we knew for only eight months. Her name was Margaret. She was a member of the church we joined while we were waiting for my divorce to go final right before we were married. It was the church where my pastor friend Kyle worked.

Her and her husband Peter were married over 60 years and they loved us from the moment they met us. Their son Graham was a little older than us and he took to me immediately. I told him our story and he didn’t judge us at all. Graham eventually told Margaret and Peter our story, but it didn’t matter to either of them what Cynthia and I had done, they loved us just the same. We were like children to them.

Each Sunday and Wednesday, Peter would see me and give me a big hug and so would Margaret. They doted on us and our children like we were their own.

When I had the occasion to preach, they would say the kindest things to me and encourage me. They both filled for me the void that many church members had not over the years. When we eventually had the falling out with Kyle, (which has now been reconciled), Margaret called and called, begging us to come back to church there.

Recently, she fell ill and was hospitalized. We visited her almost every day for the week and a half she was ill. Unfortunately, she had a stroke and never recovered.

Peter, Graham and the family asked me to be a pallbearer at the funeral and I was asked to read a poem.

Last night, Cynthia and I shared some thoughts about that. How is it that we were able to find such amazing love from such beautiful people whom we had known for only a few months? Here was a woman who had lived for over 80 years on this earth and she and her husband loved us more than anyone else in this community ever had.

They looked past our sin and saw us as people. Just a young couple with three children who needed help during a difficult time. They’ll never know how much that meant to us.

Today, for the first time since I gave a book report in junior high, I shook as I talked to an audience. I shook out of emotion.

I said, “Thank you to the family for the honor of being a pallbearer. I’m a Johnny come lately in Miss Margaret’s life. My wife Cynthia and I knew her and her husband Peter during the worst time in our lives. But she saw past our trouble and loved us for who we were and loved us like we were her own children.”

Friends, I am desperate for that kind of love in this world. And I am desperate to love others like that. Thank God for women like Miss Margaret and men like Peter who do just that.

I pray that her love will continue to live in her children, her grandchildren, and in me and Cynthia. She was a small woman, but her heart was big enough to fill mine and restore it with the hope I needed.

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