Thursday, October 9, 2008

Thank you, Charlie

     A couple weeks ago, Bishop Scarfe commented what a fun parish I seemed to have.  I know Bishop Scarfe feels one of his gifts of the Spirit is discernment, so I took the compliment and observation the way he meant it.  Sometimes, in the midst of the pastoral messes we all deal in, it is hard to remember just how good a church one can be privileged in which to serve.  Such is my current situation, and the bishop's observation proved true.

     Sunday, after church was over, a visitor came and asked me for help with food.  We have a bit of history with this lady and her family.  They moved here without a plan, without a job, and without a place to land.  Her boyfriend was "being forced" to leave their previous state because of the vindictive "ex."  Naturally, the two adults made no plans without considering the effect that such actions might have upon the children.  But, ours is to trust that He will redeem all things.

     I had helped her get started in Angel Food, but she had decided to drop out.  I had helped her meet with a landlord who seemed awfully defensive in the presence of a member of the clergy, but she had eschewed any gains to her benefit for some short term gains.  She had come to me needing help with other parts of her life.  And Sunday, she had dropped in for the second half of church.

    As I finished dealing with everything and everybody after church, I went into the library.  Charlie was there changing clothes to help unload the semi of pumpkins which were running 28 hours late.  I remarked to Charlie that I hated to meet with this lady.  Charlie asked why.  He listened to me bitch about how she seems to reject every chance to be helped, how she seems oblivious to the harm she is causing the children, how the man she has chosen for herself seems to be oblivious to the needs of both herself and the kids, and a few other gripes.  Charlie asked why I was in such a bad mood.  I told him because she was wasting our help.  We sure don't have an excess of resources that we can waste them on people who do not want to help themselves.  And, in as lovingly a manner as possible, Charlie commented that he was glad Jesus did not share my attitude.  Just like that, I had been punched in the nose.

     Charlie asked me if we had some food.  I told him we did.  Charlie said that one of the things he took from our trips to Cedar Rapids a couple years ago was my willingness to let God decide where to spend our resources.  If anyone had need, and we had resources, I took that to mean that I should help.  If we had no resources, all I could do was offer a prayer.  Charlie reminded me that if God did not want me to help this lady, He would have steered others here first.  He did not; so He must have a plan for her.  To think that Charlie, who regaled me with tales of his colonoscopies and 20 year marriage (not to the same woman, mind you) anniversary in the wee hours before dawn as we traveled to Cedar Rapids to pick up food to feed the hungry, would have listened to me and used my own words to convict me.  I groused my thanks to Charlie, grabbed a box, filled it, and took it out to her in the parish hall.  Had Charlie not just given me my spiritual wedgie a couple minutes earlier, I might have exploded when she complained that there was too much food and she really did not want to have to carry it home.  I told her that others had needs and she could leave some of it if she desired.  Needless to say, she let none of it.

     Bishop Scarfe was spot-on when he said I had a great church.  He had laughed that no one had been appointed his shepherd during his visit.  When he visited, we did not care if he sat with the wardens or the "crazy aunt/uncle" that everyone tries to save him from in other parishes.  Many had remarked how sorry that they were he had missed the water wars -- some because they wanted to see him at play, others because they wanted to get him (and all because we found a cool purple water pistol).  And while the parish does not stand on too many high liturgical practices, they have some but were more than willing to follow his lead.  And, when the priest needs a good dressing down, they are more than willing to do that too.

     As I was sharing the story with the Roses and Thorn Bible Study this morning, a couple remarked that I should be proud of Charlie's, and Jan's, and Julie's, and Robin's, and Larry's (and the list went on and on) reactions when I needed some good counseling.  But, for some reason, they were pleased how I took their admonishments.  Unlike some clergy in their past, I did not respond with anger or "how dare he/she's".  And better still, I was willing to share that story with them.  Some clergy might be afraid that their authority might be undermined by admitting their mistakes.  I laughed.  I never wanted this.  I did everything I could to avoid it.  Bishop Scarfe knows I probably did a fair amount to try and sabotage the process.  Yet, through it all, He would not be thwarted.  How could I be so blase about my shortcomings?  Trust me I am not.  I detest failure, especially in myself.

     Yet, I shared with them an image which has stuck in my mind since early in seminary.  I may have read it in one of Eugene Peterson's books, maybe Gavin or Les or Leander or Grant had said it.  Maybe God had simply spoken it into my head to deal with my ego.  Pastoring, I told them, is hard when the shepherd is really no different from the sheep.  Most of the time, I am like them:  selfish, focused on my own needs, railing against God for His unwillingness to act in my benefit, and other such sins.  Like them, I need to be led to those green pastures and holy city.  Mercifully, from time to time, He allows me to stand on two legs and look where I am going.  It may be the briefest of glances, and I will not see all the briars and ridges and pitfalls, but I will know the general direction in which I and the flock He has given to my care should be headed.  My thought, my hope and prayer, is that others get that glance from time to time and help me keep His flock from veering too far of course.

     Of course, the lady's response to our offer is no different from many people's response to Christ's offer of salvation.  We get so focused upon what we want, that we become unwilling to do what He wants.  He would embrace us, and we put it off.  He wants to end our loneliness, and we are determined to make our own plans.  He gave up so much; and we act as if it was no bid deal when He became man and suffered for our sake on the cross.  Unlike me and the rest of us, He did all that knowing how we would act.  Is there a greater love?  I just pray that our visitor is granted those eyes to perceive, ears to hear, and heart to understand what He has had us do in His name and to join us on that wonderful pilgrimage where the sheep must sometimes lead the pastor.


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