After 32 years of ordained ministry I’m still surprised by the effect I sometimes have on people.
And I realize that it’s not me so much as the office to which I’m ordained.
You might think I would have become used to it by now, but that hasn’t happened. And now I’m beginning to think my surprise will never go away.
The surprise comes when someone will say, “Remember ten years ago when you preached about …?” Of course I’ll nod my head vigorously, but will have no clue as to what sermon the person is talking about.
That person will say, “Well, I took what you said to heart, and here’s what I did.” And then I’ll hear a story about quitting a job or ending a relationship or moving to a new state or something. Yikes, I’ll think, you did that because of something I said?
I preached a sermon one time – this was more than 10 years ago – about how the small decisions we make in life add up, how most of our lives are a series of small decisions, and how we’re remembered often for the cumulative effect, not for one or two really big decisions we made. I happened to mention that pulling forward to the farthest gas pump instead of pulling up to the closest one (and making others drive around) might be an important decision to make, especially if it’s multiplied by dozens or even hundreds of times throughout our lives. I don’t think you could find those words in the manuscript, but they occurred to me and I said them.
And guess what? I received an email last week from someone who told me that he’s never forgotten that, that every time he pulls up to a gas pump he goes forward a bit to make things easier for the person who pulls up behind him. But more important, he remembered the point of the sermon and said he wanted to be remembered for all of the small and seemingly insignificant decisions that add up to a lifetime of behavior.
Another time I gave the baccalaureate address at Hanover College and titled it “Called to be a loser!” I was speaking mainly to the graduating class and telling them that we are sometimes called to lose what matters in this world in order to gain the things that have everlasting value. It didn’t occur to me that a parent might be listening in the bleachers somewhere and taking my words to heart.
A few months ago I received an email from a man who was there that day and tracked me down at my new church and wanted to let me know how much those words affected him. He left his job, enrolled in seminary, and is now serving a church on the other side of the country. He was hoping we would meet again sometime.
As I mentioned, I don’t think it’s me so much as my office. People come to church to sing and pray, yes, but mostly they come wondering if God might have a word for them.
And – surprise, surprise – sometimes they hear one.