“Have there been any surprises in your 30-plus years of ministry?” someone asked me this week.
“That’s a good question,” I said, looking thoughtful, using the time-honored method of stalling for time to think of an answer. “I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that before,” I said, still stalling.
“Why is this such a difficult question?” I thought to myself. “Haven’t I been surprised during my ministry? Aren’t I surprised each day?”
I have heard a great deal in my office over the years. People have revealed personal details about their lives that I never expected to hear, that I never wanted hear. They have spoken about heartbreak and cruelty.
Members of churches I have served over the years have been lied to, betrayed, and hurt in unspeakable ways. Some of them have endured so much evil that I wonder how they are able to go on.
But was any of that surprising? In a word, no. I listened to them, and I tried to absorb the meaning of what they were telling me, but was I surprised? I have to say no. Surprised – maybe – that they were telling me, surprised that they were trusting this information to me. But surprised that such things happen? No.
If anything, I’ve come to expect to hear those stories. I’ve learned that when someone sits in my office the story I will hear will more than likely break my heart. But it won’t surprise me.
I suppose the times in my ministry when I’ve been most surprised – and I’m surprised in a way to type this – have been those times when I’ve heard stories of thoughtfulness and caring, when I witness acts of kindness and sympathy, when I see someone speak up in a situation of injustice.
Then, I’m surprised. And usually moved to tears.
In a church I served several years ago, I announced one Sunday morning that a spike in fuel prices had resulted in an extraordinarily large heating bill for the month. I was sure no one knew what the church paid in utility bills each month, so I decided to let them know how a single bill had affected our budget.
Later that day a man came to my office with a check in his hand. It was made out for the exact amount of the utility bill. He said, “I want the church to have this because I don’t want any of our fine ministries to suffer.”
I said, “Thank you,” and he left. And after he had gone, I slumped in my chair and cried. My shoulders heaved. It had never occurred to me that anyone would think to do such a thing.
I was as surprised – and pleased – as I have ever been.