And then there was one


And then there was one.

I’m counting down the number of sermons I’m going to preach in this beloved church before I leave.  After today I see one more on the calendar.  And then I’m done.  Auf Wiederluege.

I’ll say this much: it’s not easy.  There’s so much emotion.  But there’s also this: freedom, the kind of freedom that I didn’t feel at the beginning and that I’m guessing no one, not even the best of preachers, feels right away.

But I feel it now.

I should point out that the freedom I feel is not the desire to tell anyone off.  You might think that with only one more sermon to go I might feel like letting it rip.  Doesn’t everyone have a fantasy about telling someone – an employer? – what you really think and then walking out the door?

But that’s not what I’m tempted to do.  Early in my ministry – I regret it now – I got something off my chest in a sermon.  I wrote it out, calculated it, timed it, relished it – only to find out later that the person I most wanted to hear it wasn’t in the congregation that Sunday.  I never attempted such a thing again.  I’m ashamed that I even did it once.

No, the desire right now is to preach with emotional honesty.  Not that previous sermons in this church have been dishonest, but there’s always a kind of holding back.  You don’t express everything in a sermon.  You can’t.  At least I can’t.  Laughter and tears aren’t a good idea every single week.  I would wear myself out, and I know I’d wear out my congregation.

But right now, in this sweet spot between announcing my departure and leaving, I find myself wanting to say everything with transparency and honesty. It’s hard work, but it’s important.

I know I’ll never get this opportunity again.

(Photo credit: That’s me, but not my publicity photo. If you have an iPad, you know how much fun it is to explore all of the features.)

Turning 60

marilynne robinson 2

“I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books.”

That’s Marilynne Robinson in Gilead, easily one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read.

I reached for her book last night because I’m fast approaching a milestone birthday and because the book is in the form of a letter written by an – ahem – older pastor to his toddler son.  The pastor is dying, knows it, and wants his son to know who he was.

There’s more to the book than that, of course, but that’s the narrative framework.  (An 80-year-old pastor with a toddler son isn’t a bad narrative feature either.)

In addition to the wonderful way Robinson strings her words together, I’m struck by how well she understands the way a pastor might think – not only the small-town pastor in Iowa whose thoughts we read in her book, but my own thoughts and worries and doubts.

As I read the book, I realize that she’s speaking for me, if only I could speak with such insight:

“That’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.”

I’ve thought often about writing a memoir about my ministry, but the stories I could tell no one would believe.  They’d think I was making it up.  But the truth is, any pastor who’s been around as long as I have has seen it all.  And if not all of life, then a big enough hunk of it to be amazed and appalled and humbled.

Human beings are capable of so much – so much that is good and lovely, but also so much that is ugly and unseemly.  I wonder sometimes at how much pain people bear, how much hurt they endure, how indescribably cruel their lives have been.  And then I wonder at how resilient they turn out to be, how they go on, how they find the inner resources to live good, caring lives.

I’m coming up on a birthday tomorrow that I somehow didn’t see coming.  It was always out there in the distance somewhere and nothing to worry about.  And now it’s here, in just a few hours.  So, I find myself thinking about what I’ve learned and what I know to be true and what I would pass along – to a toddler son or to anyone who cared to listen.

And it’s my gratitude for the gift of life.

“Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

(Photo:  That’s Marilynne Robinson.)

Saying goodbye

saying goodbye

Saying goodbye is never easy.

Even the times when I thought it would be easy, when I was glad to leave, when I couldn’t wait to walk out the door, I realized later that it hurt, that I had no idea how attached I had become.

I brought our cat to be put down one time.  She had not been my idea.  I resisted her, but as often happens when the kids grow up and leave home and forget that they had begged and pleaded for a tiny kitten, I became her primary care-giver.

She curled up in my lap every morning while I read the newspaper.  I didn’t invite her, but she climbed up anyway.  I also fed her and scooped her litter box.

And so when I brought her to be put down, I thought it would be no big deal.  “Do you want to hold her while we kill her?” They didn’t say that, of course, but that’s what I heard.  “Do you want to hold her while we administer this lethal injection that will render her lifeless in a second or two?”

I held her.

And then I brought her home in an old blanket and buried her in the woods behind our home.  What a lousy job.  No one prepared me for how terrible I would feel for days afterward.  How did I ever become attached to an animal who seemed to sleep for 23 hours a day?

Saying goodbye, I’ve found, is almost always a kind of death.

As excited as I am to begin this new chapter in my life, as excited as I am to realize this dream of living and working abroad,  as sure as I am that God has prepared me for just this moment in my life, I can feel the toll that it’s taking on me.

Someone hugs me after church yesterday, has a really good grip on me, and whispers into my ear, “I’m going to miss you.”  I say, “I’m going to miss you too.”  And it’s true.  I’m going to miss a lot of people.  Some of them I’m going to miss acutely.  How can you not miss a group of people to whom you’ve given just about every waking hour of the day for the last several years?

I looked at my congregation as I stood in the pulpit yesterday, and it was almost more than I could bear.  I don’t know every person well, true, but I know a lot of them.  I’ve officiated at weddings and funerals and baptisms for their family members.  I’ve held their hands in hospital rooms.  I’ve called late at night to ask if they’re okay.  I’ve listened to them tell me things that they haven’t told a single other person in the whole world.

How do you say goodbye to people you have loved from the first time you met them?

I still have two more Sundays.  I’m not sure how it will be possible to stand in front of them two more times.  A week ago I tried humor which, I can report, did not go over very well.  I tried to lighten the mood, but it was not a good decision.

A few people laughed, but my humor is usually received better than that.  I realized that this is not a time for laughter.

Unfortunately, if I don’t laugh, I will cry.  I will take a pocket full of tissues for my last day.

Reading for Preaching

bookshelves loaded with books

I read.  In fact, I read a lot.

I read for pleasure, mostly, but I also read for my work, my ministry.  After all these years my book shelves are sagging under the weight of books, and so I’ve had to cull the herd, a painful process.

It was in an introduction to preaching class at seminary that I first realized what I would have to do to be able to preach week in and week out over a lifetime in ministry.  I would need an active spiritual and devotional life, of course, but I would also have to be a reader.

The preaching professor encouraged – no, sternly charged – my classmates and me to read.  And he was very specific about what a preacher could be expected to read.

I dutifully wrote out what he said: one national daily newspaper (which in his mind could only mean the New York Times), one weekly newsmagazine (in those days Time and Newsweek were indispensable and could be counted on to provide valuable quotes), one major work of theology each year, one book on preaching each year (either a sermon collection or a book about the theology of preaching), novels, histories, books of poetry, and biographies.  I might have missed something.

It was a daunting assignment.  But for me it couldn’t have been more thrilling.  It was an invitation to a full, rich life.  I had always been a reader, and now, well, it would be an expected part of my life.  I could lie on the sofa with a book in my hand and say to my wife, “Sorry, sweetheart, I’m working now.”

Mostly I’ve followed this regimen. And mostly I’ve loved it.  But here’s the thing: I now realize the truth of what I was told – namely, that reading would make me a better preacher.  I believe it has.

Reading has improved my vocabulary (this isn’t about sounding more learned, which has never been a goal for me in preaching, but it made my preaching livelier and more interesting to listen to); reading has taught me how to be a better story teller; and reading has shown me how to take a reader (or listener) from one point to another, what I like to think of as the narrative arc of the sermon.

I don’t know where I’d be as a preacher if I didn’t read.  I’ve listened to some preachers over the years who couldn’t preach their way out of a wet paper bag, and I would find myself wondering if they had ever read a book or even a newspaper.

So, I was thrilled in the last few days to read my friend Neal Plantinga’s new book, Reading for Preaching, in which he essentially makes the same argument.  And not only does he make a compelling case for the importance of reading, he demonstrates what he believes.

His writing is rich and compelling.  He makes wooden theological concepts come alive through references to popular culture and literature and news.  He writes in a way that draws in the reader.  In other words, he doesn’t make the reader work to get his point.

I will probably keep reading long after I’ve given up preaching.  Reading has become an old and reliable friend.

But for now I’m reading because my preaching depends on it.

reading for preaching