“I love you!”

the-shackoctaviaLast Monday was one of those days.

It started just after our weekly Pastoral Ministry Team meeting, when someone told me that one of our Sunday school teachers didn’t care for the robe I had been wearing in the pulpit (see previous post).  I shrugged it off as one person’s opinion but then, later that afternoon, got a long email from a former deacon chair who felt the same way.  Although he was very respectful and his points were argued from a theological standpoint, they left a bad taste in my mouth.

Nobody really loves criticism.

So, at three o’clock I was gathering my things to go to Starbucks, where I typically begin my week-long sermon-writing process, but I wasn’t feeling the energy I usually feel for creative work.  I decided to answer a few phone calls first and one of them was from a television viewer who had asked if I could go by and visit his wife in the hospital.  He hadn’t told me which hospital, so I called him for details.

He said she was in Sheltering Arms in Mechanicsville, a long way from my office on Monument Avenue, but he would really appreciate it if I could go by.  And then he said, “We’ve been married for 66 years.”  And that’s when I realized this was an act of love.  His wife was in a rehab hospital.  He didn’t know if she’d ever come home.  He was feeling helpless when he had this thought:

“Maybe the preacher would go and see her.”

Thousands of people tune in to our broadcast each week.  I certainly can’t respond to every request.  But I was able to put myself in this man’s shoes on Monday, and realized that if it was my wife in the hospital I would want the preacher to say yes.

I didn’t make any promises on the phone, but as soon as I hung up I knew I was going.  I got a little turned around at one point and ended up driving four miles in the wrong direction.  I knew at that point I wasn’t going to make it to Starbucks that afternoon.  But I did eventually make it to his wife’s room, and her face lit up when I walked in the door.

“It’s the preacher!” she said.

Her husband wasn’t there, but we had a good, long visit, and I was grateful for every minute.  Her name was Mary, my mother’s name, and it turns out she was born in the same year, almost the same month.  We made all those connections and I said, “My mother is in a nursing home in West Virginia.  It’s a three-hour drive each way.  I don’t get there nearly as often as I would like, but visiting with you is like having a visit with her.  Thank you.”  She smiled (a beautiful smile) and said she was honored.

On the way back to my car I was crossing the parking lot when a woman going the other direction suddenly stopped, looked at me, and said, “I love you!”

I was a little surprised.

She said, “That didn’t come out right.  What I mean is, I watch you on TV every Sunday and I love your sermons.”  I said, “I think I liked it better the first way.”  We both laughed.  I asked her name and she gave me a hug and then we went our separate ways, but I got in my car thinking the whole visit had been a gift from God.

Years ago I learned that whenever the work of ministry began to take its toll on me (and it does; believe me) the best thing I could do was to get in my car and go and visit someone.  I remember sitting on a church member’s front porch years ago, drinking sweet tea, and realizing that I was the one being ministered to.  Ever since, I’ve tried to overcome the “blues” of ministry by going to see someone who needs a visit, and remembering why I answered the call.  And every once in a while God shows up in the person of a complete stranger, shouting at me across the parking lot:

“I love you!”


The photograph above is of Octavia Spencer, who played the role of God the Father (“Papa”) in the film version of William Paul Young’s “The Shack,” and who bears a superficial resemblance to the woman who said “I love you!” in the parking lot.

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