Note: This is the third in a series of personal letters to my congregation, and although I don’t mention it anywhere in this post this picture of Charley Ozmore honking my nose during his dedication (above) seems like the perfect illustration of the joys of ministry.
One of the privileges of being a pastor is that you get invited into some of your congregation’s most intimate moments:
- When you learn that a baby has been born, and go by the hospital to celebrate with the elated new father and the exhausted new mother.
- When a young man sits on the couch in your study reciting his carefully rehearsed reasons for wanting to be baptized while his parents look on with pride.
- When a couple comes for pre-marital counseling, and sits there blushing while you talk about the joys and challenges of married life.
- When you get the call that someone has died, and drive to the home to sit with the grieving family.
Those moments can come at any time, and they do, but they come most often on Sundays, because that’s when we all get together for worship, and Bible study, and fellowship. And some of the most intimate moments come when you least expect them. Here are just a few from this past Sunday:
- Before I even got to Flamming Hall for the 8:45 fellowship time I stepped into the sanctuary to make sure everything was ready for worship and found Emma and Madelyn El-Khouri waiting patiently while their parents rehearsed for their part in the service. Madelyn jumped off the front pew, ran to me, and hugged me hard. It’s just what she does when she sees me, but it was one of those moments that made me glad I’m a pastor.
- I was standing waist-deep in the baptistery, behind the curtain, getting ready to make my big entrance during the 9:30 worship service, when I looked back to see if Suzanne McCown (who was being baptized that morning) was ready to go with me. What I saw was Suzanne wiping tears from her face, overcome with emotion at the thought of what was about to happen. She had told me earlier she thought of this as kind of a “wedding day,” when she would make her solemn vows to Christ. How appropriate that the prelude on Sunday was the “Trumpet Voluntary” you’ve heard at so many weddings.
- After worship I stood near the piano to shake hands with people who were on their way to our “Altogether in August” Bible study in Flamming Hall. It’s not where I usually stand, and so I got to see people I don’t usually see. One of them was June Burton, who, from the moment I came to First Baptist, has offered me nothing but kindness. I was there when her husband Eddie died a few years ago and I did my best to help her walk through that grief. She wasn’t walking on Sunday; she was in a wheelchair. June has always been tiny but there she was in that child-sized chair and my first reaction was to bend down (way down) and give her a kiss on the cheek. She hugged my neck and told me she loved me and then it was my turn to wipe away tears.
- I went to Bible study for a few minutes but then, because I could, I went to worship with the deaf church (their service begins at 11:00 and I’m usually working at 11:00 on Sunday morning). I was there for the welcome, the call to worship, the first hymn, and let me just say: it’s different in deaf church. Sue Atkins[i] sat on the front pew “voicing” everything that was being signed, but other than that it was strangely silent. Strange to me, that is: absolutely normal for the majority of people in that room. I felt a connection to those brothers and sisters in that moment I don’t usually feel when we pass each other in the hallways and I offer my clumsy sign language version of “How are you?” I could see how they were worshiping in their “heart language,” instead of having someone interpret the spoken word (which is what we do when they come to worship with us in the “Hearing Church”). I watched one man nodding his head vigorously, as his new pastor, Dirk Hill, signed something I didn’t understand at all. This man was “getting it.” What Dirk was signing was helpful. And I marveled at the ministry going on just down the hall from where I usually preach.
See what can happen when you come to church on Sunday? Maybe it only happens if you’re the pastor, but I doubt it. I’m guessing all of you have experienced such moments. Maybe that’s why God makes it such a priority in his Top Ten list: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy!” And maybe one of the ways we keep it holy is by showing up…and paying attention.
See you this Sunday,
[i] When I got home I learned that Sue’s mother had died around noon. It wasn’t unexpected. Lee had been in hospice for weeks. But I thought how proud she would have been of her daughter, who left her bedside just long enough to help out with worship.