Showing Up

Showing Up January 22, 2014

I never know what to say when someone thanks me for making a hospital or home visit. A simple ‘you’re welcome’ will sometimes suffice. But at other times, people more than thank me. They say ‘I know you’re busy,’ and “I hate that you had to go to this trouble;’ ‘this is so important to my family,’ and maybe even ‘you’re so wonderful to come.’

‘You’re welcome’ doesn’t quite seem to cut it.

It almost feels like they’re thanking me for breathing. For enjoying a great dessert, for taking a walk on a gorgeous sunny day.

“Thank you for having the best job in the world; for accepting a pay check for the work of prayer, study, and spending time with wonderful people.”

Seriously, it’s an embarrassment of riches. “You’re welcome” just comes off a bit trite. At the same time…you don’t drag the family of a sick or dying person into a rambling meditation on the challenges and blessings of pastoral life. But if there WERE a time and place for that meditation–say, in a blog post to be written later–I might say something like this:

“You’re welcome. It is my pleasure. You know, the life of ministry is so strange. There’s no manual, no road map, and really no job description except for something to the effect of ‘be all the things, to all the people, ever.’ And some days it feels like you are absolutley NAILING it in that regard and some days…some days you maybe helped fix the toilet, and then spent the rest of the day staring at a stack of blank note cards, waiting for the Holy Spirit to show up with your sermon.

Then you spend a lot of time in meetings, and some of them are wonderfully productive, and some of them make you wish you’d been a park ranger, after all. And then you spend a LOT of time trying to interpret culture in light of scripture,  the Christian tradition in general, and one church’s story in the specific. You try to make some meaning out of all that mess, and articulate it without stepping on anyone’s political toes or moral sensibilities.

And THEN (deep breath here) you go to some conferences and read some books about leadership. About equipping disciples and empowering volunteers. About raising money. About running an organization. You learn about all the reasons the Church is dying, and how everything you do MIGHT JUST BE HELPING IT ALONG. You read some blog posts and articles and have some skype chats with friends about all these things you just read/heard at a conference, and then together you try like hell to project some theological and/or spiritual context back onto the whole thing, cause otherwise, you’re just the CEO and main marketing guy for Jesus. And maybe that’s just what you are anyway…

And then–then you think oh yeah, Jesus! And remember that the whole reason you signed on for this life was because you wanted to help feed hungry people and bring about world peace…and while you might have realized years ago that was not entirely your responsibility, you can’t help but note that not a single thing on your calendar this week is directly related to either of those interests.

While church life can be an exhausting sprint at times, my hunch is that the primary cause of clergy burn-out is the absence of a quantifiable performance gauge. There’s no guide to making the pastor’s weekly calendar; one that truly gives life to the community, without reducing the life of ministry–and the gospel itself–to a tedious arrangement of tasks and check-marks. What’s tiring is to wonder,always, if you’re spending your time wisely, honestly, and well. The seeds you plant daily might not produce fruit for months, even years to come.

We might not even see the promised land  in our life time. How can we ever know if we’re doing it right?

And then…then you do something as simple as show up to pray with a family—which really, anyone can do–and they thank you.

You’re welcome? How about, there’s no need to thank me. This is what I do. This is why I do what I do. This is the part that makes sense out of all the other stuff I do.”

Preacher/pastor types, and people of faith everywhere…as we struggle with that weekly or monthly or annual accounting of time—our greatest resource—remember this:

We process the world through the lens of faith; we study; and we preach; to help people find purpose and find meaning in every day, ordinary things; and to know God deeply, so that they will see the end of their lives– not as the facing of a dark scary void– but as a return to the light that’s held them all along.

We lead, equip, and sit through meetings because life makes more sense in community; because everyone has gifts to share; and because, sometimes, the outcome of those meetings DOES end up feeding the hungry and facilitating world peace.

We sing, read scripture, share liturgy, and pass the peace, because we know a greater story than death. Living that story, we gather to hear it again.

We break the bread and bless the cup, because Jesus simply asked us to. And he gave us a whole lot without asking for much.

We gather in homes and fellowship halls; we share meals together; we celebrate with funeral pie, Sunday school donuts, wedding cake and VBS cookies; because it is all such joy, we can’t help but mark it with sweetness.

We are the body of Christ—we are not on the world’s profit and loss scale. This is God’s time, and when we spend it together, we spend it well.

I hold all this as I pray for the sick, the sad, the dying. And what I want to say is:

“… YOU’RE thanking ME? All I did was show up. All I did was say a good word on behalf of a whole bunch of other people, who live this goodness every day; in memory of one who’s given us everything.

Yes, you’re welcome. You are so, very welcome. But really, thank you. Thank you for the privilege of sharing a thin and holy place with your family; thank you for the reminder that, while not a bit of it makes sense written down in an organizer, it all adds up to something sacred. Exactly what I signed up for, exactly where I’m called to be.

It’s really no trouble at all.”

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  • Charles

    What a lovely meditation on being a minister. Thank you!
    Ooops, there’s another thank you for you to deal with 😉

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      Don’t get me wrong, the ‘thanks’ are much appreciated. Just very humbling at the same time!