This post from May 2011 is one of my favorites. It captures the essence of what pastoral ministry has been for me: an imperfect mix of hope and frustration in relationship, with Jesus present in all of it.
Even as it takes its place in the noonday sky, the sun is still tempered by the crispness of late April. The frost has melted, but it now seems to hang just over one's head instead, a shield of sorts from more blistery days that are still weeks away. The birds have long been up to greet it: some pick at the dirt in between blades of grass rediscovering their green, while others playfully hop from branch to branch, their chatter dripping from the air's moisture along with the smell of tulips and dogwood.
I'm sitting on the front steps of the church, the grey concrete chilled by shadows cast by the steeple and the trees. I've long said goodbye to the last worshipper, all of them now scattered to homes smelling of ham or turkey and sounding like young children excitedly examining baskets of candy and coloring books. My tie hangs loose around an unbuttoned collar, my dress pants provide the slightest protection from the cool stone. I'm slowly making my way to the bottom of a bag of candy-coated Hershey eggs, taking them two or three at a time. I couldn't tell you why I decided to linger; why I sent my family home and told them not even to wait to eat. But I suspect that it has something to do with him.
The brown of his skin is darker than many would think, the sun adding a golden sheen that almost causes him to glow, though it's nothing like the paintings. His hair and beard are bushy and bedraggled, curly and short, as far from the flowing locks of Europe as you could get. His robes, however, are pretty much what you'd expect: a light tan tunic over a clean white robe. It's the sound of his sandals against the pavement, however, that really gets my attention: the crunch of a stray piece of gravel underneath, the accidental scuff that sends another into the grass where it noiselessly rests. These are what get my attention; they bring the reality of this moment into view.
Jesus just saunters up, gathers up his robe in preparation, and sits down beside me. He smarts slightly at the cold of the steps, at which I can't help but smile. I offer my bag of eggs, and he happily takes a few. We don't speak for a while, which lets us both settle into this time before having the conversation that we'll need to have. I steal a glance at his face, and sit amazed at how young he looks. Of course, I think...he's only a year older than me. What did I expect? Shaking it off, I wait to see who'll speak first.
"So," he says, "how'd it go today?"
I shrug. "They played tic tac toe."
"The high schoolers. They were playing tic tac toe or something during my sermon. I saw them. One of them even looked up to see if I'd noticed, like they were getting away with something; like I'm a moron." I pop another egg into my mouth before I get too carried away.
He helps himself to another handful as well. "That's the first thing you respond with? A couple kids drawing on the bulletin?"
I straighten the folds of the bag, glad that I have something to fidget with. "Yeah, I guess. I worked hard on that sermon. You know how long I think about what to say for this day. You know how much I agonize over it. I want people to remember this one. If they hear one damned thing I say all year, I want it to be something from today."
I suppose that somebody who has seen what he's seen wouldn't really flinch at my language, but I look out of the corner of my eye anyway, just to make sure. He's watching a robin flit his wings in a leftover rain puddle, so I suppose I'm good.
He picks up a few pieces of gravel and moves them around in his palm with his finger. "So. All that preparation, and not everyone seemed to end up paying attention. Some of the stuff you've told me over the years, I can't believe that you're shocked by that."
"I'm not shocked," I mumble. "Just disappointed."
"Yeah, I get that." He turns his hand sideways and lets the stones fall back to the ground. "And that's going to be your lasting memory from today, huh?"
My shoulders sag. I know where this is going. "Yeah, I get it. I shouldn't let that one thing overshadow the good stuff. I got a lot of compliments and appreciation. A lot of people really did seem moved by the service. So I should just focus on that and move on, right?"
Jesus pops another egg. "Yeah, I guess. Why not?"
Now I have to turn my head and look at him. "Great. Thanks for the pep talk."
It's his turn to shrug. "You're the one who came up with the cliched answer, not me. You think I came all this way to feed you the same crap you've been reading in all those ministry books?"
This stuns me to silence. Jesus takes the bag and pours the four remaining eggs into his hand before crumpling it and handing it back to me. For a while the birds and the crinkle of plastic are the only sounds shared between us.
He holds out an egg. "I get that you're disappointed. And I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know about that. You've been at this long enough now that you've found ways to let that stuff roll off your back and not get too hung up on it. Obviously it still upsets you, though. And that's good, too."
"How is that good?"
"Ask yourself this: why do you always work so hard on your Easter sermon?"
This brings another pause in the conversation. I think that we both know the answers to that, not all of them necessarily honorable. But he clearly wants me to say them, so I have no choice.
I sigh, and then I rattle them off. "Because...this is the only service that some people attend all year, and I want them to remember it. Because it's a bigger crowd, and I want it to be worthwhile. Because it's Easter, and I want people to actually know and feel like it's a big deal. It's the freaking heart of our faith, so show a little enthusiasm, dammit!"
Jesus tries to stifle a chuckle. Teenagers playing games and now this.
"Sorry," he says. "You're clearly fired up about this. Okay, so in all those reasons, what do you notice?"
I think back over what I just said. "Uh...it's what I want for them?"
"Bingo. You want people to remember this service, you want it to be worthwhile for them, you want people to be excited. Those are good reasons. It's kind of in the spirit of...what did you people end up calling it?" Jesus thinks for a moment and then snaps his fingers. "The Great Commission! 'Go and make disciples of all nations.' Obviously, it took some enthusiasm and excitement about the message for that to happen, right?"
"But it also took something else. It took some sincerity. It took those guys honestly caring about the people they interacted with for them to say what they wanted to say. Can you imagine if my followers just approached people out of the blue just to present some rehearsed talk about me for fifteen minutes, with no real connection made?"
I wince. "Well, actually--"
"Yeah, I know. The point is, you get yourself so worked up about this service and this sermon, why? Because you care about these people. It was bound to happen. You care about those kids drawing pictures and wishing it was lunchtime not just because you want to see some reward for your time and effort but because you really want something to happen inside them, something good and lasting and life-changing. Yeah, it didn't seem like it happened today, but it still might. And you may or may not ever see it. But are you really going to wait until a couple people seem to finally respond before you can feel satisfied?"
I lightly rub my jaw. "No. I guess not. That'd be kind of a crappy way to pastor a church."
Jesus stands and dusts himself off. "Yeah, it would. And you haven't been here this long just because a few kids don't seem terribly interested in worship."
I have to squint as I look up at him, the sunlight beginning to creep onto the front lawn. "No. It's because these people really are in my heart and I can't just pick up and leave."
"Yep. You're pretty much screwed as far as that is concerned. They've got their hooks in you real good." Jesus smiles as he reaches out his hand to help me up. "And as long as you keep ministering to these people from that point of view, you'll all be okay."
I take his hand and stand. We just look at each other for a moment, knowing that our meeting is at an end. He gives a wink before turning to walk away. As if remembering something, he stops and turns back.
"I did think that 'Christ the Lord is Risen Today' was magnificent, by the way. Your organist really opened it up for that."
I crack a smile. "She always does. I look forward to it every year."
He nods in understanding. "I know. A lot of them do. If whatever you say doesn't hit, at least you'll always have that."
He turns back and continues his walk. I only watch for a moment before knowing that I need to get home to my own family. I make my way across the empty parking lot to my car, taking my time as the remnants of the morning evaporate.