I am thinking a lot these days about what it is to have precious gifts passed along — perhaps not unlike what transpired between Elijah and Elisha in the vivid scene before us now. And yes, I expect I think about it now for I am aware that I am entering into what is likely my last decade in active ministry. The time is simply shorter than it was before for me to pass along what has been so generously given to me. More than this, I find myself reflecting on what was passed along to me — a mantle, if you will, of authority and experience and wisdom and hope — when I was yet a very young pastor. Indeed, my thoughts are tender now as I am remembering, for I do so looking ahead to gathering with some of those who were among those who ‘passed gifts along’ to me so long ago.
It is only a remnant now who will come together on Sunday for St. Paul Lutheran Church’s last worship before the doors are closed for the last time. When I was called to serve as their part time pastor 30 years ago, forty hardy souls still managed to fill the pews. One surely could have guessed then that this day would come, for the people who called that church home even then were not young. While glimmers of hope were ours when young people who grew up in that congregation returned with little ones of their own, even so, the core of the membership was, by then, one large extended family. It was certain that on their own, their descendants would not be enough to sustain this ministry. Add this to the fact that the congregation has been located in an out of the way town. At one time, more than a century ago, it was a thriving trading post, but by the time I was with them it was just a sad little town located just a few miles away from a larger community with larger congregations which had more to offer. As I said, anyone with any sense of things at all could have seen this moment coming, but while they were there, at least those decades ago now, they passed along powerful gifts — yes, a mantle of sorts — to me. Next Sunday I intend to tell them so.
For this was my experience and this I have long believed: pastors are not ‘made’ on the day that the mantle of a red stole is draped around our shoulders. Rather we are ‘made’ — we are given a ‘mantle of authority’ — in the push and pull of the daily life of serving God’s people. Indeed, this is how this came to be for me among the people of St. Paul Lutheran Church:
- It was early fall when box elder bugs made their presence known. At the time I never remembered encountering them before, but before long these stubbornly resilient insects came to be a part of daily life for us. Before long, our council treasurer did some research to see how we could get rid of them. It turns out they were impervious to poison, but a home remedy might just work. And one afternoon, he and I walked the perimeter of the church, carefully ladling soapy water on the foundation. It didn’t work. The next Sunday I took the cover off the communion wine to find a box elder bug swimming in it. In that moment, I learned not to let anything show on my face and carefully flicked it out of the wine and onto the white covered altar. And I went on with the words of institution. And oh, didn’t I experience in those days the blurry intersection of the ‘holy’ and the ‘ordinary?’ And didn’t I learn to love them both?
- And this: the late summer day when Lyle died. His cancer had come suddenly and before long he was in a nursing home. I will not soon forget the day he told me he was praying for me. And no, I will never forget the day he died. I was called to the nursing home only to discover that his wife had not yet arrived. It was late morning by then and every other day she had been there by 9. When the nurse on duty tried to call her, she didn’t answer. In those days before mobile phones, there was nothing to do but wait. Indeed, it was as though she already ‘knew’ and could not bring herself to face it, and so she spent the morning driving nearby country roads before pulling into the parking lot of the nursing home to face what she somehow already ‘knew.’
- Truly it was so that though I had experienced my own share of grief, a loss of this magnitude had not yet been mine to know. In those hours I began to ponder the intricacy of human relationship and the power of intuition between those who love. I also witnessed first hand the fragile nature of the human body as, for some reason, there was no cool place to store Lyle’s body that day and the staff at the nursing home became increasingly anxious that his wife arrive soon to say her ‘final good-bye.’
- And this as well. One Sunday in my preaching I had nodded to what I did not know — acknowledging that I had no children of my own. I cannot now recall the content of my reflection then, but this I will not soon forget: Winifred coming through the line, but not reaching to shake my hand this time. Instead she shook her finger at me as her eyes blazed. Winnie had never given birth, but she raised her best friend’s children as her own when her beloved friend died far too young. And in that moment I knew ever more deeply that one love is not better than another. All love is of God.
- And this. The day a child fussed in worship and Bob saying, “It sounds like life.” Indeed, no one in that place would ever think to glare at a crying child’s parent. Children were welcomed and loved and nourished in that place. As they should be everywhere.
- Oh, there were hard lessons, too. Times when my inexperience led me to make decisions which were not in the best interest of the congregation or when my fear kept me from speaking up when I should have, leading me to have to later ‘clean up’ what never should have been allowed to ‘leave a mess’ in the first place. There were hard lessons, too, which shaped me as a pastor to this day…
I could say so much more and I am still sorting through what will be most important to offer when I stand among the remnant of the congregation next Sunday. Even so, most of all, I hope they will hear this:
Through it all, those four years among those people who were as kind and hopeful and human and faithful as any group of forty people you would ever want to know, made me a ‘pastor.’ Among them I learned to preach, and to visit the sick, to comfort the grieving, and to baptize babies, to share the bread and wine of communion, and to always take a piece of cake at a council meeting so as not to insult the one who had brought it. I learned about forgiveness and kindness in community and I learned about hope. Sure, from day one I wore the ‘mantle’ — the stole — but in every way that mattered, over days and months and years, they were Elijah to my Elisha.
And I will always be grateful.
- What do you think? Is the mantle ‘passed on’ in a moment or over time? What has been your experience?
- Does ‘Elijah’ have to be a person? Can ‘Elijah,’ as I believe was so for me, also be a community?
- Who was your ‘Elijah?’ What stories would you offer to show that this is so?