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A Pastor’s Gratitude for a Grateful Congregation

 

 1st Thessalonians 1:2-7; 2:1-8

 

A few years ago I was standing at the end of a cottage-dock chit-chatting with the cottage owner, Bob Giuliano. (Bob used to be the pastor at Erindale United Church , the first United Church south of me in Mississauga .) While we were chatting, a woman in a motorboat offshore suddenly altered course and veered toward us. She began waving and shouting, “Victor, Victor”. I didn’t recognize her. I didn’t expect anyone to recognize me, since I hadn’t told anyone I was going to be visiting Bob in Haliburton. As the boat came closer I saw that it was a woman from my congregation. She docked the boat, hugged me ardently, talked for a minute or two, and then motored off. When she had left I saw that Bob seemed startled, preoccupied and wistful all at once. I asked him what he was thinking. “In thirty years in the ministry,” he replied, “I have never seen such joy upon running across one’s pastor; never.”

It’s a singular honour to be a pastor. No other work is to be envied. I am moved every time I recall the remark of Jean Vianney, an early-nineteenth century Roman Catholic priest from the city of Ars in post-Napoleonic France . “If we really knew what it is to be a pastor”, Vianney said, “We couldn’t endure it.” What did he mean, “We couldn’t endure it”? I think I have glimpsed what he means. For in the course of my pastoral work, especially in situations of distress and anguish, grief and pain, I have staggered home stunned at how eager people are to see their minister and what comfort they derive from his presence. I have slowly learned why they are eager and how they derive comfort: it’s because they are trusting the pastor’s faith to support their own faith when their own faith is assaulted by tragedy or turbulence or sin. They are counting on the pastor’s heart-knowledge of God — God’s mercy, God’s wisdom, God’s way, God’s triumph, God’s faithfulness. They are casting themselves on the pastor’s throbbing acquaintance with God. They want to lean on the pastor’s faith, borrow from it (as it were). They are hoping the pastor’s assurance concerning God’s truth and triumph will restore their assurance that God hasn’t abandoned them despite shocking evidence to the contrary, restore their assurance that God will never forsake them even though he seems to have. And therefore while a pastor who appeared to be a know-it-all would be a nuisance, a pastor who never exuded unselfconscious intimacy with God would be useless. What is it, then, to be a pastor? It’s to have the conviction of God’s enduring truth and unswerving nature so deep in one’s bloodstream that the suffering person will feel the foundations of her life to be in place once more. It’s to be unselfconsciously a conduit of the Spirit that the same “current” will be induced in the person whom mishap has made to feel unplugged. Every high school student knows that if a current is passing through electrical wire and another wire is laid alongside it, the current in the first wire will induce a current in the second. This is what it means to be a pastor.

Alexander Whyte, a turn-of-the-century Scottish pastor, used to say to young ministers, “Be much at deathbeds”. Whyte wasn’t morose. He simply knew where people most need the pastor’s quiet confidence. Whyte also knew that it’s at deathbeds that the fewest words are used; it’s also at deathbeds that the pastor’s spiritual authenticity is most evident or spiritual vacuity most exposed.

Robert Coles is a paediatric psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard. I first came upon him when I read his book reviews in the New York Times. In addition to psychiatry he teaches “Great Literature” to Harvard medical students. (He says he’s anxious lest medical students leave school with a full head and a shrivelled heart.) In one of his video-taped lectures Coles branches out into a discussion of painting, especially the work of Edward Hopper, an American artist. Coles points out that the people depicted in Hopper’s paintings sit close to each other but never look at each other. They share the same space geographically but are humanly remote. Coles points out that it’s easy for people to be proximate to each other physically, to chatter, even to meet conventionally; yet it’s exceedingly rare — because exceedingly difficult — for people to communicate intimately, heart-to-heart, spirit-to-spirit, deep-to-deep. Coles is correct: such communication is rare because difficult.

But not so difficult and therefore so rare as to be non-existent here. For I have found many people in Schomberg who have admitted me to their innermost heart, even as I trust I have admitted them to mine. When I was only a teenager I read anything I could find by Dr Leslie Weatherhead, a British Methodist clergyman with immense gifts in psychology, literature, and speech. In one of his books Weatherhead stated simply that if we knew the suffering, the sum total of the suffering, in the smallest hamlet in England , we wouldn’t sleep at night. He happens to be right. I’m always amazed at ministers who tell me their congregation is small (although not as small as Schomberg) and therefore they don’t have much pastoral work to do. A congregation of even one hundred people is visited with enough pain and perplexity and distress to give a minister no rest.

Then regardless of what else we need in the midst of life’s contradictions (certainly we need wisdom and patience and persistence and ever so much more), above all we need courage. We always need courage. Few books in scripture speak as much about courage as the book of Hebrews. It likens the Christian life to a race, a relay race. Those who have run their leg of the race ahead of us (i.e., Christians of an earlier era who have predeceased us) are awaiting us at the finish line. They remained courageous throughout their leg of the relay race. They remained courageous: that’s why they finished (rather than quit) and are awaiting us at the finish line. The unknown author of Hebrews cries, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself…. Therefore lift up your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees.” Because Schomberg congregation is surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, we can lift up our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees.

 

It’s the cloud of witnesses – fellow-believers past and present – that becomes for us a vehicle of the grace of God. One such witness in the great cloud is John Calvin, the foreparent of this congregation. Calvin was a giant (some would say the giant) among the Protestant Reformers. Calvin spoke characteristically of the grandeur of God, the glory of God, the sufficiency of God. Calvin always insisted too that the being of God must never be confused with the being of God’s creatures. God is irreducibly God. God isn’t humankind talking to itself with a loud voice. God isn’t a projection, unconsciously disguised as divine, of our overheated imagination. God is uniquely God, and must never be confused with that which isn’t God. And yet when Calvin pens a comment on Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian congregation he writes what we should never expect him to. Paul has written, “We give thanks to God always for you all”. In other words, the apostle thanks God for the congregation. Calvin comments, “Is there anything more worthy of our love than God?” Of course there isn’t. But here comes the surprise. “There is nothing, therefore, which ought to make us seek the friendship of men (and women) more than God’s manifestation of himself among them through the gifts of the Spirit”.   How startling! The Reformer who insists that God is uniquely God and insists elsewhere that God is the only fit witness to himself here maintains that our friends in the congregation mirror God to us. Our friends in the congregation aren’t friends chiefly because we get along with them or they like us; our friends in the congregation are those whom we are to cherish just because they mirror to us the mercy and patience and persistence of God himself.

Calvin was born in 1509 in the town of Noyon , fifty miles outside Paris . At age eleven he went to Paris to begin university studies. His father steered him into law, having noted (he said) that lawyers never starve. Calvin graduated with a doctorate in legal studies at age twenty-three. Soon he left behind the technical details of the law for the riches of Renaissance humanism. Then in 1534 the gospel seized him. Concerning his about-face coming-to-faith Calvin would only write, “God subdued me and made me teachable”. He moved to Geneva , Switzerland , and quickly became known for his first major work in theology, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The first edition had only six chapters; the final edition, eighty. It had grown into a two-thousand page primer for preachers. Subsequently Calvin became the leading thinker of the Reformation outside German-speaking lands, a prolific writer, and a diligent worker on behalf of the citizens of the city. (He drafted the city’s first constitution, for instance. Although he didn’t practise law he was still the ablest lawyer in the city). His written French did as much to establish modern French as Shakespeare’s English did for modern English. He was humanist, linguist, theologian, biblical commentator, city advisor. All of this, however, he understood as subordinate to the one task that was before all other tasks and above all others and permeated all others: pastor.

Before Calvin died in 1564 he had written commentaries on most books of the bible, including 1st Thessalonians. I am moved every time I open it, for here Calvin speaks so very warmly of the pastor’s life with that congregation which the pastor serves. In 1st Thessalonians the apostle Paul speaks of the style of his ministry with the congregation in the city; Paul writes, “We were gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” Calvin comments on this passage, “A mother, in nursing her child, makes no show of authority and does not stand on any dignity. This, says Paul, was his attitude, since he willingly refrained from claiming the honour that was due him [i.e., as an apostle], and undertook any kind of duty without being ruffled or making any show. In the second place, a mother, in rearing her child, reveals a wonderful and extraordinary love…and even gives her own life blood to be drained…. We must remember that those who want to be counted true pastors must entertain the same feelings as Paul — to have higher regard for the church [i.e., the congregation] than for their own life.” When Paul maintains that one mark of an apostle is his willingness to make any sacrifice for the edification of the congregation, Calvin adds, “All pastors are reminded by this of the kind of relationship which ought to exist between them and the church”.

Calvin always knew that a dictatorial, tyrannical pastor is a contradiction in terms. The pastor is to lead the congregation, not hammer it; he is to plead, not whip; he is to model the gospel, not hurl it. When Paul says to the congregation in Thessalonica, “we beseech you”, Calvin adds, “His beseeching them, when he might rightfully command them, is a mark of the courtesy and restraint which pastors should imitate, in order to win their people, if possible, with kindliness, rather than coerce them with force.” The pastor is always to plead rather than pummel. Calvin summarizes this issue: “Those who exercise an absolute power that is completely opposed to Christ are far from the order of pastors and overseers”.

To be sure, Calvin speaks of two kinds of pastors who give the ministry a bad name. Class one: “stupid, ignorant men who blurt out their worthless brainwaves from the pulpit”. Class two: “ungodly, irreverent individuals who babble on with their detestable blasphemies”. Any minister who reads Calvin here must search his own heart. I search mine, and trust that you have never found me blurting out worthless brainwaves or babbling detestable blasphemies.

Calvin had the highest estimation of the ministry. Such work, he said, is “…the edification of the church, the salvation of souls, the restoration of the world…. The excellence and splendour of this work are beyond value”. It is a privilege to be a pastor, isn’t it.

Yet Calvin also knew that pastoral existence could be difficult, even dangerous. He had seen congregations ruin ministers. When he reflects on the disputes and feuds which make life miserable for a minister he writes something which is certainly true of many congregations but not true of Schomberg: “So we see daily how pastors are treated with hostility by their churches for some trivial reason, or for no reason at all.” Not here. Not only has the congregation never treated me with hostility for trivial reason or no reason; the congregation has never treated me with hostility at all.

One day in May, 1954, Stan Musial, the superb right fielder for the St.Louis Cardinals, hit five home runs in a single game. A few years later Musial was in the twilight of his baseball career. His legs no longer ran fast, his arm was no longer a cannon, and pitchers with even a mediocre fastball were starting to sneak it by him. He knew that he could now play only occasionally as a pinch-hitter. “Even if I know I’m going to sit on the bench for most of the game”, he told a sportswriter, “every time I go to the ballpark and put on my uniform I still get a thrill”. I’m not in my twilight years. Nonetheless, every time I come here I get a thrill. Whether it’s when I step into the sanctuary on Sunday morning and see the expectant faces of the congregation, or whether it’s when I’m meeting a few people in a mid-week meeting, or whether it’s when I sit by myself here and intercede for those who are especially needy — whenever I come here I get a thrill.

It mystifies me and saddens me that other clergy don’t get the same thrill. One of the professors alongside whom I teach has told me several times that when he left the pastorate he vowed never to return. “On-call seven days a week; being telephoned at any hour; having to go somewhere night after night; no sooner finished preparing one address than having to prepare another. When I left”, this fellow tells me, “I knew I’d do anything before I ever went back.” Compare that attitude with Jean Vianney: “If we knew what it is to be a pastor, we couldn’t endure it.”

I relish teaching in a seminary, and relish it for several reasons. One reason is that it keeps me probing the work of the giants in theology. Another reason is that it keeps me acquainted with men and women (younger than I) who are preparing for ordination. Entirely too often a student remarks that after his first degree in theology he plans to do a second and third degree – i.e., a doctorate – in that a doctorate is the ticket out of the pastorate and into a professorship.   The first degree in theology lets one into the pastorate; a doctorate lets one out. The truth is, I heard as much when I was a seminary student myself thirty-five years ago. Whenever I hear this I tell the students most emphatically that the real Doctores Ecclesiae, teachers of the church, were pastors first. Luther worked as a pastor every day in addition to teaching, writing, travelling, and wrestling with most vexatious problems in church life; e.g., the predicament of nuns who left the convent in response to the message of the Reformation and then had no means of support. Calvin preached on average every second day. His writings are so extensive that his 2000-page Institutes represents only 6.8% of his written output. In addition he sat with the dying, married the living, visited the sick, sorted out conflicts in the wider church (rural pastors, for instance, complained vociferously that they should be paid the same as urban pastors in Geneva .) He ordered provisions for the city hospital. And he had to endure the shame of his sister-in-law’s repeated adulteries.   Modern professors of theology who are full-time teachers are not the descendants of the Reformation’s giants; scholarly pastors are. Why did the real giants of theology persist in shouldering such a hugely variegated work, doing so very much more than just the scholarship for which they will never be forgotten? Calvin spoke for them all when he wrote 450 years ago, “My ministry is dearer to me than life.”

You people have allowed me both to pastor and to teach. For this I can’t thank you enough. For both pastoring and teaching are aspects of my vocation to the ministry. Calvin spoke for all zealous ministers when he said, “My ministry is dearer to me than life.”

 

                                                                                                   Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                    

 October 2004