Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lessons on the Road

I keep thinking I'm going to write a book.  I waver between a book about my experiences as a pastor and a historical novel about either Mary of Egypt or the Russian St Helga.

If I were to write a book about my life - I would most certainly include this story:

I sat in the car on the road down from the house of a man in my parish dying of pancreatic cancer. I did not want to get out of the car and go into his house.

It was not because he was dying, I have no problem being in the company of dying, in fact I find it a profound privilege to share that time with the dying. I didn't want to go into his house because his family was hostile, strange and possibly downright dangerous. So I had to give my self a combination pep talk/ scolding. I reminded myself of all the martyrs who had faced worse to serve Christ. Then I took a deep breath, plastered on a fake smile and walked through the gauntlet of bearded men in undershirts smoking and leaning against the broken down cars in the front yard. They all eyed me suspiciously but let me pass.

The man was in pain. The house was filthy and smelled. His sheets were dirty and toddlers ran around in dirty diapers screaming and jumping on his bed, making him wince in pain. “JAIMIE GET YOUR ASS OUT OF HERE AND LEAVE GRANDPA ALONE!” someone screamed. The man smiled weakly “Oh it's fine”. This was when I decided dying at home is not all it is cracked up to be.

But this story begins about a year before this. I got a call from a CPE student at the hospital. She wanted me to come down so I could “interface” with her about the man's wife who was at the hospital. When I got to the hospital she kept saying that word - “interface”. And she kept calling me Ms. “You can call me Pastor”, I corrected her and then I rather irritably asked her what she meant by "interface".

“We need to discuss Mrs. So and So” she says rather patronizingly. “That the word we use now” she explained to me patiently when I asked her why she didn't just say that.

“Mrs. So and So is dying of cancer and is in a lot of pain” Mrs. So and So was not a member – only her husband came to church. She never wanted anything to do with the church.

“She's very angry”

“I imagine she is,” I said. She looked at me with a question mark on her face.

“She's in pain and she's dying. I'd be angry too.”

“But she's really angry and she needs closure” Now I'm getting angry. I got an angry dying woman to deal with AND an idiot CPE student.

I never got to see Mrs. So and So. She wanted nothing to do with me. She died cursing me, the church and God. She died the way she lived. Bitter and angry. It's a pity but it happens more often than not. I guess Hollywood has convinced us that we should all make peace with one another and with God before we die. It rarely happens that way. I'm sure I was quite a disappointment to the CPE student. I couldn't “interface” properly and I couldn't get Mrs. So and So to die the way she was supposed to.

But despite the way she died, Mrs. So and So got a church funeral. Because funerals are for the living and her husband was a faithful member and needed to bury his wife in the church.

From the beginning it was a battle with her daughters about what a church funeral was. Having never come to church themselves, they had no idea. I held firm that we were NOT going to sing “You are the wind between my legs” or wings, or whatever that ridicules song is called. “This is a church funeral and we are going to sing about Christ and the resurrection” I was under no illusions what this was – a battle for power and I was damned well not going to let these people who never darkened the church doorway dictate to me how to do a church funeral.

When it was all said and done I did have second thoughts and regretted that perhaps that battle was more about my ego and what would have been the harm if they sang their stupid song?

And then the father got pancreatic cancer and died almost a year later. And this time there was no question of singing anything but church hymns at the funeral.

And the daughter and her daughter and son showed up on my door saying that loosing both their parents had made them think about God and now they wanted to change their life and come to church.

Now this is like a Hollywood movie. This is what every pastor dreams of. The angels in heaven are singing over not one but THREE sinners who repent!

But the congregation was not singing. They knew this family better than I did and they did not want any part of them. These people were some good old fashioned sinners. Drinking every night at the pub. All kinds of children with all kinds of fathers (I never did get that all straight). Once they had actually chased some members off their property with a shot gun at one point.

And there were actually people on the church council who wanted to DENY them church membership. Because they were sinners. I talked about forgiveness. About the angels rejoicing in heaven over one lost sinner. About the prodigal son. Most of them realized (reluctantly) that they had to let them join. Except for one council member who was not swayed by any of that. He voted no.

It was rough. The children showed up at Sunday School and shocked the other children and the teachers with some pretty interesting language they learned. They still were seen at the bar making scenes. These people were such outcasts that they had no idea how to act around people. When I would go to their house nobody would get up from their chairs and I would just sit on the floor because I realized they never had company and so they never learned how to treat company. They came to a potluck without bringing any food because they didn't know what “potluck” meant. They never had been to one. It was really pretty sad.

I got phone calls at night by people complaining about these people joining the church.  Honestly I found the congregation's behavior much more shocking than our resident "sinners".

There was a 16 year old that I wanted to join the church as an adult and NOT put him in the confirmation class because he was older and because well, it just would not be a good idea to have him with the younger kids. People called me up complaining that THEIR kids HAD to go through confirmation, so why shouldn't he? Like confirmation was some kind of punishment. When I brought up the parable of the workers in the vineyard, one man responded “Yea! And I bet they don't even KNOW that story because they don't know the bible!”

I met with the three of them to explain some of the basics of Christianity. One night I just read to them the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Then I asked them why they thought I read them that story. “Because we've been outside of the church our whole lives and some people in the congregation are having a hard time believing we really want to change”  They got it.

I left that parish before the family had really integrated into the church. It was a church where outsiders never really fit in anyway so I have no idea how it all turned out. But I certainly learned a lot from that whole experience. Besides learning that dying at home is not always better than dying in the hospital, I learned how little a lot of life long Christians really understand the Gospel. I learned how hard it is to forgive and welcome sinners, especially sinners you've known all your life. I also learned to forgive as well. Not the prodigal family, but the congregation for their lack of forgiveness and hospitality. How easy it would have been for me to get self-righteous and arrogant myself about their unchristian behavior. The Christian walk is a long difficult struggle. It was hard for the prodigal family to give up their old ways. It was just as hard for the congregation to give up their ways of seeing that prodigal family. It's easy to forgive in the abstract, it's another story when it's right there in your face.

Life and faith and discipleship is complicated. It's not black and white and change doesn't happen overnight. It's a journey. If you get too focused on the destination you miss the important lessons along the way.


  1. what a great story. I hope somehow that family managed to stay and become a part of the congregation, but I suspect once you left the road for them was harder....sigh...

  2. As it is said, "the church is the only army that shoots its own wounded." Thank you for telling this heart wrenching story, Pastor.

  3. Thank you for that. The prodigal never has it easy, does he - and the elder brother struggles, too.

  4. amen to everything you said. everything is easier in the abstract.