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The Greatest Gift People Give a Pastor

The Gift

       I remember the evening, a number of years ago, when this lady gave me just about the greatest gift I ever received as a minister. I was, and remain, overwhelmed by it.  I felt embarrassed to receive it.  I had done nothing to warrant a gift of that magnitude.  I knew that other members of my church would never be given a gift like that.  In fact, I was sure it was something I'd have never been given if I were not a pastor.
       And, interestingly, the whole episode started with some promises I made to a lady I did not know.  Here's the thing.  I don't exactly remember making those promises.  I didn't even know her name when I made them.  But, I'm sure I made them. 
And, I'm absolutely sure she heard me make them.  And, I'm sure that's why she gave me that unbelievable gift.

The Promises

       Before I go on, I have got to explain those promises.  The story won't make any sense if I don't.  The promises and then the gift.  The two are inexorably linked.  One leads directly to the other.
       But, first, an essential detour.  You've got to get the detour before you can get the promises or the gift.  So, let me break into my story to tell you another story.   This one I'm making up.  Okay, picture the opening few minutes of a riveting new TV series.  Then, we'll be back to our regularly scheduled program.

The Lady Doctor

       Picture the scene.  A busy city sidewalk.  Around lunch time.  Lots of people walking this way and that.  Streets full of cars.  And then, as the camera begins to zoom in, your see the disruption.  People gathering in close.  Some frantically talking into cell phones.  Some are yelling.  A couple are out trying to wave down traffic.  And then, as the camera gets closer, you see why.  A man is collapse on the sidewalk.  He's obviously in terrible pain.  He's struggling to breathe.  The reason for the cell calls is instantly clear.
       Then, pushing into the crowd you catch sight of this women.   She's literally shoving her way to where the man is lying on the sidewalk.  You see people turning when they hear the commotion.  And, then, you see them stepping back and making room.  And, finally, just as she gets through most of the crowd, you can hear what she's saying, "Let me through.  I'm a doctor."
       Hold it.  Hit the pause.  Think about that for a moment.
       No one in the crowd knows this woman's name.  We don't know if she's nice or mean.  We don't know much of anything at all about her.  Except, that she shouts out, "I'm a doctor."  And, hearing that, people start to back away and give her room.  The man's frantic wife, kneeling there and holding her husband's hand, looks up and then steps away.  The doctor leans over, and then started pulling the man's shirt open.  In fact, she tears it open.  "I need a ballpoint pen and a straw," she yells to the crowd.  "I've got to open an airway."
       Okay, that's enough to make the point.  If you don't know what's about the happen, look up "tracheotomy."  Ouch.
       My point is that the lady only told the people standing there her vocation.  I'm in doctor.  In that context, of course, everyone understands doctor means physician (not a professor or research scientist).  So, here's what you need to stop and think about.  What, exactly, happened in that moment.  What did she say?  What did they understand that to mean?  What transpired that everyone there understood and that explains why they step back and why she gets ready to punch a hole in a stranger's neck?
       The answer has got to be that, in fact, she must have said a great deal.  And, the people who heard her understood that she said a great deal.
       "I'm a doctor" says to everyone there, "I have training and knowledge and skills that ordinary people don't have.  I have invested many years and untold thousands of dollars.   I have passed tough exams and passed tougher reviews by other physicians."
       She doesn't have to shout, "I know what a tracheotomy is and I can actually do one!"  People don't ask.  They hear, "I'm a doctor!" and everyone steps back.
       The statement "I'm a doctor," in that context, is also making a promise.  It's making a whole load of promises.  First, I will do no harm.  I will do everything I can to save this man's life.  I have no other motive right now that just that.  I promise.
       This is not just an informal exchange.  It is legally binding.  Her simple statement brings into play laws that permit her to assault (all surgery requires that a person's body be assaulted) a stranger.  It obligates her to practice a legally expected level of care.  If she says, "I'm a doctor" and then refuses to give aid she is able to give, she can be held liable.  No one else in the crowd can.  But, "I'm a doctor," changes all that for her.

The Lawyer

       There are a few professions like that.  A person tells you what they do and it immediately establishes a set of promises on which you act.
       "I'm an attorney," can mean, "You can tell me whatever you need to tell me and I will keep it absolutely confidential.  I will not act against your interests."
       If you're sitting in a holding cell for something, afraid and confused.  You don't know where to turn.  A man comes by, stops, and says, "I'm a lawyer."  And, instantly, there are promises made.
       Police, in trying to secure evidence or confessions, can deceive a suspect.  They can pretend to be a janitor.  They can pretend to be an electrician.  They cannot ever pretend to be a lawyer.  It is against the law.  It would violate the promise that is made by simply stepping into a room of suspects and announcing you're an attorney.
       There are more, but the picture begins to be clear.  Tell people you're a physician and, in some circumstances, people you don't know will give you the right, even the expectation, that you will do whatever you can to help an injured person or save a life.  Tell people you're a lawyer and, in some cases, people you do not know will tell you the most terrible secrets of their lives.

The Pastor

       But, there are some moments that even doctors and lawyers are not invited to share.  When news comes to a family of an adult son's suicide.  They do not call their attorney to come over.  They do not call their doctor.  Or, their therapist.  Or social worker.  But, for many, they call their pastor, their rabbi, their priest.  Even if their pastor is a young man whose never been close to a family going through a suicide.  It doesn't matter.  "I'm a pastor," carries a whole room full of promises.
       Think, for a moment, of what it means to invite someone to gather with your family in a hospital room waiting for the imminent death of your mother.  You all look terrible.  Crying does that to a face.  It's a terribly vulnerable moment.  We just don't weep in front of anybody.  But, everybody gathered around that bed shares a history.  Everybody shares blood or marriage bonds that ties everyone together.  This is really personal.  Strangers are not welcome.  It's just for family.   No outsiders.  Except... now you see it.
       Let that thought turn over in your mind a few minutes.  They invite the minister.  Sixty years old.  Twenty years old.  Long time friend.  Newly arrived.  They open the door to that room and into that moment that no one in that family will ever forget - a moment of raw intimacy deeper and more private almost any other moment families ever experience.  And, they open the door and invite us in.
       Could there be a greater gift families could ever give that that?
       When I hear students tell me that want to be social workers or therapists or police officers or lawyers - all because they want to serve Christ and make a real difference in the world - I know they are sincere and I know that can make a difference.  A big difference.  But, they will never get the phone call in the middle of the night from someone who is neither a close friend nor a relative.
       For all the bad-mouthing the ministry endures, and all the bad press some ministers rightly receive, it is still the clergy, and only the clergy, that receive invitations into that room, or into that home, or into that shattered life of someone who simply hears in that simple statement, "I'm a minister," a set of promises that no one else ever makes.

The Exchange

       Actually, for me, the question was, "Are you a pastor?"
       St. Joseph's hospital in Syracuse.  I was just there visiting one of our members.  I was so young.  So inexperienced.  But, I was carrying a Bible.  And, I guess, I looked ministerial (whatever that means).
       "Excuse me," a head stuck out of a room I just walked passed.  A middle age woman, obviously emotionally drained, looked at me with pleading eyes.  "Do you have a minute?"
       I nodded.
       "Could you come in a talk to my father?  He's...he's not...the doctor said he's not.."
       I had already walked back to where she was standing.  She didn't need to say anything more.  I took her hand.  As I did, her eyes welled up and she drew in a quiet sob.
       They weren't from Syracuse.  His church was hours away.  There wouldn't be enough time for his pastor to make it.  I honestly don't even remember the denomination.  The truth is, it didn't matter.
       We walked into the hospital room together.  There was an old man on the bed.  Lots of tube.  His breathing was labored. But, his eyes were open and he looked over at us.
       "Daddy, I found someone to talk to you.  He's a minister."
       I went over and the old man reached up and took my hand.  He squeezed it with a surprising amount of strength.  Our eyes met.  I nodded my head once.  He squeezed harder.
       "Do you know the Lord is my shepherd?" he whispered.
       I did.  I didn't need to even open my Bible. 
       "The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want."
       I didn't even know his name.  He didn't know mine.  We'd never met.
       "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside still waters." 
       But, his daughter said I was a minister.  In saying that she promised him I had spent many years and time and effort preparing for this very moment.
       "He restoreth my soul.  He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake."
       I was standing there holding his hand because I had made promises to him.  To his daughter.  And so we had the great exchange.  I made the promises.  She and her father gave the gift.  
       I didn't earn the gift.  
       I felt embarrassed to receive it.  
       But, there I was.  I didn't know them.  They didn't know me.  I had no earthly right to be there.  But, it wasn’t a earthly right or an earthly promise.  It was deeper, greater.  
       To use an old word, it was a sacred promise.  I was not there because of me.  I was there because of the Son of God.  In a way, I was there as Him.  A poor stand-in to be sure.  But, I knew it was not my hand the old man was reaching out to hold.  I was not the one he was holding onto in fear and faith.  I live, yet not I.  Christ in me.  Christ through me.  It was a moment of incarnation.  I was just an unimportant unworthy vessel used in ways I will never fully understand. 
       And, this was keeping an old promise made to the old man a long time ago.  "And lo, I am with you always."
       I was there.  And, somehow, in a room with an old man and a young minister who did not know one another, there was Jesus.  Jesus keeping that promise. 
       "Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."
       I finished the Psalm.  We talked for a few moments.  He was in a lot of pain.  I shared a prayer and left.  And, that's just about the whole story.  I think he told me his name, but I don't remember.  That's not a problem.  I'll just have to ask him the next time I see him.  

       If being a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ carried with it nothing but those promises leading into those rooms, and into those moments, it would all be worth it.  

Servus Servorum Dei

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