When the phone rang and I saw that it was from Lucille…I braced myself. Lucille was critical of almost everything in the church. Do you know people like this? I sometimes call people like Lucille, “cobweb spotters.” A cobweb spotter is someone who can walk into an otherwise neat, tidy and orderly room and spot the one cobweb on the upper right hand ceiling. True cobweb spotters not only see the cobweb…they delight in pointing it out! Do you have a cobweb spotter in your congregation? If so, this article may be for you.
By any definition of the term, Lucille is a cobweb spotter! She can be critical of the music, the sermons, the flower arrangements, misspelled words in the bulletin…well you get the picture! Lucille thought the announcements were WAY too long…except when I forgot to announce the thing that SHE wanted me to announce! There were many times when Lucille threatened to leave our church, and to be honest, I sometimes wondered what was taking her so long? Anyway, I braced myself for Lucille’s usual complaint. However, when I picked up the phone, she whispered to me, “Tom…I’ve got a problem with Bob. He’s depressed and can’t get out of bed.” I inquired about what was going on. She continued, “It all started three or four days ago. His company is terminating large numbers of people. Bob is one of the firm’s top executives and had to lay off 20 of his employees, many of whom he has worked with for over 10 years…and some for 25 years! He had three days of that in a row and, today, he can’t get out of bed. I have never seen him so depressed and discouraged. He went to bed at 7:00 last night and he has been in bed all day today. He doesn’t want food or anything! He has pulled the covers over his head and he is just lying there. Tom, will you pray for him?” I assured Lucille that I would pray for Bob…and for her! But, when I offered to come by, she told me, in no uncertain terms, that I should NOT come! Bob had instructed her that he didn’t want to see ANYONE! That was final! She added, “The only thing you can do is pray.”
I stewed about this for an hour or so. I didn’t know whether to go… to call, or… to deliver a note. Finally I got in the car and drove to Bob and Lucille’s home. I prayed as I drove around the block several times, trying to work up my nerve to go in. Finally, I parked the car…said one more prayer…and lightly knocked on the door. Lucille answered with a stern rebuke already on her lips, “You shouldn’t have come, Tom! I warned you!” I said simply, “Lucille… I couldn’t stay away.” Lucille went into the bedroom and…in a few moments…she motioned for me to follow. As I entered the room, I smelled the aroma of depression: tears; perspiration; stale cigarettes; bourbon.
I walked over to the bed and said, “Bob, I couldn’t stay away.” Bob reached out his arm to me and said, “Thank God you’ve come!” I sat on the side of the bed and he put his head on my shoulder and he sobbed… like a little boy. In that moment, I experienced the importance of incarnation…and the importance of showing up.
My visit did not change Bob’s circumstances, nor did it cure his depression. But, he did agree to go with Lucille to see a therapist and promised to “let her in” to more of his feelings. And, they both allowed me to pray with them.
I learned a good lesson that day. Pastors can preach about God’s love and teach about God’s love. Pastors can read scriptures about God’s love and pray about God’s love. But somehow…God’s love is most evident when we actually SHOW UP.
So often in parish ministry, we can forget that it all boils down to expressing God’s love. The ministry is not simply about sermons, worship services, moderating board meetings, or writing articles for the church newsletter. The ministry is about people. And many of our people are so complicated (just like us) that when they try to push us away…that is precisely the time when they need us the most.
In this Advent and Christmas season, we remember that the God of the universe loved us so much that God did not send a card…or call us on the phone…or write a love note in the sky… God showed up! God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.
Like you, I have shown up in some unlikely places trying to be faithful to my calling as a pastor. Sometimes, I show up in places where I am not expected, and frankly where I am not wanted! I have made “showing up” a spiritual practice. I pray about it and then ask God to help me to know where to show up. Sometimes I find myself showing up at the door of a former church officer who has not been in church in a long while, and who I know is attending another church. Sometimes, I show up at a family court when one of our families is in a tense custody battle, or at a high school basketball game to watch a kid play ball whose family left our church and joined a mega- church. Sometimes, I show up at a prison to visit someone on death row. I pray and when I feel a nudge from the Holy Spirit, I just show up. That’s what happened with Bob and Lucille. I felt a nudge to show up.
But, occasionally when I show up in an unlikely place, God surprises me. That is what happened at Lucille’s and Bob’s home. As I was leaving, Lucille introduced me to their adult age son, Dave, who came over to check on his dad. Dave and I had never met. When Lucille introduced me to Dave, she gave me the finest introduction I can ever imagine when she simply said, “Dave, I want you to meet our pastor.”
The best gift is showing up. That is what the incarnation, and the pastoral ministry, is all about!