I had an epiphany in Epiphany.
Seated in a restaurant in Lee MA, preparing for a wedding, the groom-to-be reported he has been attending an evangelical church where the music is lively and the preaching Biblical. The church is a satellite congregation to a mega-church too many miles away to permit the pastor to be present very often. And (here comes my epiphany) Saturday's groom longs for a personal relationship with a pastor, someone he could call upon occasionally when issues or doubts arise, someone with whom to have a long-established connection. He simply wants a pastor who is a pastor: that's my epiphany in Epiphany.
That longing, nor that it might exist, may not seem to you to be unusual. And, yes, I've heard a similar hankering expressed about family doctors. But in the sixty years since I was ordained in the Methodist Church, I never thought very long about the pivotal role a pastor might play in the hearts of parishioners, maybe even the importance, if not necessity, of it. In retrospect I understand how my dear Norwegians in Brooklyn held me to their standard, The Pastor; and I see how I grew into that role they set for me. No wonder I have come to prefer that title, pastor, to the several which have accrued to my profession. A few of "my children" (the generations of young people now not so young) from Brooklyn, now well on their way to retirement continue to address me in Email and on the telephone as "Pastor." Love it!
Pastors pastoring do it in imitation of the quintessential pastor. He (Jesus) was among us as one of us. He ate our bread and drank our wine. He wept with us graveside. He lifted our little children into his arms. He touched our wounds. He supplied wine for our wedding reception. He swapped stories with us and regaled us with many we will never forget. He sang our songs, and they weren't all hymns. He thought about death and taxes. and, I need not say it but I will, he died as we all shall, though his death was more cruelly rendered than most of us will ever face.
That is, the quintessential pastor shared the life and living of those among whom he lived and prayed and served.
Like I thought I should during the fifty years I was pastor. How dumb of me to have had to wait for an epiphany in a Greek restaurant in Lee, Massachusetts, for it to dawn on me that that was what I had been all about in Brooklyn, Valley Stream, and for a couple of years at the beginning, rural Connecticut.
Today I wrote to a friend who wondered if I thought about my own mortality. Often, I reported. If because my own body constantly reminds me that I and it shall not last for ever, then mostly because of my years in the pastorate visiting the sick and infirm, presiding at funerals, sometimes for those who have been yanked suddenly out of life, if more often for those who have simply come to the end of it. I think of Jacob Jacobsen, probably no older then than I am now, sick in bed, how I served him communion grape juice with a straw as if it were an eye dropper; while his wife in English sprinkled with Norwegian told me the story of her meeting with Jesus, and only later did I realize the venue, a place in which Martin Luther is said to have seen visions and dreamed dreams (ask me about it, sometime). There I was on 50th Street, a half block away from Labskaus Blvd, otherwise known as Eighth Avenue, Brooklyn, this Connecticut Yankee immersed in the lives and traditions of immigrants from the fjords of Norway. Ah, Pas-tor (spread it out to get the flavor of the Viking accent), love it, the sound and significance of it.
When I started in the summer of 1953 in West Redding CT, I asked the District Superintendent who assigned me there what do I do? He told me I should visit around, get into the homes of congregants, get to know them. That DS would eventually become my father-in-law, Lewis H. Davis. Among other bits of advice he provided is one I would put at the top of the list for every pastor: "Get so close to your people, that when they kick it won't hurt." Consequently, I found myself in the pastorate baby-sitting in the wee hours of the morning for a child not my own because daddy had forgotten his responsibility and mommy had to go to work at the hospital and no family member was within one hundred miles of the apartment. What pastors do for love!
Or that evening I stood in front of the casket in Massapequa wondering why the deceased, a young man in his twenties, was wearing a sash bejeweled with orbs that mimicked eyeballs: only later did I discover he was a member of a motorcycle gang. For years thereafter I thought of him because his parents gifted the church in his memory with marble candleholders we stored, for want of a better place, on a shelf in the pastor's study. They're still there, ten years after I no longer have a key to the room. Where we find ourselves in pursuit of pastoral care!
I've cooked gallons of Manhattan clam chowder for the Methodist Men; treated Junior Highs to hundreds of Happy Meals; fixed toilets in scores of church restrooms; paraded down the boulevard on Memorial Days in my volunteer fireman's uniform; picked strawberries with teenagers and their moms for June festivals; sold Christmas trees from the parish house's driveway; chased skateboarders away from the tempting church railings; mixed elbows with kids and their parents on the basketball court; sang a king's verse in a Christmas pageant; been menaced and chased from a city park in the early evening by a neighborhood gang... ah, you get the point, I have been in it, up to my head and over it, in the pastorate, doing all the things mortals do for fun and out of necessity to keep things going.
Among the personal compliments I have cherished is the one from a former junior high, now an air force veteran, who has in her maturity repeatedly faced threatening illness. She told her mother who told me: "I could always talk with Pastor Howard about anything." That's what a pastor's for. And that's what the groom in the restaurant in Lee MA wanted, someone who by training and experience he could talk to about whatever life served up for good or ill. His dad in his growing years in Brooklyn had a young pastor who at the time of his appointment there hadn't the foggiest notion that the quintessential pastor had conferred with his Father and decided that that little corner of the "Borough of Churches" could use a Connecticut Yankee hot shot, with more energy than sense, to pastor a generation of second and third generation immigrant children.
Which is what I continued to do for thirty years after moving in 1973 fourteen miles to the east: be a pastor.
There's no better job this side of the pearly gates. Thank you, Michael, for making me realize it: my three king's moment beside an unseen manger, my epiphany in Epiphany.