“When did you first know you wanted to be a pastor?” I have been asked this many times over the years. But the question nobody has ever asked me – the more interesting question – “When was the first time you wanted out of ministry?” In my case, the answer to both involves my encounters with Grace.
It took quite a long time for me to want to be a pastor. I had been serving a church for three years before I really wanted to be one. The journey towards embracing my calling began with a conversation in the fellowship hall after my trial sermon at my first church. As with every potential candidate, the congregation gathered to hear me preach at a Sunday service. My sermon was completely forgettable, I’m sure, but the people were gracious and hospitable.
After the service, everyone came to greet Virginia and I, as well as our two little ones, who had come with us. At one point, I was holding my four year old daughter, Maggie, and speaking with a delightful woman of the church. At that time, Maggie was enamored with beads. She had a collection of all kinds, shapes and sizes. It was always the first thing she noticed wherever we went.
Well, there I was talking with this woman, whose name, I learned, was Grace. Maggie interrupted us, grabbing my head to turn it so that she could whisper into my ear,
“Ooh, Daddy, RED BEADS!” At this point, Grace tilted her head inquiringly, and I explained. “Maggie loves beads and she is admiring your necklace.”
“Oh!” She said, eyes dancing and hands immediately going to the back of her neck. “Where I come from, if someone admires something you have” – she took the bead necklace from around her own neck and placed it around my little girl’s neck – “you give it to them.”
Maggie’s eyes now danced with Grace’s in celebration that those beautiful red beads were now around her very own neck! I mumbled a Thank-you, but what was running through my head as I witnessed this simple act of kindness was, Please let me come here to be the pastor of this place! Please let me live in a community of people that do stuff like that!
Whether or not the church needed me, I certainly needed that church; needed to learn to receive and to give, to bear witness to the beauty of a faithful community. I could, for the first time, imagine in that short exchange that this was what my life was made for.
I was called to this church, and in the course of our life together, I would have ample opportunity to witness, receive and offer such kindness and graciousness. It saddens me still that when, years later, I had occasions to express compassion to Grace, I was not nearly as ready to do so as she had been that morning.
You see, Grace’s oldest daughter, Laura ended up pregnant and unwed. Grace and her husband committed to raising the child, little Joanna. Another child was born to Laura. This child, however, was not going to be raised by her grandparents. She would be given up for adoption. Grace approached me about having the baby baptized before she would be given over to foster care. I suggested that since the child would be leaving very soon, it would be better to let her be baptized into the faith community of her adoptive family.
Of course, there was no guarantee that the adoptive parents would care to do so, but the promise that the congregation makes in baptism, to faithfully bring the child to the services of God’s house, to teach the Lord’s prayer and the Ten commandments, to place the scriptures in her hands and provide for instruction in the Christian faith, these would not be possible if the child were not among us. That was my thinking. There may even be good reason for it, but even now I feel myself trying to justify my actions.