How could I ponder retirement when, on a pre-dawn Sunday morning, the sermon was still making demands? In a few hours the sanctuary seats, cradling innocent-appearing adults and cute children, would be occupied. Every member was a mix of dreams and disappointments. Theyâ€™d all felt loss (of faith, of loved ones, of a future). And a few, with clenched jaws or fake smiles, hoped today the preacher would say something that made sense.
Or, they were present from habit or the football game was on later or the kids should go to church or the wife had given â€œthe lookâ€ and it was far better to get your butt to church after a quick bowl of Cheerios rather than protest.
No, early on Sunday mornings, with an unfinished sermon (and itâ€™s never truly done until the â€œAmenâ€ hours later after the good news was cast before the beloved, beleaguered, bored, bereft dwellers of the pews), retirement was never a thought.
It is now.
The proverbial fat lady sings in June 2018.
Iâ€™ll go from â€œactiveâ€ to â€œretiredâ€ clergy. An Elder in the United Methodist Church, I literally have become elderly. And crankier. More fearful. Less certain. Still, I traipse after Jesus (with a hundred daily failings). God, ever elusive, ever sublime, lures me toward being neighborly, open to the new and the next. The Spirit, holy or not, ghostly or not, swirls with divine nudges of love and light.
Retirement wonâ€™t change my current schedule. At monthâ€™s end (April, 2018) Iâ€™ll have deposited a paycheck for six years of part-time hospice work. Itâ€™s my final official appointment. What I do barely tips the scales of meaningful ministry. I phone the bereaved. I share randomly helpful thoughts in meetings. I wander hallways, trying to be polite.
On one day in June I wonâ€™t be retired, the next day I will be.
But on either side of retirement, Iâ€™ll phone someone during the worst time of their life and try to let them know someone is listening and caring. I rarely mention God, but the Holy is the reason for my courage to call. I like to imagine that Jesus, when asking the disciples how their day went, might hear about my typical day in hospice and offer me an encouraging nod and grin.
Fine job, Larry. Keep at it, fella.
And yet thereâ€™s this also about a calendar marking a looming change: I think of the worst that has happened to me. My worst pales compared to others that struggled in life and ministry. But they are my worst experiences. They shaped who I became (or didnâ€™t become) as a pastor.
Retirement, rightly so, invites gazing at days gone by.
As an old-school preacher, Iâ€™ll stick with three examples.
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The first worst
Once young, leaping through the early hoops toward United Methodist ordination, I sat in a required meeting. The Board of Ordained Ministry, a passel of pastors, demanded that I share why I felt Godâ€™s call. Would they deem me . . .
I muttered something naÃ¯ve part-way through the gathering. Surrounded by wall-to-wall preachers, I questioned the importance of sermons. I donâ€™t recollect my inane insights, but those in the stuffy room (maybe twenty clergy) figuratively jumped on me. They were irked or angry or bemused that Iâ€”a dumb kid still more influenced by Sunday school lessons than seminary trainingâ€”would critique the value of homilies.
I felt lousy. Attacked. Stupid. Alone.
Soon the meeting ended and I retreated to the door and my car, and likely for oblivion.
One clergy found me. One of the twenty. One of the ordained strangers in the room.
She spoke my name. She told me I actually made sense. She told me she appreciated me being there. She told me Iâ€™d do well in ministry.
All the other clergy seemed eager to argue. To â€œcorrectâ€ my opinions. To belittle my thoughts. To hammer at my faith. And then to ignore me as they turned to the next agenda item.
One came and shared love. Thanks, Rev. Barbara Troxell. Yeah, I will always remember.
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The second worst which was the worst
Iâ€™ve told this tale in many sermons, essays, and conversations.
The best church ministry I ever did was a new church start in Wisconsin. It was frustrating, joyous work. How humbling to serve laypeople dedicating endless hours to create a loving, Christ-centered church. Every person contributed!
But I clashed with the District Superintendent (the pastor in charge of the district where the church was located). We were both stubborn, two bulls in one china shop.
But he had the power.
In a meeting with the Bishop and other Superintendents, he lied about me. I know this because later the Bishop told me what had been said and done. His actions were based on intentional, premeditated deceit.
This happened 25 year ago. Just before ten oâ€™clock in the evening on April 21 (John Muirâ€™s birthday, by the way) this pastorâ€”a colleague in ministry, a disciple of Jesus, someone ordained to preach the good newsâ€”phoned my home. He told me the Bishop had decided to move me to another church. In other words, dump on my ministry and my wifeâ€™s plans. (She was then getting her Ph.D. at UW-Madison.)
My â€œcolleagueâ€ wanted me gone. Everything spoken to the Bishop was a lie.
I left that church. Fighting to stay could harm the newly born congregation. At least that was the Bishopâ€™s rationale when she met with my wife and me. While the Bishop shared her dismay at a colleagueâ€™s lies, she preferred not to go â€œpublicâ€ with the problems.
How can people be so cruel? They can. The church is, after all, a human contraption.
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The last worst
I am old knee-jerk liberal. Mostly private, mostly introverted (an INFP for Meyers-Briggs groupies). But, in the late 1990s, when a friend and fellow pastor advocated for a high-profile Holy Union, I wanted to help. Scores of ministers would gather to openly and enthusiastically bless the life-long relationship of two women.
National news! It was (and still is) against the â€œlawsâ€ of the United Methodist Church.
Eventually, charges were filed against the participating pastors. Indeed, the accusations against me were submitted by two laypersons in a church near Sacramento.
I didnâ€™t know these laypersons. After a little digging, I found that the pastor of the church where they were members had asked them to bring charges against his colleagues. If I am labeled â€œliberal,â€ this particular pastor would be â€œconservative.â€ Ah, the curse of labels! I am left and right! You are right and wrong. Whatever. Divisiveness is always so, well, divisive.
I discovered the couple had done a variation of pulling names from a hat. Their pastor asked for volunteers to accuse other pastors of misconduct. Along with others, they volunteered. I didnâ€™t know them. They didnâ€™t know me. Nonetheless, they willingly signed a piece of paper with the potential to terminate my ministry.
I called â€˜em.
Would you like to hear juicy details about the conversation? Alas, I donâ€™t recall much. They were a husband and wife. They thought homosexuals were sinners. They didnâ€™t think homosexuals could be Christian (let alone married or ordained). They also didnâ€™t expect the pastor they were accusing to phone. It took a bit to refresh their memory of who I wasâ€”the guy they were judging!
I didnâ€™t change their hearts or minds about the â€œevilâ€ of homosexuality.
And yet I like to believe they learned I was more than a name drawn from a hat. That I was a fellow who cared enough to attempt a conversation with them.
Now, years later, I smileâ€”and yet also frown deep in my soulâ€”that a fellow pastor who never once talked with me, schemed to have his church members accuse me of misconduct.
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Retirement births memories of the worst and weird. I donâ€™t think I hold grudges. I resist spouting the clichÃ©: God closes a door but opens a window. Doors do slam shut; windows remain shuttered. God, if only metaphorically, weeps. Humans can be trite, nasty, devious, andâ€”sadlyâ€”evil. Though I never use the doors and windows nonsense, I unabashedly lean on Godâ€™s love. Or as Flannery Oâ€™Connor wrote, â€œI can, with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing.â€
Hey, isnâ€™t my worst . . . insignificant?
What an easy-peasy forty-one years of ordained ministry Iâ€™ve had.
Maybe next time, Iâ€™ll remember some of the best.
(If you missed my self-indulgent Part 1 about retirement from a few months back, it’s here. There might be a Part 3 or 4. Or not . . .)