When considering what I don’t miss about life in the church, visiting hovers near the top of the list. Visiting also has a spot in the top 5 of what I do miss.
Hmmm? Call me Contradictory Larry?
Tucked within the monolog-like words of Jesus to his disciples (John 15, the Gospel lesson for the upcoming sixth Sunday of Easter), the Nazarene said of his disciples, “you are my friends.” He continued with, “I appointed you to go and bear fruit . . .”
Whether planned or spontaneous, in a hospital before major surgery or at the kitchen table offering a chance to work with youth (such a deal!), visiting could nurture a sharing of faithful fruit.
Though, truth be told, I was lousy at visiting. How easy to postpone. Preaching and teaching—responsibilities I loved—took time. First was the personal preparation for a sermon or lesson, and then the public presentation. Going to meetings or completing administrative tasks consumed more hours. And don’t forget personnel issues and denomination demands. The obligations accumulated, like someone had jammed sand from an hour-long timer into the one-minute sandglass of my life. Too often, visiting another person was for emergencies or the ever popular, ever elusive eighth day of the week: tomorrow.
Anyhow, visiting in the twenty-first century boils over with challenges.
Castles had moats. We have caller ID.
If pastors brazenly call to make an appointment, a global communication company’s impassive voice icily greets her or him instead of a warm human being. Home phones have become noisy ornaments. The phone rings or vibrates and we study its screen for the name and number, immediately deciding to let it go to message or—rarely—to answer it. But, for the most part, why not listen to the message later . . . if you remember!
People have weird schedules. Who has a 9-5 job anymore? Kids demand chauffeurs for activities at all hours. Any pastor making a “cold call” is a fool. You’ll mostly hear the echo of a doorbell ringing in an empty house. A dog may be around to share a bite with you.
But people are more dangerous than territorial dogs!
A home visit can mean a male pastor is alone with a female. Or a female pastor alone with a male. Or any pastor alone with a child, or a vulnerable older adult. Danger with sexual harassment. Danger with any “he said, she said” disagreements. Do I smell a lawsuit?
Sorry, I exaggerate. Or do I?
And yet, I still believe, it’s in visiting where the bearing of fruit may happen between two people, and where the Holy, always desiring the creation of community, abides with us.
A while back, a former church member called. (Yes, I answered!) No longer involved in any congregation, her opening line was, “So Larry, why does someone call a pastor?”
People call mostly for the bad news. Her mother had died. Though a time of anguish, I looked forward to trying to help. You are my friends . . .
+ + +
I knew, when persistent in spite of the Caller ID obstacles, calling at the right moment after work ended and before the kids headed for soccer, that maybe a visit could be arranged. Visiting may be the best of what anyone tramping along with Jesus does. Be with another. Take enough time for the spirit to thrive, for the fruit to keep ripening.
When living in Wisconsin, I swung by to visit a church family on their dairy farm. I wanted to see how the cancer treatments for the mother/wife were going. When I arrived, she was cutting their expansive lawn with a riding mower. A bandana covered her head, hiding hair loss. She stopped the mower, greeted me, and I asked one question: “How are you doing?”
For the next moments, she wept. With her family she had to be strong, but through my simple question, the good and bad news freely flowed. With me, she could be scared. She didn’t have to careful with words, like she was with her kids and grandkids. I probably said a few other things, but I only recall my first question . . . and a deeply felt sense of being faithful friends.
Once, after teaching a class, a church member lingered. She shared her desire to do more with her faith, about feeling a call into the ministry. Oh, fleetingly, I thought her call was a by-product of my brilliant teaching. What a privilege for her to absorb my inspirational nuggets! But, as I listened, I discovered her “call” had little to do with me. Instead, it was a lifetime journey of being open to God, wrestling with scripture, praying, and with support from many preachers and teachers. (Yes, including even me.)
I was excited. What pastor wouldn’t be? But her sharing deepened. Though the congregation I then served openly welcomed the LGBTQ community, as a lesbian she would never be ordained to serve the church she loved and the Holy One who beckoned.
What a visit. What a privilege. I could never plan that moment. With her, I sensed a “bearing of fruit.” The bearing was burden and blessing.
In the Gospel of John, the Nazarene said, “I appointed you to go and bear fruit.” That’s our calling. It’s not fancy theology. It can be two people together, in a hospital room or a home, after church or in the supermarket, where a visit becomes a gift for both.
Too often, visiting was pushed to the next day. Or hurried.
And yet I loved visiting. I wish, in my ministry, I’d taken more time with others to ask the simple questions that friends ask, to share in the good fruit of neighborly love along Jesus’ path.