"A pastor's kindness" (June, 2011)

Started by Richard Johnson, July 19, 2011, 07:01:20 PM

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Richard Johnson

"A pastor's kindness"
by Richard O. Johnson
Forum Letter, June, 2011
Copyright 2011 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.

"There's a man named John who wants to talk to you," my secretary informed me. Great. This was not a day with extra time to talk to a drop-in, but what are you going to do? I invited John into my office. He was a nice-looking man, about my age, dressed in sweatpants, a little unkempt but more like someone who'd been working outside than someone who lived outside. He sat down and began to tell his story.

His life was not going so well, though this didn't come out right away. He had retired a few years ago, lost all his money in the stock market crash, now was months behind on his mortgage. It is a story I have read about in the newspapers, but don't encounter so much in my parish, at least in this extreme version.

Under his wing
But he prefaced it all with a long-ago story. His father was an alcoholic, and life at home was rough. They were not church-goers, but they lived just a block from a Lutheran church. One night his grandfather, who lived with them, fell over in his chair at dinner. An ambulance was called. The pastor of the church, seeing the commotion, came to the house. When it was apparent what was happening, he took young John to his house for the night.

John began to weep at this early point in the story. "He took me under his wing," he said. "He made me an acolyte. He asked me to help with Vacation Bible School. He listened to me. He taught me to think about what was going on inside me, the confusion and anger I felt about my father. He taught me that God loved me, and that I didn't have to be bound by my father's alcoholism."

He was referring to the pastor by name—let's just call him "Pastor B." He was a man I had known slightly, but who was already retired by the time I was on the scene, and has now been dead for several years.

A point of reference
John's life had been an interesting journey since then, and he described it in some detail. Now he has been away from church for a number of years, but still, in the midst of his present turmoil, he finds the lessons he learned from Pastor B. to be his constant point of reference. He has tried to teach them to his children, who are now adults and are, he said, both fine people. He spoke as if Pastor B. and I, and that congregation and my congregation, were all one. "I just felt I needed to come and talk to you, and to thank you for all that you do." That was truly all he wanted; he didn't ask for money, or any other kind of help. He just wanted to thank somebody for what Pastor B. had done, and I was the closest surrogate.

It is something of a truism that we never know the impact we may have on someone's life. Yet truisms are true, of course, and often in ways deeper than we imagine. I found myself thanking him for sharing his story—for reminding me of how the little kindnesses, or the big kindnesses, that we are able to offer are sometimes remembered by the recipients long after we may have forgotten them. Pastors are privileged to have such opportunities perhaps more regularly than many others, but this is hardly something restricted to pastors. Pastors, though, perhaps more than others, rightly or wrongly, are seen as icons of Christ. How we respond to people shapes how they think about God.

Those who touch us
And I wondered if Pastor B. had any idea of the impact he had on this man's life. I rather doubt it. But it was real, and lasting, and profound. I thought about some of those who have had such an impact on my life, especially when I was a young man. Most are gone now, or I've lost track of them. I wish there had been opportunity to thank them properly. No, that's not quite true; I wish I had taken the opportunity to thank them properly.

I read somewhere recently about a man who had cultivated a marvelous spiritual discipline. Every day—every day—he would take the time to write a note to someone, thanking them for something they had done. Sometimes that might be something done "for the public good," shall we say. But more often it was simply for some kindness that had been shown to him, by friend or stranger. I wish that were my discipline. I fear that the road to hell is often paved with unexpressed gratitude.

Eternity shall tell   
Not every act of kindness has the long-term impact that Pastor B.'s had on John. Or maybe it does, and we're just too thick to realize it. Mother Teresa gave this advice: "Be the living expression of God's kindness." We are, all of us, representatives of Christ. When we are cranky, dismissive, thoughtless, we do not give glory to God.

Thinking about Pastor B., and about John, some schmaltzy words from the 19th century poet David Bates came to my mind: Speak gently; 'tis a simple thing/Dropped in the heart's deep well./The good, the joy, that it may bring/Eternity shall tell. And I breathed a prayer of thanks for that kind pastor, and asked that I might be more like him.
—by Richard O. Johnson, editor

Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

Jeremy Loesch

I really liked that Richard.  It provided the impetus to call my field work supervisor to just say thanks.  And then I called a few others that week who had been so kind to me in my training, formation, and ministry.  You did a nice job.

A Lutheran pastor growing into all sorts of things.

Richard Johnson

The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

Jeremy Loesch

Scott, that is a very good point to discuss, because I too believe that these kinds of visits are common among pastors.  And sometimes my response to such folks is not always what it ought to be.  Depends on my mood, personal issues, personnel issues, church family issues.

It seems to me that the visitors who have a long-ago church connection, and have been off wandering, and then come back to church are genuinely searching and are genuinely in need.  And as the economic recovery moves along at a snail's pace, the people looking for help are more visible.  I wrestle with these things, and at the end of the day, sometimes I feel good about what I've done, sometimes not so good. 

I don't think that'll ever go away.

A Lutheran pastor growing into all sorts of things.


Thank you also... it reminded me that the fruits of our labors are often hidden and that we can count on the harvest that God intends for every seed planted... our labors are not in vain... it also prodded me not to so summarily define and dismiss those who walk into my office looking in the way you described...
Fr Larry Peters
Grace LCMS, Clarksville, TN

Timotheus Verinus

I add my thanks for the blessing of the story and reminder.

I only reply because it occurred to me that many would be like me, and not reply to the post, as it seemed somehow to lessen a light of God's kindness that stands on its own.

But Richard,even though I didn't reply right away, it brought a flood of memories, from the lady who called last year out of the blue, whose name I hardly remembered, to just say thank you for a bible study 30 years ago, to the veteran with colon cancer who walked in yesterday, and simply said, "I don't need anything, but prayers, can you pray with me?" and we did. I was also made mindful of the lost sheep that crossed my path, who disappeared, and I do not know where they are, or how they are, and to calm the sorrow,  I have simply left them in God's hands, trusting that He has one of you at their side.

So I'm guessing many here will not reply for similar thoughts. I hope this one fills in those blanks. God does wonderful things with cracked pots. It is a joy to be allowed to walk with Him a ways.

Thank you,
TAALC Pastor

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