July 11, 2020

Carl

His name was Carl.

An old New Englander, he was strong and mostly silent. He was always pleasant to me, a young minister who had come to the mountains to take the pulpit in my first church. As with many of the men who lived in those hills, it was his wife who was actively involved in the church. There were notable exceptions, but a majority of those men would rather hang around the volunteer fire department or find some chores to keep them busy on Sunday morning. Carl would attend services with his wife, but I didn’t see him much at church activities besides that.

Still, we did exchange pleasantries often. His wife was the church treasurer, so every Monday I’d stop by their house for my check. At other times, I might have bills or receipts to turn in or questions about some financial matter that took me to their house, so I’d see him out in the yard or in the kitchen. Sometimes I’d sit with them and have a cup of coffee. He mostly smiled and listened as his wife and I talked.

I was young and naive, clueless about adult life, ignorant of the culture where I had just relocated, and wrapped up in moving away from home, getting married, living in a place of my own for the first time in my life, being called to my first church — you name it, everything was new. I was a babe in those hills. What’s more, I had landed among people who were deeply rooted in the rocky earth of those green mountains. The congregation itself had first been established in 1814. The buildings in which we met were over a hundred years old. Most of the folks belonged to families who had been there for generations. I was a fresh sprout among ancient oaks.

I am sure guys like Carl shook their heads in wonder at my youthful brashness, the silly things I said, the social blunders I committed. When you’re twenty-two, you know everything and you’re ready to take the world by storm. I’m thankful I went to a place where people had their feet on the ground. They had seen young pastors come and go, had heard the bluster and dogmatism, had put up with being experimented upon and forced to try newfangled practices. They mostly outlasted ’em. They would do the same with this young buck.

In my second year at the church, Carl had a stroke.

I did my best to visit the family at the hospital and see them through the critical care period. To be honest, I don’t remember much about those days. What I recall is later, after Carl came home. As far as most of his body was concerned, he remained healthy and active. But Carl could no longer communicate. This strong silent man now had no words to speak at all.

This young pastor began to visit more often. Carl’s wife stayed home more and church attendance became less regular. Social situations could be a bit awkward. You see, Carl would give the appearance of talking and entering into conversations, but he made no sense. It was impossible to tell if he was comprehending anything that was being said to him or in the gibberish he spoke. But Carl would smile and “talk” just as if he was a full partner in whatever discussion was taking place around him. In fact, he may have been more talkative than before.

Sometimes this could be kind of funny. Sometimes it was heartbreaking. All of the time, it was Carl’s new reality, one his wife shared with him. It became hard on her. The partner with whom she had shared words for decades could no longer communicate. She got frustrated trying to help him with any number of simple tasks. She got cabin fever. She didn’t feel as useful at church or in other activities in which she’d been involved. The young pastor had a parishioner who needed regular encouragement.

And so I visited. And there we sat, the three of us. Carl’s wife and I would talk about church, what was happening in the community, our families, and how she was getting along with Carl. Carl sat with us and smiled and made his unique, incomprehensible contributions. I was in way over my head.

The novice minister had come to the end of his tricks fast. I had to learn right then and there that things happen in life I can’t change, fix, or make better. I came to the realization that words don’t solve all problems. I had to admit that I don’t have answers, that I don’t even understand the problems sometimes. I was forced to practice and come to appreciate the art of simply being with someone, sitting, listening, attending to the situation at hand without “working” in any tangible fashion to improve it.

I watched an unforgettable demonstration of love, as a woman kept her promise “for worse” and “in sickness.” Recognizing right away that I had little to offer in the light of such profound devotion, I learned the power of simple encouragement. All I brought to Carl’s home were a few words of affirmation, a couple of Bible verses, and a prayer or two. Such were the rudimentary tools I had to work with in those days. But, to be honest, I probably could have said the same simple things every time I visited — or nothing at all — and frankly, it would have been enough.

I learned that just dropping by, having a cup of coffee, showing a bit of kindness, and sitting for awhile could make a real difference for somebody. Who knew?

And that a pastor, even a young and clueless one, can represent the gracious, healing Word of God to hurting people.

And that pastors are made by means we would seldom choose and might never imagine.

I’m thankful for everything I’ve learned in church, in Bible college, and in seminary. But when it comes right down to it, it was people like Carl who helped me learn what it means to be a pastor.

 

Comments

  1. Randy Thompson says

    You have it exactly right.

    And, for whatever it’s worth, New England hasn’t changed much since you were here. I’ve had bunches of experiences like this.

  2. Yes, we all learn as we go along how much we thought we knew and were clueless. Isn’t there a verse that speaks to the man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought??? The older I get the less I know. I think. smile. Thanks, Chaplain Mike for this humble and sweet reflection. You maintain the IM site so well. I appreciate you lots!!

    • David Cornwell says

      …it was people like Carl who helped me learn what it means to be a pastor.”

      And can never be taught in a high powered seminar or conference on leadership in today’s church.

      • David Cornwell says

        Mary, this was not meant as a direct reply to your post, but to Chaplain Mike’s. But on second thought, it applies to both in a way. And a verse I thought of in reference to your post is I Cor 8:2: “If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know…” (NASB)

  3. A dear lady who is a charter member of our church (50 years in), and has Alzheimers, asked me the other day if I pastor a church in town. I have been her pastor for 14 years. She’s sweet, and she is fading from this world, but I love her.

    DSY

  4. My Pastor Mike, older to me by, oh, 15 years or thereabouts, visited us often in the waning days of my Husband’s life back in 2005. Rick had ALS and had lost his voice to it. He was 50. Once, when I walked Pastor to his car, he turned to me with tears and said, “Your Husband is teaching me more in his silence, than any of my sermons, with their thousands of words, have ever taught anyone. I wish I had more to give you.”

    Your story reminded me of Mike. It takes a lot of humility to be a real Pastor and to learn from real pastoring… Thank you. Bless you.

  5. “I learned that just dropping by, having a cup of coffee, showing a bit of kindness, and sitting for awhile could make a real difference for somebody. Who knew?

    And that a pastor, even a young and clueless one, can represent the gracious, healing Word of God to hurting people.”

    I am glad that you came to know this so quickly in your ministering to people, Chaplain Mike. What an important lesson it is. It is so hard for me to just listen sometimes. I want to offer suggestions, advice. It’s hard to sometimes get my head around the fact that the person just wants to talk.

  6. Thanks for this Chaplain Mike.
    The other night a friend dropped by. His wife died a few years ago leaving a young daughter. He told me that his cancer has spread, possibly to the lymph system.
    I have nothing to say. I listened.
    He laid on the couch and talked until he fell asleep, I placed a cover over him.

    This is probably his final walk. I want to be there for him.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Notice the silence from the Name-It-And-Claim-It Prosperity Gospel types.

    Notice the silence from the Truly Reformed with their Perfectly Parsed Theology.

    Maybe we HAVE learned something since the days of Job’s counselors?

    Because This Is Reality.

    • Hey, only 9 comments so far… give them time!

    • The Guy from Knoxville says

      You know HUG – what you’ve said about the NIACI, PG, TRs and others is true in many ways though not all are that way or vice/versa however, that being said, far to often in the sbc circles I’ve run in over the years I have found that so many pastors, associates even deacons and such have very little or no regard nor time to deal with situations such as what CM has written on and what the comments are saying. This seems especially true in larger churches and definitely the megas – one can hardly see or speak to the pastor outside of the Sunday morning show. The smaller ones seem to do better but I’ve seen those have as bad a track record as the megas…………. sigh. One of the things that has crossed my mind recent past and now is that my wife and I have dealt first hand with Alzheimers with her mother and we have a unique perspective and knowledge and “milage” if you will. This needs to be put into ministry and something I’ve considered asking my wife about – maybe this is where God might want us and use us.

      • The Guy from Knoxville says

        BTW HUG – with the exception of a congreation or two here in Knoxville I have washed my hands of the sbc/sbc churches for the most part for a host of reasons and one of the many reasons was the less than desireable experiences I’ve had with pastors, associates and deacons with regard to these real and difficult life situations. Again, this is not THE reason for getting out of the sbc but one of many – I just couldn’t handle it anymore and neither could my wife – it’s been a difficult walk in this wilderness the last 3 years come April 2012 and I-Monk has been a gift from God in many ways since my discovery of it and Michael Spencer and now Chaplin Mike and others carrying it on. There are no words to describe the gratitiude and thanks for this ministry – would that we had more like it.

        • Knoxville….Can I give you a hug? This blog, and the Christian Monist and Wartburg Watch have helped keep me sane. I can have conversations here that in the fundagelical chruches, ministries, etc.. I could never have. This blog is about life and love. I wish that I could have Chaplin Mike for a pastor. Even with my doubt, uncertainity and anger, I’d go to his church and sit there with others and wrestle out these issues and HOPE that I could find resolution. But I love this blog a lot. It’s been a lift raft when few others existed. I can’t tell you how much this blog appeals to me. And its posts like today that stand out in stark contrast to what I heard day in and day out in the fundy circles I once moved in.

          • Wow , you REALLY got burned. But i understand where you are coming from. A number of my friends who attend the mega church where i live have left the faith. They just couldn’t take many more sermons about :homosexuals , end times , abortion , “secular humanists ruining christmas , or how that ONE church has correct exegesis because they renounce ALL human wisdom/intelligence. I showed them some internet monk posts…they loved it. It would be pretty cool if this site got a forum or something.

          • The Guy from Knoxville says

            Eagle, I can always use a hug – smile. Some of the dark days of the past and present have been chased away by the light that exists here and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Read WW from time to time to and enjoy it as well. 2006 was a pivitol year for me and if I had not found I-Monk I dare say I would not just have walked away from the SBC but probably the faith as well. Fortunately that didn’t happen but getting out of the SBC was definitely one of the best decisions at this point in life that I’ve made – it resembles nothing of the powerful force for God and spreading the gospel that it once was and I hurt for them but I could no longer swallow what was being dished out. My marriage, family, the faith and my sanity were at stake – I would have lost much had stayed in it.

            Well, enough on that – very easy to get into a rant but, being the time of year it is Advent, Christmas and Epiphany which are my most favorite outside of Holy Week and Easter I’ll not get into anymore ranting on the SBC (or others)……… there will be plenty of time later on for further discussion on this topic and a host of others.

            Thanks for the encouragement Eagle and here’s sending a hug back your way – all the best to you and yours as we move through this special time starting the church/christian year.

          • Dear Eagle:

            I found a lyric today:

            “When I feel like an eagle my soul has not place of the ground
            If you don’t look away I’m secure in the fact that you won’t let me fall…”

            And before that
            I thought I love that eagles are one of the wonders
            the wise man does not understand.

            So, I have considered that.
            Additionally we have an eagle in the sky
            near where we live…

            I thought..
            “A tree beside streams of living waters.”

            All this research and stuff you’ve done
            and places you’ve been and gone
            and I think what you’re looking for is simply a tree.
            with deep roots beside clear living water streams…

            and maybe the tree like that is looking for
            someone like you —

            but of course niether the tree, nor the eagle would say.
            it’s not the way for these…

            A strong branch to perch in a tall strong tree…

            A tree that understands its place well
            and is secure.

            And you know that the branches and the trunk are not going to bend or break
            when you’re there…

            And it’s not going to freak out if you see a fish
            in the stream and fly and swoop down to catch it…

            and maybe, for you, eagle, this is sooner than later.

            I am sure that a tree would be a very good friend
            and that tree would say the same about the eagle

            but they don’t have to talk much
            both have an understanding of their grace/

            An evergreen would be good in summer and winter
            and if it was old enough and tall enough and strong enough
            and the place was peaceful…

            it could be a place to build a nest……..
            but of course eagle would carefully consider this
            and perch for a while to make sure.

            “When I think like an eagle my soul has no place on the ground…”
            It’s a good lyric.
            It’s not an easy time, eagle.
            Maybe you’d be surprised to know that
            when you find the tree and the stream
            and the place… and settle
            Knowing you can fly safe and free ———————
            you’ll be able to say free
            what is beautiful in your sights.

            Do you see the tree and the stream, eagle?
            Trees clap their hands in the wind

            The music sounds like eagles wings.

            And, while wings are still and straight
            and the wind moves

            The trees clap their hands.

            When eagle wings move in flight —
            the hands of the tree are more still

            And the tree will listen…

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I have found that so many pastors, associates even deacons and such have very little or no regard nor time to deal with situations such as what CM has written on and what the comments are saying. This seems especially true in larger churches and definitely the megas – one can hardly see or speak to the pastor outside of the Sunday morning show.

        That’s one of the BIG downsides of extreme size. I’ve figured there’s an optimum size for a congregation, and when you get too far below or above it, entropy sets in. Get way too far above or below it (like a four-man independent house church or a mega) and SERIOUS entropy sets in.

    • I was leaving work and logging off my computer. Before I did I jumped on the net and checked on the Internet Monk. God knows I check this blog at all hours of the day or night. Anyhow I read this post as I was ready to leave; and I wanted to weap at my cube. I was touched. The prosperity gospel crowd can’t match this. You know what this stands in stark contrast to? A Facebook post I read tonight. A person from my fundagelical days in Crusade posted about how her hsuband was cancer free, and praising God. I wrote the following post on FB:

      Ah….the happy clappy prosperity version of fundamentalism. The real question “Karen” is if you would say “praise god” if the doctor gave a different version of events and said that the cancer had quickly returned, was at stage 4 and the outlook was bleak. How many Christians would still say God is good? Very few, because in American fundamentalism praise God = the cancer scan came back negative, or I survived that car accident on the 495, or the baby was born healthy, etc… Many fundys attach their faith to a positive outcome. This is part of the reason why Christianity is fraudulent. Life doesn’t work like that…not unless you are in a bubble removed from society. However, many fundys are in such a bubble and that’s why they act and look at things as they do. Pop that bubble and then where would you be? This type of Christianity is toxic to those who are in pain or suffering.

      • Was thinking about this post today and was started thinking about this song:

        Blessed Be Your Name
        In the land that is plentiful
        Where Your streams of abundance flow
        Blessed be Your name

        Blessed Be Your name
        When I’m found in the desert place
        Though I walk through the wilderness
        Blessed Be Your name

        Every blessing You pour out
        I’ll turn back to praise
        When the darkness closes in, Lord
        Still I will say

        Blessed be the name of the Lord
        Blessed be Your name
        Blessed be the name of the Lord
        Blessed be Your glorious name

        Blessed be Your name
        When the sun’s shining down on me
        When the world’s ‘all as it should be’
        Blessed be Your name

        Blessed be Your name
        On the road marked with suffering
        Though there’s pain in the offering
        Blessed be Your name

        Every blessing You pour out
        I’ll turn back to praise
        When the darkness closes in, Lord
        Still I will say

        Blessed be the name of the Lord
        Blessed be Your name
        Blessed be the name of the Lord
        Blessed be Your glorious name

        Blessed be the name of the Lord
        Blessed be Your name
        Blessed be the name of the Lord
        Blessed be Your glorious name

        You give and take away
        You give and take away
        My heart will choose to say
        Lord, blessed be Your name

        • tree63…

          one of my favorite songs that was not a commercial Christianese music form…

        • David Cornwell says

          Amen.

        • When I first *really heard* the words of this song for the first time, the tears started to flow, right in church. I’m not a big fan of many contemporary choruses, but this one’s an anthem for me. Thanks for posting it!

      • Amen Eagle, this week my wife and I are coming alongside our dear christian friend, young mother of two, who has now been told the cancer is back and spreading to two major organs.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        that…not unless you are in a bubble removed from society. However, many fundys are in such a bubble and that’s why they act and look at things as they do. Pop that bubble and then where would you be?

        Which is probably why they react with such hostility to anyone who might possibly pop that bubble.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Life doesn’t work like that…not unless you are in a bubble removed from society. However, many fundys are in such a bubble and that’s why they act and look at things as they do. Pop that bubble and then where would you be?

        And Real Life has this habit of popping bubbles.

  8. Thank you…. a beautiful lesson of the Christian life.

  9. It never ceases to amaze me at how much we can learn in difficult times of sorrow and sadness. About ourselves. About others. About the gospel.

    Thanks for sharing. Once more I have much to think about.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      One of my writer contacts (the one in Louisville, KY) told me he’d been asked once by a travelling evangelist “Have you ever thought depression might be your spiritual gift?”

      Because it’s often the dark and strong emotions that put power behind writing and art, and the Christian demands for “edifying” happy-clappy stuff not only short out that power but drive the artists and creative types away.

      This is just the application of that outside of writing and art. And the Shiny Happy Clappy Christians are missing out; when (not if) the storm does come, they are more likely to blow away.

      • Wasn’t Hemingway, and a slew of other arthurs dealing with depression? I think F Scott Fitzgerald dealt with alcoholism.

        • I’m an English teacher; you want a list?

          Hemingway — alcoholism
          Poe — morphine addiction plus some serious abandonment issues
          Katherine Mansfield — tuberculosis
          Woolf — mental illness; suicide by drowning
          Faulkner — depression (plus writing in the Deep South in the days before central air conditioning!)
          Orwell — tuberculosis

          An author friend of mine told me once that depression is pretty much a default setting for writers.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            All I can say is I deal with low-grade depression on a regular basis, and the four times in my life a story has burst into my head fully-formed all have been Dark. Usually some form of Lamentation. As I used to say, “It’s writing itself; last time this happened, a unicorn got beheaded.”

  10. The Guy from Knoxville says

    Chaplin Mike,

    As I type after reading this post and comments I type with tears running down my face. A few years back in the church I was last organist at I remember vividly an older couple who came in to the nave of the church each Sunday morning and the wife had Alzheimers and her husband would gently walk her to a pew in an area about 3/4ths of the way back on the side where my console was – where they sat each Sunday morning. This man would so gently lead her, holding her hand, guide her into the pew and help her to sit down and the man just beamed with love for this one he had known and shared life for a good 40+ years and he would sit close with his arm around her. It was if she didn’t have that dreaded desimating disease – he loved her fiercely, unconditionally, without shame, proud that she was his wife and he her husband and each week I was moved and many times the point of tears. They were a study (for lack of a better term at the moment) of what the vows they took so many years ago ment to them and should mean to us…….and…….. someday…….. that could be……. will be……. many of us……….. Will there be a young pastor searching to learn as you did, family and friends to come by and help carry the load if but for a few moments – I would pray that would be so. Will we be the loving spouse showing the unconditional love of God as we care for the one God allowed us to spend our lives with?

    After my wife and I left that church I don’t know what came of that couple but the lesson learned from just watching them week to week is seared into my mind and heart and something I know I will never forget as long as I have the ability to remember.

  11. Such a beautiful inspiring story. Thanks for sharing it, Chaplain Mike.

  12. What a deeply refreshing and challenging post.

    I didn’t learn this as young as CM, but I’ve known for some time that sometimes, perhaps most times, simply being present with someone is all that is needed to show the love of Christ, to be a witness, to make a real difference. But it has only been in the past few years that I have had the opportunity to put that knowledge into practice with an aging precious friend who has basically no memory left but whose eyes light up whenever I visit (not often enough), and with my mother, who is suffering progressive dementia and remembers less and less.

    I can’t fix anything. I can’t provide any wise words or deep insights. But I can be there, and that is enough. Where two or more are gathered…. regardless of their mental capacity or lack thereof.

  13. Ah, yes…expressive aphasia and confabulation are the medical terms fo Carl’s problems, but it is wife’s devotion that speaks to me. it is so easy to fall in love with our young, healthy, and attractive spouses-to be, especially in the rush of giddy young love/lust. Our cranky, fat, balding spouses with health issues of a physical, emotional, mental or spiritual origin..not so simple.

    Carl was blessed in having a helpmeet, albeit not a perfect one “enjoying” her struggle and pain, and those of us with that sort of spouse are blessed beyond measure. Thirty-three years ago a young and handsome man taught me that he could love me even when I failed or was sick, and that perfection was not needed. His love helped me erase the childhood tapes that told me I was only worthy if I was perfectly performing and never making mistakes…being “a WINNER!”. And he learned something similar from me, and only by the grace of our Lord. Now, I am chubby, he is bald, and we have health issues. We snipe and disagree, but the LOVE has grown along with Christ in our days and nights. AND…neither of us need worry about being sick or disfigured or other lovely bodies out there, thanks to the sealing of our committment in a Nuptial Mass when we MEANT every word, although not understanding them totally. God made marriage a sacrament not to bind saints but to bind sinners so that they might learn of God and tug each other toward Him. Tom, I love you.

    • “God made marriage a sacrament not to bind saints but to bind sinners so that they might learn of God and tug each other toward Him.”

      Perfectly said, Pattie. Thanks.

  14. Thanks for this post, CM. I have a friend whose mother has been told she has less than 6 months left. The cancer is on her spine and she could well face paralysis and severe pain before this is over. My friend needs to talk and I need to learn to just listen.

  15. Much wisdom here, and I wish more Christians really got it, especially leaders. I think the notion that we can, much less should, “fix” other people or solve their problems is poisonous — arrogant and doomed, not acknowledging the depth and complexity of human experience or our common bonds of brokenness. Funny how often we shun the real power of ministry as exemplified in this post for things that are ultimately far less meaningful. They shall know us by our love … not our “success.”

    Not that I have an opinion or anything.

  16. When I think back over all the 43 years of my life all the people who stand out to me in the various churches I was involved with, are not the funny, loud energetic leaders but the quiet older folk who were struggling with health or disappointments. I have learnt so much through their graciousness and faith. Now I have elderly neighbours, one with dementia, who get most upset with me if I don’t pop in each week for a cup of tea. At first it was a chore but now it is a blessing and privilege to be welcomed by them – I thought I was ministering to them but it turns out they are ministering to me and I have changed since sharing regular time with them. Thank you for Carl’s story – truly inspirational.