February 17, 2020

Another Look: Carl

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Note from CM: Names have been changed. This post was first published in 2011. This past weekend we talked about “Carl” and his wife with many friends, remembering their strength and God’s faithfulness to them. I was impressed afresh at how much I learned from such simple, daily relationships as this one in my first pastorate.

• • •

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 and his wife who helped me learn what it means to be a pastor.

Comments

  1. We once were in community with a Methodist group, and itinerancy was still the vogue for pastors. Most of the group “were deeply rooted”, one such being Oakley( not a name change and entirely appropriate). He shared with me that what he wanted in a pastor was just dropping by once in a while, and preferentially participating in whatever work was going on there that day while conversing. Few ever did that. I do appreciate that you don’t choose the means by which you have been made. And it shows here that you have some good makings.

    • David Cornwell says

      I think you have touched on something important here. Itinerancy was important for Methodists probably for far too long. Thus they were unable to put down good roots and become part of communities. Itinerancy is still in use, but not to the extent it was in the past (I suppose). People who are here today, and gone tomorrow sometimes do not take time to notice the important things about the people they serve. They invest their time in other pursuits, which may be important, but they do not take time for the people. When disputes arise, and get serious enough, they can move on to the next appointment.

      This is not scientific and I know will be opposed by some Methodists, but my theory, based on observation for a number of years, is that this ease of leaving the scene, of not putting down roots, and not being part of a people and place has been one of the main contributing factors to the decline of Methodism. This is a generalization and there are strong exceptions. But mostly the exceptions prove the main point.

      Pastors need to get to know the Oakleys of the churches they serve, the children, those in nursing homes; teenagers, young families, and be with them and part of them. And plan on staying for as long as possible.

  2. This was wonderful to read and I am so glad you learned how to truly minister to those for whom there is often “no answer.” I am wondering, just as you were “present” for Carl and his wife during their struggle, are we not all supposed to be ministers to one another in the same manner?

    If congregations only rely upon the “pastor,” many needs will go unmet and disappointment will reign in that body. Perhaps the principle of “teaching a man to fish” needs to be applied to the church via a corporate understanding of our responsibilities in the “priesthood of the believer.” If we are only open to pastoral visitation during times of illness or other challenge, I suspect we are effectively limiting the blessings God may have in store for us through the ministry of His other servants.

    I learned this through personal experience too. When our son was in treatment for cancer, the pastor visited once. That’s it. It was as if he was checking off a box on his “to do list” for the day. Yes, he said some encouraging things to say but it was the myriad of other people – some not even followers of Jesus – who truly ministered to our needs during that time. I had some serious letting go to do over this situation. I remember being angry and complaining to God that no one from the church paid any attention to our crisis . . . and God answered by asking, “Have I not met your needs with MY people?” (OUCH.)

    Bottom line is when the LORD calls you to minister to someone, simply be obedient and go. He will give you the words or silence to meet the need that He wants you to fill.

    • Well said, Trish. I’m well on the sunny side of 60, and am just now being forced by circumstances I would never choose….to learn to exercise this art.
      My best friend’s wife has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and they have 2 young children. I have no ‘answers’, no ‘magic solutions’, all I can do is pray for them, and make myself available….to listen, to go for a M/C ride with him (very therapeutic), to cry with him, to HEAR him, as he searches for ‘meaning’ in all of this uncertainty.
      He no longer goes to church, pious utterances are of no value to him, what he seems to appreciate is the quiet love and support both my ex-wife and I offer. In these trying times, it’s not the ‘least’ we can do….but it seems the ‘MOST’ we can do.

  3. William Martin says

    Thanks

  4. CM, I wonder if in looking back you see this as the beginning of your subsequent ministry in hospice care. It seems to me that few pastors would have what it takes to do this, and I don’t know that it could be taught without an inborn or acquired ability. I have so much respect and admiration for your following this path and doing it well. Hats off again!

    • Yes, I told people all weekend that this congregation provided the perfect training ground for my current work.

      Thanks for your kind words.

  5. –> “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.”

    This is so perceptive. I think it’s something all Christians have to come to grips with at some point. I discovered this myself only a few years ago, working in our church’s food pantry, hearing all the life stories of people in need, some in severe states. I had no magic wand to wave and make everything better. For some reason, God does not operate like that. All I could do was hand them a bag of food, listen, pray, send them on their way, and tell them to come back in a week if they needed more food.

  6. 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?

    If your post was a news article, this is what should be the lead sentence. This is the heart of it. So many people fail to understand the power of presence. They talk about word and deed and doing and planning and vision and whatnot. But actually being present is probably more important than all that; it’s not just a prerequisite to being an ambassador of the kingdom, it’s the main means by which the kingdom of God is made known in this world. Through our very selves, and often irrespective of how stumbling and bumbling and tripping and unsure we feel we are.

    Thanks for this article.

  7. This is my prayer answer as I begin this journey of visiting. The story and following sharing is so encouraging especially when I assail my doubts in my head. Very timely and Thanks to all.

  8. Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

    Thank you for this thoughtful post, CM. I wonder how this relates to the idea of a spiritual director and Christian traditions that emphasize relational growth as apposed to an emphasis on head knowledge or theory.

  9. CM

    I went to see some friends a number of months ago and the name of a pastor came up that we both knew 30 years ago.

    He mentioned how he had a baby die crib death, and on how this pastor came by and sat with them for a long time – 13 hours sticks in my head. It had a huge impact on this couple. No answers, just spent time with them.

    Something there

  10. Radagast says

    I may have mentioned I have a spiritual mentor who has a form of blood cancer and is dying. I see him once a week and spend about 15 minutes or so with him. When I was younger he taught me much, first by being a religious intellectual with conversations that appealed to my mind, second by being a lay Carmelite and appealing to my heart and soul. The doctors gave him six months which he has now passed by sheer will and I see him each week at church though he can no longer walk. We talk very frankly about death, his coming death, and how it has been a real eye opener for him walking this walk, and again I get to share without full participation. He is a blessing….and he once again is having a profound effect on me.

  11. Thank you Chaplain Mike

  12. “Ministry of presence” was the term used by a retired chaplain that I once knew. It meant that just being there made a difference.

  13. “…. the art of simply being with someone, sitting, listening, attending to the situation at hand without “working” in any tangible fashion to improve it.”
    That’s generally not a young man’s game. It usually takes getting slapped around by life a little bit to learn the fine art of ‘being’ there. I remember witnessing to a stranger on the street in New York around 1979. About five or six minutes into my eloquent and learned witness he asked me what his name was. I could not remember for the life of me. About ten seconds into my “uhh”and “hhmmm” soliloquy, he turned his back to me and walked away without a word. What a great lesson in being present to more than my silly ambition to build the kingdom.