There’s a time to stay, and a time to go
This week has been Spring Break week for us—others are about to have theirs. For preachers in churches of any size, it is a thrilling time, a high holy day, whether you leave or stay.
Holidays for ministers always include times when large hordes of our parishioners go somewhere else and we stay behind in quiet offices and can only pray for them until they return. Or, in occasional cases, along with the ancient eastern prayer, “Lord, have mercy,” we toss a few prayers from Jackson Browne, “Why don’t you stay…just a little bit longer…”
There are always fewer appointments, fewer crises and problems to attend to, but the point is the volume declines temporarily. No waiting at the restaurants and it is nearly as delicious as the day after the primary in your state when suddenly the candidates stop robocalling you. Traffic is easy, and you ponder whether the post-tribulationist Rapture theology came from a subconscious desire to go away in stages so some of us could have a little time without the rest of us?
So the high holy days of parish ministry are not the same as those for the general lot of humankind Christians. For them it is Advent, Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and the spiritual days of America developed by the American Florists and Thomas Jefferson: Fourth of July, Mother’s Day, and so on.
No, in my line of work, the holiest days are:
- Spring Break, when all the young families go and take their children to the beach. Since children are my favorite part of church, this is a mixed blessing, but the building itself heaves a temporary sigh of rest.
- Christmas Eve and Christmas. Holy Time begins at the end of the last service you perform. Then they must go to their homes and stay there, locked in with all the dysfunctional people in their lives pent up with them. It will be bad when they get back, but when you lock up the church, there is a “a kind of hush, all over the world tonight.”
- July. Nearly the whole month. Again, the relatives come, and they are now the caregivers and don’t need me unless death is involved. This is not true for youth ministers and ministers to children, but this is not their blog.
- Thanksgiving week and any good secular or patriotic holiday.
Of course, this also works in reverse. They are blessed when we go, too. Continual ministerial presence is a daunting and unbearable load. We are symbol bearers of authority, reminders of things both good and bad, dredging up primordial and childhood Shadows. We carry peoples’ terrible confessions, failed and unfinished commitments, and remind them of things we don’t even know about. This is why, in the South, ministers require a long time in the grocery store. Some people flee from us in small towns, others seek us out, some we seek out. The ice cream can melt while we do the Lord’s Work at Publix. And sometimes we have to go back to an aisle six times to get what we came for dodging someone with borderline personality disorder and it fixed on you.
We can wear people out with coming too much. Someone once told me that a friend advised them about visitation, “If you want the pastor to quit coming on Monday night visitation, “Join the church, and he’ll quit coming.”
This is also true of visiting in crises. Even there, there is a need for rhythm of presence and absence. Once, in my second church, a man had been shot and robbed. It was big news in our small town, even making the local television evening news. I went to see him. He looked exhausted. There were twenty kinfolk, lined around the walls of that room. Every minute or two, another neighbor had come in all day, and each one would ask him to recount the terrible story yet again. He had been robbed and shot working in the field at his farm by a complete stranger hopped up on drugs. They all wanted to hear some strategic advice, I suppose, to insure that it would not
happen to them.
I stayed for a while, then said, “Well, Gene (not his name)I know I’d be exhausted if this happened to me. I’m going to have prayer so we can all go home and let you rest.” I could have prayed, “Lord, this poor man got shot and robbed, but it’s his family’s hovering interest, and his friends’ morbid curiosity, that could kill him. Grant to these Thy Emotionally Undeveloped Children, the capacity to empathize with a man in a hospital bed and the realization that he wants them to go home and leave him be. There’s a time to stay, and a time to go.”
This is yet again confirmation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s wise little dialectic about community and solitude when he wrote in Life Together, “”Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” Amen.
Got my taxes done. Got a lot of reading in. Rested some. Had some unhurried meals with my wife. I am refreshed. I kind of miss them, to tell you the truth. I hope they’re all back in the service tomorrow. I miss them.