He told me I could run away and pursue a different “calling”, but in the end God would have his way.
I was still in college at the time and trying to figure out what I was going to do in life. All of my efforts since high school had gone toward wildlife conservation and law enforcement. I’d been intent on being a park ranger, game warden, or something along those lines.
Unfortunately, I was carrying a great deal of guilt and anger because I knew that father had no interest in me pursuing such things.
In later years, when I was a park ranger, I tried to relieve some of those feelings by reminding him that it was partly his doing. The whole time I was growing up we were always going camping. I had come to love the outdoors because of those experiences.
I grew up thinking park and forrest rangers were the coolest people in the world, while at the same time feeling I was supposed to be doing something else.
It was the late 80’s and I was double majoring in biology and criminal justice. At the same time I was working part time for Kansas Wildlife and Parks. I was doing everything I could to gain work experience and get the right education to achieve my goal.
Even after attending college for a few years, I still couldn’t shake that feeling that I was doing the wrong thing. I wanted so badly to go forward in the conservation field and to feel good about it at the same time. But, even though I was pursuing that goal, I couldn’t shake the anxiety over not doing what I was “supposed’ to do.
Eventually, the doubts began to take over. My strong desire for affirmation from my father began to disrupt my plan for achieving my goal.
I finally came to a point where I decided to explore the possibility of going into the ministery.
I went to dad and told him I was thinking about becoming a minister. He lit up and excitedly said “Thank God!”
Wow!…… He never acted that excited and happy about “ANYTHING” I had ever done before. I think he’d been hoping and waiting for me to say this for years.
In the interim, I decided to become certified as a Lay Speaker. These are lay people in the United Methodist Church who have gone through training and are certified to fill in when a minister is sick or on vacation. They don’t do the big stuff like baptisms or communion, but can do the rest of the service, including delivering the sermon.
I lived in Topeka at the time and I took my training in a class held at the Council Grove United Methodist Church. Council Grove was familiar to me because we lived near there when I was very young and later I had been engaged to a young lady who grew up there and played piano in that very church.
There were a couple times I was able to serve and everything went well. I was still, however, hesitant to make the big change in my education and move toward the ministery.
A few months after dad moved to the church in Scranton, he gave me a call. He was going to Pennsylvania to visit my little sister and wanted me to fill in for him on Sunday.
I agreed to do it and began to plan my sermon. I had been to the Scranton church on many occasions since Dad had moved there, so it wasn’t a strange place to me. If I flopped, at least they’d know who to blame, genetically.
Dad was known for waiting till the night before church to write his sermon. I remember many nights hearing him either typing or actually practicing his sermon out loud, late at night, after everyone was asleep. He had file drawers full of old sermons he had typed over the years.
I was a little different because I tended to do an outline and wing it from there. I’m not sure why dad typed out his sermons because he didn’t read from them when he was doing the presentation. I think he knew what they said and took along the printed version as a back-up.
I remember that Sunday as being sunny and warm. It was a pretty day. My girlfriend, Jane, went with me as we made the 20 mile drive to Scranton from Topeka. I guess it was appropriate that she went along. We had met in our church in Topeka earlier that year.
A pretty good number of people showed up for the service. I figured everyone would take the day off since the regular minister was gone. Of course, some of them may have shown up out of curiosity to see how the son stacked up against the father.
Regardless of why they were there, it was good. The service went forward without a hitch and we got to the sermon.
I tend to tell stories and try to relate them to the congregation. I then throw in a little self-deprecating humor to make them feel at home. To me it was familiar, like standing on the back porch and telling a story.
I had grown up with the church being literally part of my home. It was a place I played, misbehaved, worked, got hurt, and felt healing as I grew up. The church was part of the parsonage since my family was so intertwined with it, both as a building and as an institution.
As for the sermon, my biggest issue was timing. I didn’t want to get carried away and take too long. Heaven help the minister who forgets the time and blows through lunch time. If there had been more than 10 comandments, most certainly one would have been “Thou Shalt Not Preach Unto Lunchtime”. There’s nothing more unpredictable than a church full of hungry children and grandma’s.
The sermon ended up going well and I was able to keep to the schedule. I had my sermon in an outline, but I had looked at it so many times by the time I got there that it was memorized.
Everyone seemed to be smiling and nodding. I didn’t see anyone pass out or begin to snore, so I felt it hadn’t gone too badly. The finish line was within sight and things were looking good.
In fact, as we sang the closing hymn I could feel a huge weight lifting off of me and relief taking its place.
As was customary, at the end of the service, I gave the benediction. I then walked to the back of the sancturay where the front door was. I then stood at the front door and shook hands with everyone as they left. It was a beautiful day and everyone was happy and smiling. In fact several people said they enjoyed the message and how I had done filling in for Dad. It was nice of them to say this. The day was turning into a very uplifting and enjoyable day for me. I couldn’t see what could possibly change that…..
As the last of the congregation left the church, I noticed a car had pulled up. I saw a middle aged couple along with a little old man get out of the car. The old man was gray haired and wore old denim bib overalls. He looked like a poster for what an old farmer might look like.
I didn’t recognize the man or their car. I wasn’t sure what was going on. They didn’t appear to be dressed for church, so why were they there?
As the man slowly walked up to me I will never forget how he looked. He seemed to be in some kind of shock. I held my hand out to shake his, but instead of shaking my hand he just held onto it. I could feel him trembling as he stood there without saying anything. He looked at me though the eyes of someone going through one of the worst days of their life. I remember the tears had welled up in his eyes to the point that they were almost ready to fall down his face.
He then grabbed my hand with his other hand and just held on.
We stood there looking in each others eyes. Through his trembling and tears, I could feel some of the trauma that he was feeling. I asked him his name and after several attempts to speak he finally was able to tell me. I then asked him what was going on. I could tell that he didn’t want to talk, but finally told me that his wife had died and he needed the preacher.
I asked if she had passed earlier in the week and he said no. She had just died. I was stunned….His daughter spoke up and said she had just been taken from the house and transported to the funeral home.
It started to sink in……She had JUST died.
He had come to the church to find the preacher and he thought that was me. At one of the most trying times in ones life, someone was looking to me for support and I had no idea of what to do.
I did a sort of slow-motion panic. It’s where you are looking at them with concern and seriousness, while inside you are screaming at the top of your lungs, “My God! What am I supposed to do next?!?”
Dad said it would be simple. I just did the service, shake hands, and go home. No problem, Right??
I quickly thought back to my childhood. Dad was always going to peoples houses to be with them as relatives passed away. At one point I asked him what he did and he told me that they wanted someone to be there. He had no tricks to take away their pain or the trauma. He simply was there to let them know they weren’t alone. If they asked him to pray, he would.
This clicked in my head. I was there for him. He was going through such a terrible experience and all he knew to do was turn to the church.
I sat there with him in the back of the sanctuary and held his hand. I could tell that he was trying very hard not to cry in front of me, but the tears streamed down his weathered face.
I told him that I wasn’t the minister, but only the fill-in. I felt guilty because I didn’t have the experience or knowlege to properly minister to his needs.
So I did what dad had told me all those years before. I sat with the man and held his hand as he cried. Between the tears he told me that they had been married well over 50 years and that he just didn’t see how he could go on without her.
These weren’t questions I could answer. Only he, with the help of the Lord, could find those answers. After waiting close to half an hour, I asked him if he would like me to pray with him. This was the first time in my life that I had ever asked someone this simple question.
He told me he wanted to pray.
I don’t remember what I prayed that morning. I do know that as I sit here typing, I can feel the emotion of the scene welling up as tears, even now, after all these years.
His heart had been broken that morning when his wife of all those years had left him. At first I had felt panicked and even cursed because I felt I was suddenly way over my head. What could I possibly do or say to help this poor grieving soul.
Later, after thinkng about it, I may actually have been blessed. It may sound strange, but I was able to share his grief in my own limited way. My way of helping was to give him someone to lean on in this most difficult and sad time. I didn’t have a lot of skill or ability, but I was able to be there in that moment and to let him know he was not alone.
I do remember telling him that I would personally make sure that a real minister contacted him that day. I wanted him to know that, even though the regular minister was gone, he was not going to be alone. That the church would step up and take care of him. Scranton is a very small town. I’m not even sure the man was actually a member, but it didn’t matter. In a small town, everyone knows everyone, and they help out.
After the man left, Jane and I walked over to the parsonage. I got on the phone and called Daddy out in Pennsylvania where they were visiting my little sister.
I thanked Dad for putting me through such an unexpected ordeal. Of course, in our family that is done sarcastically. I still felt I’d endured something quite traumatic.
He had me explain what had happened. He took down the gentlemans information and said he would call the District Superintendant, his boss, as soon as we got off the phone.
As Daddy explained what he would do, I interrupted him and explained that I had no idea what I was doing and felt so utterly useless. I couldn’t do anything for this poor little man.
Dad then told me that I had done what I was supposed to do. “I was there for him.” I had let him know that he wasn’t alone, though he felt like it from the loss. He said that I had prayed with him and let him know that the Lord was with him in his time of trial and grief.
As Dad talked, I could hear his voice crack. I asked him if he was crying and he said yes he was. I asked him why. This was something he had been through hundreds of times over the years, why would he cry?
Daddy then said he was crying because he was proud of how I had handled the situation.
This revelation hit me hard. When I got off the phone, Jane asked what he had said. I told her that he said he was proud of me.
I then grabbed Jane and hugged her as I cried.