Monday, August 16, 2010

Watching a Rerun

If you watch any TV, you watch a lot of reruns.  Some of them are welcome because you might have missed them first time up.  Most are not.  Yesterday I was watching a rerun (of sorts).  I was in a neighboring parish where a candidate was being installed into his first call.  There were the typical red paraments, stoles, and guest clergy, the finest a small parish can offer in terms of music, a meal, and a mood of rejoicing, and the familiar words about the start of journey both long and difficult with a reminder to patience and perseverance.

Thirty years ago next week, it was me.  The parish was a small congregation in the Catskills, near the Hudson River, of New York.  It had been split by controversy and was but a shadow of its former self.  Started in the boom years of the Missouri Synod (1958-1969) this congregation had an unusual but elegant building indicating the forward vision of those who planted her.  Somewhere along the way things ceased to go as planned.  By the time I came along, the building was in disrepair and the two years without a Pastor had left them pretty wounded.

They had tried calling from the field but no candidate could muster a majority.  Then, in a surprise move of the Spirit, both sides agreed to call a candidate from the Seminary (both sides thinking that the man God would send them would look like their side).  Instead, God surprised them with someone who looked like a Lutheran none of them had ever seen before.  I showed up chanting, with Eucharistic vestments, and a vision for the future shaped by a weekly Eucharist, a return to a confessional awareness and affirmation of Lutheran identity, and with a desire to see things happen (as all candidates seem to have, due to the pent up desire for doing the ministry they had been studying for some four years).

At my installation 24 Pastors showed up -- the Bishop and Circuit Counselor had to be there; the rest came to see what fool took the call to be the Pastor of this congregation with a reputation.  After leaving Seminary and its rich liturgical tradition and Redeemer on Rudisill with my mentor Pastor Charles Evanson and its rich liturgical tradition, I found myself alone in a place I had never been, without much Lutheran identity or desire for one, in a congregation which was wounded and sore, fearful and distrusting... and well, I felt the fool those guys came to see...

When we arrived I promised my wife we would be gone in less than two years.  So much for my wisdom.  The Holy Spirit said more like 13 years.  And when we left, the congregation was solid in Lutheran identity and their life together as a people around Word and Sacrament.  We had a wonderful parish musician, a new organ, several choirs and instrumental groups, a thriving ministry to the poor, a preschool, a remodeled facility, a huge VBS (like 250 kids), and strong lay leadership.  My heart is still there in so many ways and it is hard to talk about it because of the strong feelings I still have for these folks.  I led them and they let me lead them.  They taught me and I learned from them.  It was exactly the right place (kudos to Bishop Ron Fink for prayerfully placing me there).

What was so long ago, seemed like yesterday -- literally -- as I watched another new Pastor come to his first call.  The limitations of a small congregation with some baggage from their past and a tendency to believe that the glory days were yesterdays...  The wonderful celebration of a beginning which must inevitably be followed by the real work of Pastoral Care... The hopes of a dreamer who saw what was there not as it was but as it could be... The prayers and blessings of clergy who knew the struggle there and who offered petitions based more upon harsh realities than hopeful uncertainties...  Yes, that is how it begins for many of us in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod...  It was a little like a rerun... of a program I wanted to see again and at the same time did not want to see all over again... if you know what I mean...


Anonymous said...

Fr. Peters, your description brought a tear to my eye, as I have had almost exactly the same scenario...twice the Ministry God has called me to.

While the first parish I served, the one I consider my "seminary" was a large one with a well-established Pastor but was otherwise quite chaotic. I learned much there.

My first "solo" Call was as you describe, almost eerie in the similarities. I had every intention of staying there until the Lord called me to heaven, but after 10 years the congregation had been restored to a reasonable Lutheran identity, a remodeled sanctuary, the mortgage paid off and new faces...but the faces all around were brown and the language was Spanish and it became clear to everyone but the members that if the congregation was to go forward, their shepherd must speak Spanish. I was not the one to do that for them, much to my and their sadness. God provided a shepherd who is taking them into their changed neighborhood and while they are not doing things exactly the way I did, they are being faithful.

After a short year long interim assignment, God called me to another congregation, much like the first: demoralized, shrunken in numbers, angry, tired (exhausted, actually) and told by a District consultant that they would not make it without abandoning the traditional Lutheran trappings.

Without support from the District, they called this "liturgical guy with good people skills" and, once again, God has the last laugh.

Thanks for the opportunity to give thanks for where God has placed me in His Church.

judy said...

I didn't realize how lost sheep can get without a shepherd. We have been without a pastor for 1 1/2 yrs . We are hanging in there, but can see a difference when you don't have your own pastor. Thank-you to all of our LCMS shepherds. You truly are needed.