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Last week I was gifted the library of a local, retired pastor. Rather than donate the books to a bookstore, he wanted them to go to a young pastor he could meet personally. I was touched that he and his friends thought of me. Naturally I jumped at the chance when he emailed me about it a few weeks ago.
I was a little less enthused upon discovering his library was at the top of a narrow, winding staircase. My friend and I spent four hours packing up books and carrying them down said narrow, winding staircase, certain that each step would be the one where my foot slipped and I’d fall to a tragic and early demise.
Thankfully we got all the books off the shelves, into the car, and into my church office, to be sorted and stacked. That remains an ongoing project. It’s a lot of books.
As I pulled books off the shelves or rifled through them in my office, I couldn’t help but feel like I was handling incredibly precious material. As this pastor sat and watched us work, it felt as though we were boxing up his friends. He’d say things like, “There’s a lot of mileage in these books,” or “That one was a gamechanger for me.” There were hand-scribbled notes or relevant articles stuffed into many of them. I asked if he’d ever culled his collection of books before. “Nope,” he said. “These have been with me basically since I started in ministry.”
The First Time
Pastor Peter is the minister who baptized me and watched me grow up, quite literally, as my mother was our church’s administrative assistant and I spent many hours at church as an infant and young child. He took a call to a church in Oshawa, Ontario when I was twelve, but I still think of him as “my pastor.”
Twelve years later, I did my summer seminary internship at a different church in Oshawa, vacant at the time. Pastor Peter was assigned to be my mentor. Rather a remarkable thing, sitting across from him in his office and talking about ministry, him gently admonishing me to respond more frequently to email. Not all the lessons you learn about ministry are theological, turns out. As he was set to retire the following year, he sent me back to Grand Rapids with boxes and boxes of books, now lining my own office shelves.
I’m quite sure I’m never going to read all the books these two pastors have given me. Even so, I’m grateful to have them, to be surrounded by these “friends of the faith” that have provided the fodder for decades of rich and vibrant ministry. To have Calvin and Barth and Niebuhr and Nouwen and Bonhoeffer and Bavinck and Buechner staring down at me from those shelves, a great cloud of witnesses dressed in gold-embossed leather and worn, dusty pages.
A few of them are still around – I’ve gotten to do a couple funerals with them for parishioners who have always thought of one of these men as “my pastor.” When I sit next to one of them before a service, I feel myself a part of a line, each minister bequeathing the role of pastor to the next. It feels holy. It feels comforting. It’s a great cloud of witnesses.
There are days when being a pastor is a lonely, overwhelming task, especially for a young pastor in her first charge. And it’s easy to get caught up in the anxiety, in the “what if I don’t get this right,” in the need for approval, the need to stand out as a success.
And on those days, I’m grateful that I can swivel around in my office chair – or take a stroll down to the mailboxes – and be reminded of the great cloud of witnesses who have experienced God’s grace and guidance in their own ministry, who had their moments of anxiety and lived through them, and who attest – over the centuries and around the world – that it is Christ who builds the church.