Over the phone she said there were some specific things she wanted to talk about when I visited.

I wasn’t surprised. Another member, who interacted with her regularly, had indicated that all was not well. I began to wonder, and worry some, about what would be coming in our conversation. And I wondered what had transpired since we last talked. An ominous cloud hung over this upcoming pastoral call to a dear, devout, and historically dedicated member of our church.

She greeted me, as always, warmly at her door. A recently acquired walker supported her once strong yet still stately frame. She carefully rolled her way through her richly appointed residence leading us to the living room, past the seating where we typically visited to the more formal chairs. One faced another. She directed me to sit across from her.

She lamented her decreased mobility due to a fall and complications. It caused her to be unable to attend worship for the past many months (or unwilling to attempt it, I thought, recalling her ability to get to other appointments of import). Her participation in our worship of God had been limited to watching Sunday at 10am via livestream on our website. While not as good as being present it was something, she noted.

With hardly a pause she shifted with seriousness to her principal concern: my sermon near Earth Day. “I don’t know where to start,” she intoned, but start she did. I spoke all too often about the crisis God’s creation is in. I preached all too strongly of our shared and individual responsibility to be wildly better caretakers of our common home. She had always done her part in conserving, and was doing what little she could in her compromised state, she maintained with growing intensity.

Incrementally increasing in volume, she continued. She felt uncomfortable with my calling us economically and culturally privileged folk to resist the structural evil in which we participate and benefit from. She felt judged by my urging as all—and especially those of us with way more than enough—to strive strenuously to do ever more to further ecological justice and generosity.

And then it tumbled out: “Daniel, would you just put a cork in it?!”

I sat there somewhat stunned. Seeking quickly to become aware of and also somehow to welcome (as I find helpful to do) the admixture of feelings within me, I strove to wisely respond wisely rather than simply react in anger.

She continued, now with less volume and more concern. “Oh dear Daniel, I just worry that maybe you’ve lost your way; that perhaps you’re not as connected to God as you once were.”

Being as present as possible to the tumult going on inside me and evident tension between us, I proceeded as carefully. How could I honestly and helpfully deepen this important encounter? I asked questions.

Did she happen to have listened to the other sermons I preached the past year that were not on this subject? Did she read the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) summary report I had sent to her as part of the class she’d kept pace with in absentia? Did she she know of my daily morning prayer widely available in the recently published book of prayers for our congregation? It starts, “O Lord, you have opened my lips; thank you, thank you, thank you! May all that is within me and all that is beyond me, sing your praise, show forth your glory, abide in your love, share your bounty…” She did not.

Then, with a messy mix of frustration, trepidation, compassion, courage, and who knows for sure what else, something like this came out of me:

“My dear sister in Christ, I will not put a cork in it. I’ve never felt such a compelling sense of the Spirit’s intention for me and this congregation. It is a timely, tremendously important, and essential dimension of the gospel. It has become a central priority of our congregation. It is an entirely fitting response to God’s great love for the world revealed in God’s unfathomable creating (Genesis 1-2) and unreserved self-giving in Jesus (John 3:16).

I cannot shut up about the truth that God has called me to declare. However…wait, please allow me to finish. However, I will strive to follow up the preaching of the gospel I do with pastoral visits to those disturbed my preaching of the gospel. It is my hope and prayer that through honest conversation leavened with humility, we can, by the Spirit’s guidance, discern how we might individually and corporately respond to God’s immeasurable grace ever more gratefully. Together, we may yet see the fruit of a continual increase in God-adoring, self-understanding, neighbor-loving, evil-resisting, justice-seeking, and self-giving. So the world may come to know God’s great love, and future generations—of every kind—may experience the life God intends.”

I’m glad to report that by the time I left, an hour or so later, we parted with a kiss of peace.  There was no further imperative for her pastor and teacher to put a cork in it.

Daniel Carlson

Daniel Carlson has been a pastor and teacher of the First Reformed Church of Schenectady for more than a decade, and, with his wife Mary, a resident of New York for over two decades, where they especially enjoy the forests, mountains, and lakes of this part of God's world.

7 Comments

  • Mary Huismam says:

    Preach it brother! Thank you!

  • Fred Mueller says:

    I wonder, was her “principal concern” your earth day sermon? This “dear, devout, historically dedicated church member” is facing devastating changes in her life. I am not sure your interrogation of her in paragraph 11 was the best pastoral response in this visit. I wonder why we needed to be told that she had a “richly appointed living room?”

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Oh, and writing that she seemed to be able to get for other appointments but not church was a “dig.”

  • GSB says:

    This frail elderly woman is still alert enough to question when respecting creation becomes worshipping creation. She is still courageous enough to contradict her pastor. She deserves to be heard.
    By the way, did she consent to having her pastoral visit posted online?

  • RLG says:

    Oh the joys of being a pastor. If your members don’t think they own a piece of you, then they could care less what you preach about, as long as it keeps them from falling asleep for the hour they have to be at church. This woman obviously thought she had the power to control you and to shape your ministry. And then there are those who are genuinely interested in what you have to say from the pulpit.

    But on the whole, at least in our traditional churches, being a minister doesn’t carry the import and glory of the past. The days of being the “dominie” (meaning Lord) are long gone. The days of thinking that the minister’s sermon is God’s word to a congregation is pretty much a memory of the past. And so you can expect a variety of responses to your preaching from your congregation, including the response of this woman. After all the minister’s authority is no greater than that of other members. And it’s your members who pay your salary, so they want a little respect from their minister. Oh the joys of being a pastor.

  • kcc says:

    Job 12:12
    Is not wisdom found among the aged?
    Does not long life bring understanding?

  • Tom says:

    You say “She felt uncomfortable with my calling us economically and culturally privileged folk to resist structural evil in which we participate and benefit from.” Not sure if that’s what she actually said or if that’s what you heard. If you are preaching that the ‘structural evil in which we participate” is “Capitalism”, then I’m with her.

    Capitalism has become a dirty word of late, but really it simply means freedom – freedom, within certain constraints, to live your life as you see fit. Capitalism is only ‘structurally evil’ to the extent that humanity is totally depraved. The historical evidence suggests that our constitutional republic has more successfully limited the effects of total depravity than any other system yet devised. If you want to see ‘structural evil’, look at the many varied versions of socialism implemented in the last century

    To many of us, the proposed solutions to the ‘climate crisis’ look a lot like the proposed solutions to many previous ‘crises’ – ceding more and more control of our lives to Washington DC and, in fact, moving closer to Socialism. If that’s not the solution you suggest, feel free to describe your intentions otherwise.

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