Early on an August morning, I left our cottage in the dark to go see Peter.
I drove up past Mountain Grove to get on Highway 7 (here the Trans-Canada) for the three-hour drive. Through Kaladar, Madoc, and Marmora, the road is a fast two-lane on the Shield, all rock and water and pine. I made good time in the growing light, playing tag with the odd transport and watching out for the OPP.
Peter was dying of cancer. He was in hospice care at his home in lake country. I hadn’t seen him in twenty-five years.
I had been his pastor once, at my second charge, a Dutch-immigrant congregation in the Niagara Peninsula. He and Janice were a star couple in that church, from two important families. She was beautiful and smart, an RN, intense and purposeful. He came from moderate wealth, was easy-going with less ambition; and always a good time in a group.
My wife and I loved them. I did their wedding and baptized their first child, and after I left that church they came to visit us in Hoboken. But eventually we lost touch.
Over the years they joined an Anglican church, had three more kids, and survived a marital glitch (his fault). Thirteen years ago tragedy struck: Janice was killed (murdered, actually) by a drunk driver. Peter recovered from his injuries, but was deeply wounded inside. He left his job, left his church, and drifted away from his friends and family, except for his kids. He moved to Toronto, found a new job, tried dating, and he’d follow her to church if she went there, but it never lasted.
A few years ago he got back in touch with me, and over the phone I’d offer him counsel. Then he met a woman he could love and be with. He bought a house near the Trent Canal, and a boat, and then, well, he got cancer, and bad.
When I arrived. Peter was sitting on the bed that he would die on. His partner was at work, but three of his kids were there with him. We talked. We remembered. I told his kids stories from the past. We laughed and cried, and we talked about their mother. I could see sudden glimpses of her in their body language. “Oh my, you said that just like Janice!”
Peter’s pain was very bad and he talked about suicide, Dutch style, but his kids were forbidding him to do it. We talked about his funeral, and why he should invite his family. We talked about God, and how hard he had found it to believe in anything.
And then he said it, “You’re my Dominee.” He said it with affection and, I think, a slight rebuke. I was the one pastor he had ever loved and connected with, and maybe I had abandoned him, and that’s why he had drifted. Without me in his life, how could he believe? Especially after Janice’s death? She was the stronger one spiritually, and he’d never had to believe on his own before.
Now that I was back, he could believe again. When finally I got up to anoint him, he clambered over and rose up into my arms to get my blessing.
My thoughts kept me company on the drive back (apart from looking for a chip wagon).
“You’re my Dominee.” I heard it that he was saying that I was his priest—I made his connection to God. I carried his connection to God, not by my words or my preaching or even my counsel, but just by my presence. That’s priesthood, to embody the connection to God. It’s more than being a pastor, because a pastor does, and a priest just is. In Roman Catholic terms a priest is sacramental in his person. His ordination is a sacrament.
Of course the Reformed tradition is not congenial to this—“the priesthood of all believers” and such, and the Lord Jesus did not “institute” the priesthood as a sign and seal of God’s covenantal promises, and my own ordination was not a sacrament.
I love the sacraments, and I have a very high view of them, but I don’t think of myself in sacramental terms. Yes, I am a Minister of Word and Sacrament, but when I pronounce the Words of Institution at the Supper, for example, I am doing that in Lutheran terms as a Minister of the Gospel, not in the “Hoc est corupus meum” terms of priesthood. I was not trained for the priesthood, and I’m not fully comfortable with it. But I think that for Peter I had been his priest.
No doubt chaplains experience this all the time. And chaplains have been included in the Reformed Church ministry from the beginning, although in Dutch Reformed history they were pretty much just pastors to their regiments and ships and orphanages. They led services and they preached.
Modern hospital chaplains are priestly for sure, but their work is short-term and site-specific, while my ambiguous experience of priesthood has come in long-term relationships, like with Peter. I imagine modern military chaplains are in between, but in the Reformed theology of office we regard their work (for better or worse) as a special case, or only incidental, and not definitive to the office of the Minister.
Last year I announced my coming retirement here in Brooklyn. One of our younger parents said to me, “This will be hard. You’re our family’s connection to God.” I was honored, of course, but again, a bit uncomfortable. The Reformed ideal is a congregation full of convinced and self-motivated active members, responsible for their own discipleship. Our Dutch Reformed ecclesiology holds that the office of the Minister is essential for the church, but we don’t extend that to individuals—that ministers are essential to the faith of individuals.
Does the Reformed theology of Office (which I espouse with conviction) do injustice to the need of some, or many, or even most people for priests? Or can there be some accommodation without losing our doctrines of Office?
We discussed this among my elders the other night, one of whom is that young parent. They all think it’s true and good that people want priests. One of the elders, who grew up in the thick Christian culture of Dutch Grand Rapids, suggested that this is particularly the case in the unchurched and even pagan culture of Park Slope, Brooklyn. In her growing up, there were so many people to connect her to God, like her Christian school teachers and her grandparents and her aunts and her uncles, that it hardly depended on the pastor.
I know that many of my congregants over the years have expected some measure of priesthood from me, in various ways according to their projections and transferences. Again, I mean by this something to be distinguished from my pastoring them. I mean my just being there, fully inhabiting my religion, but also, because of my ordination, available to them.
I can accept this, but it’s not what I was told to expect nor what I signed up for. I would have judged myself incompetent to take this on. I don’t mind carrying my own faith, but carrying the faith of others would seem too much. And there are plenty of church members in my successive charges that I have disliked enough that I can’t imagine connecting them to God. And then the weaknesses of my personality would be for many people a cause of disconnect from God. How good and evolved do we have to be as personalities to exercise this priesthood well, beyond a simple integrity?
“You’re my Dominee.” It has had a powerful effect on me, like I was being called. Who am I that I should be this? Who am I, that I should have such place in people’s lives? I think of the young Martin Luther shaking as he held the chalice. “Zeal for your house has consumed me.”
Am I not allowed to be an ordinary person, an ordinary Christian? Is this why I’ve never lost my discomfort at being called “Reverend?”
I’ll end by saying that it gives me great relief to believe that there will be no priesthood in the new heaven and earth.
Daniel, thank you for this story from one of the dear people who make up the body of Christ. 38 years joyous years in pastoral ministry and 25 challenging years as a reserve chaplain in the USAF brought me many priestly opportunities. And for the most part I felt prepared and ready to step into them. Tho in my first small church I politely asked an elderly lady not to address me as Dominee, cuz I was not called to be her Lord. To point others to the grace of God, and then to kneel down with them and apprehend it in the mud and the blood and the tears, well that is life well lived. Well done, my friend, well done.
Great food for thought, Dan. I remember years ago at an ordination service for a friend the title of the sermon was, “Parson as Person.” It is a tough road that we walk.
Having read your piece, I’m Spirit-prompted to give our Lord thanks for you, and for your years of faithful serving as pastor to his precious children whom the Lord has entrusted to your care.
Dale, I’m more than gratified (gratias agimus tibi Domine), I’m moved.
I think that in part this is precisely what a Reformed doctrine of office is about. We shy away from the personal, but what is ordination about? We represent,in our person, the alien Word, that is life and hope for individuals. I have had many of these experiences; they are always humbling, but remind me of what I am about.
I know what you mean and appreciate how you have fleshed out the notion/reality of “Presence”
The “I Am” gets enfleshed. Again and again. Bless you in retirement. John
I loved this. Thanks Dan.
A friend of mine walked away from his faith a few years ago, but we would often talk about faith and what it meant and how he’d gotten to this place. For my birthday one year he got me the novel Home by Marilynn Robinson, the second in the Gilead series, telling me, “I figure I’m Jack Boughton and you’re John Ames, at any rate.” It was such a powerful moment, for reasons I can’t quite yet put words to. But I think it has to do with this notion of representing, or bearing witness to, God’s faithfulness, simply through my presence in our friendship. And that for now that might be enough.
Oh Laura de Jong, to be a John Ames is a privilege. Robinson gets at the priesthood a little bit in the first novel when Ames considers the power of giving the blessing at the baptism.
Thanks for dredging up similar moments in ministry. Sometimes in those crisis moments of ministry you are (flirting with the role of priest) I experienced something like an out of body experience. Knowing I was totally inadequate for the task, it is like being pushed out of the way by God who then ministers through us doing what needs to be done; what he wants done. In his recent memoir, Will Willimon writes a question he asked as a young man as he grappled with his calling, “What kind of God would choose someone like me?” Willimon, the “bad boy of preachers continues, “You can look it up. Jesus began his work not by a solo dive into ministry but by putting the finger on a dozen knuckleheads and commissioning them to do what he wants done in the world, calling for them in order that they should go and bring forth fruit.'” Dan, do you mind if I say, “Thank you from one knucklehead to another?”
Don’t mind at all. Actually I’m a bonehead, so knucklehead is a step up.
Thanks for this lovely reflection, Dan!
That means a lot, Scott, considering all the great posts you write.
Thank you Daniel… this touched my heart deeply!
As I expect it would, Cor.
Excellent post, Daniel.
Your comment about the priesthood, that “it’s not what I was told to expect nor what I signed up for. I would have judged myself incompetent to take this on”, makes me reflect on an important distinction between the Old Covenant and the New. Under the Old, God has to argue with Moses about taking on ministry and chase Jonah across the sea and drag him back–there re others, I know, but these are examples. Under the New, God seems to have considered it wiser not to tell people just what they were in for until it is too late; even Jesus realizes the full magnitude of what he has let himself in for in his obedience and says “take this cup from me” when it is already too late, and he knows it (this is not the place to sort out what fully divine Jesus shared with fully human Jesus and when). I am fully convinced that each of us accepts a call to ministry based at least as much upon what we don’t know as what we do, because, if we knew all of it, we would all run for the hills.
Very insightful, James Brumm.
Thanks, Daniel, for this post that brought back memories for me. I served five congregations, my first and last in Canada. And whereas I’ve had similar experiences, such were the exception. In one Canadian congregation, I was the first contact made when a father and husband committed suicide (by shotgun to the head). I was contacted even before the family or police were summoned. I was the first on the scene and was the one to clean up the bedroom after the body was removed. I fulfilled a priestly role, the first contact between God and family. That was definitely my role, as many in this first generation immigrant congregation needed assurance that their close friend, fellow member, husband and father was not bound for hell (as many thought of suicide victims). And yes, I was often referred to in this congregation as the Dominee, especially by older members. Such a position put the minister in a position of authority that I didn’t especially feel comfortable with.
But be assured, this was the exception. As a non Dutch minister, most of the congregations I served were trying to move away from such a perspective. Most wanted a pastor they could befriend, go skiing or golf with, have a beer with, and even call by my first name, although children were still expected to call me “pastor.” They wanted a pastor they could argue theology with and even disagree with. Some of my congregations expected that three years was time enough to become like them, culturally and religiously. Congregations all differ along with the expectations of their minister. And of course, ministers, themselves. often set the tone as to how they will be treated and looked upon by their congregations. Thanks, Daniel, for a thoughtful reflection. Much blessings in your retirement.
You are most welcome, and thank you.
An elderly sister out at St. Paul’s Catholic Church at Marty, South Dakota, Yankton Reservation, generally meets the people I bring along out there dressed in a cut-off sweatshirt and jeans. She apologizes, rolling her eyes, then tells us how much she loves all the changes in the church. Then, just to cover all the bases, she backs up a bit and says that in her civvies she’s not perceived a religious anymore–and something about that hurts a bit too. I suppose she might say it was somehow a little easier for her to be a Dominie when she was in the habit. Thanks so much for this thoughtful piece, Daniel.
So I loved this post. But I want to share another perspective. I was a critical care nurse at our local hospital for 43 years, retiring last year. But I have also been a Commissioned Pastor of Adult Discipleship for the past 11 years at our church too. It’s sort of a fringe office, but I am allowed to and ordained to administer the Sacraments and also perform marriages in our Classis. I am active in the Faithwalking community for the process of transformation and I also preach in our church and pulpit supply. I often feel like a misfit, but I know that God is using me. Several folks in our community have called upon me “because you are a pastor, aren’t you?” and I have lent a listening ear and offered counsel. I respect and admire all the work that it takes to go to seminary ( I also had a rigorous training with some classes at Seminary) but I am amazed that our community has made space for me to use my gifts and serve the body of Christ in my church and outside my church. Someone once called me “Dominee” also. How funny was that? Thank you for this perspective.
I thank all of your for your sympathetic and divergent comments.
Thanks, Dan, for the emotion-moving story and perspective. You are truly a man of God.
David W Cooke
Thanks for this, Daniel. Much to ponder here, both about the past of the pastoral office and the future. As congregational and denominational structures disintegrate, what will be the role of ordained people? Anyway, with Dale C, I give thanks for you and for your years of ministry. I have no doubt the Lord is celebrating your faithful service (and probably plotting surprises for you in retirement, I hope very good ones). Maybe you could write a memoir?? Blessings.
If you ghost-write the memoir yes. I would want it to be brilliant and funny.