It was a scene reminiscent of several over the years, and a not uncommon experience of the pastoral life. While on the campus of the University of Southern Maine recently for an awards ceremony (where – proud parent alert (!) – our eldest son was being honored), Lisa and I were greeted by this smiling young man who turned out to be James, one of the children of our former congregation, now a student of music at the university.
It was wonderful to see him; and a very nostalgic moment for us as well. After all, at the tender age of four months, he’d been one of the very first babies I’d had the privilege of baptizing at that church! Over our years in that congregation, Lisa and I had watched him and his siblings grow up in the Sunday School and VBS programs (to say nothing of witnessing their progress through the various Christmas Pageant roles that inevitably mark the level of a child’s growth and maturity in the church: from Stars, Angels and Manger Animals, to Shepherds, Magi and perhaps even Mary or Joseph!); and I must confess there is some measure of satisfaction and joy at seeing that this little one who once dutifully plunked down on the altar stairs for children’s sermon every Sunday is now a fully grown and self-possessed young adult with a passion for life that finds its expression in music.
Inevitably, such encounters get me thinking about all the other kids and families I’ve had the privilege to know, if only for a relatively short period of time, in my work in several congregations now as a church pastor. The nature and ethic of pastoral ministry in our tradition, not to mention the sheer span of time and geography, make it almost impossible to keep track of every one of the people who once were so much a part of your daily lives. There are, of course, the occasional letters and Christmas cards, and these days, social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter will yield some small insight; but by and large, clergy are bona fide itinerant workers, moving from one pastoral calling to the next, which is how it should be. But speaking as one of those, the downside of this is that you rarely get to see what happens with all these incredible people you’ve loved and prayed for, or to bear witness to how those kids “turned out.”
This very thought crossed my mind a couple of Sundays ago as we celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Baptism at East Church. We were at the part of the service when we ask the congregation – made up not only of members and friends of the church, but also the child’s extended family – to promise their “love, support and care to the one about to be baptized as he/she lives and grows in Christ.” It’s here that I usually make a point of saying that we are the village that it takes to raise a child, and that every person in that sanctuary has the opportunity – indeed, the responsibility – to make a positive impact, spiritually and otherwise, on the life of this little one. It’s a question that always gets an enthusiastic and positive response from the gathered congregation, but in all honesty, I sometimes wonder just how seriously we take this; if we’ll truly carry this great promise with us as the child’s future unfolds.
It’s not that I doubt the sincerity of family, friends and church folk; on the contrary, I have seen too much evidence of love and care on the part of good, faithful people to think that. It’s just that life is filled with transition: not only do pastors come and go, but neighborhoods can also shift, people move from one situation to another, and all too often, even families will change or at least rearrange; and this is to say nothing of the multitude of ways that the world’s culture changes over time! In my weaker moments, I wonder how any of us, much less your average church pastor, can ever promise as we do in the baptismal vows, to teach and guide and witness to these kids sufficient that in their time they “may be led to profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”
But then there are moments when you realize that perhaps for all the effort, there was more going on than you thought.
There was another reunion, this one a number of years ago, when Lisa and I were at a local diner with our then very young children. We’d noticed that as she was taking our order, the waitress was looking at us more intently than is usually required for keeping straight requests for chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese; it was as if she knew us from somewhere but couldn’t quite figure out how. But eventually it came to her, and she enthusiastically introduced herself as having once been one of the kids in my first Sunday School as a student pastor, and part of a Junior Choir I’d had started up with my guitar. “And do you know what?” she added. “You know that song you taught us? ‘O Fill My Cup?’ I sing that to my daughter every night when I put her to bed. She loves that song; it’s like a prayer and the only one that will settle her down to sleep.”
Wow. I remembered the song, alright; I still sing it, in fact, just a camp song that this little choir sang so often at that church I was sure that the congregation would soon rise up in protest! But it was a song that years and at least one generation later still gave a palpable sense of God’s presence and comfort. It goes to show that while all of us, pastor and people alike, are at least trying our best to be nurturers in the ways of faith and love, God’s Spirit with breezes both large and small, is moving in and through lives in powerful and miraculous ways that we can’t even begin to imagine.
And though you and I might not always experience the end result of such love and care, we can be confident in the one who’s forever working on the endgame.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry