Dear Abiding Hope Family:
If you’ve been by my office lately, I understand your amazement. You’ve taken in the clutter and generally said boy or wow. The pastor’s study can be like my late mother’s junk drawer. Any object without a clear, immediate destination goes in the junk drawer (a lonely C battery, a half-used packet of mini Kleenex, a ceramic hippopotamus from a box of teabags) or the pastor’s study (a floppy sunhat, an old bag of Swedish fish, an unopened pack of small Depends–someone might be able to use them). One of you winked and mentioned that a huddle formed recently over the need for an intervention.
And you see only part of the squalor. Yesterday I filled five trash bags by emptying out a filing cabinet hidden behind my closet door. Notes from seminary might be interesting as artifacts, but if their contents haven’t already been put in my heart and written on my mind, then I’m in trouble, as is anybody who would call me Pastor.
I’ve gone through hundreds of books and filled two boxes with keepers. Over the years a formidable theological library has happened my way, one collection from a studious pastor ready to retire and another from one who left behind an apartment groaning with bound ideas and counsel. The titles displayed on bookcases look learned, but as gray overcomes the final evidence of brown on my chin, the day has come to admit I’m much more writer than scholar (or theologian in residence, as parish pastors are supposed to be) and more fellow pilgrim than wise guide.
My mess and excess have let these realizations sink in and sharpen my awareness that most of what I’m moving out of the pastor’s study will be stored in my chest along with all I own in bliss and sadness, in the space that holds rants, laughter, and sighs.
Herbie was a bricklayer disabled young by heart disease. The whole time I knew him he had oxygen slung over this shoulder. Doctors tried everything, even a procedure that included poking holes in his heart. Weary, often in pain, he and his wife Loretta thought and prayed. We were visiting in their living room when she said that Herbie had decided to stop taking medication. The enough moment had arrived.
I sat beside him on his hospital bed, put my arm around his shoulder, and he let go. I’ll never forget the feeling. He cried and sagged against me, and I knew that his soul beheld a journey that starts with surrender. Surrender, that’s what we shared, the final human consent.
I held Herbie around a dozen years ago. When I leave my keys on the desk and walk out of Abiding Hope this coming Sunday, my arm will still be around his shoulder.
On Sundays during Holy Communion, children come forward for a piece of bread and a blessing. I cheat. Some argue that little ones don’t understand the Sacrament, which may or may not be true, but I’m certain they know what it means not to share what everybody else receives with such reverence and devotion. So I break off a little piece, a foretaste.
I get down in their faces and say, “Now you need to remember, Jesus loves you exactly the way you are.” I don’t pretend to know the mind of God, but if this isn’t true, my ship is going down in boiling water. Anyway, the world devotes much time and effort convincing us to improve, so I figure hearing a word of unconditional love over and over can’t hurt.
When I stand back up from each blessing my knees crack, but I don’t feel a thing. The sacred space in my chest can’t forget the expectant eyes, the whispers of yeah or okay when I tell them to remember.
Your life is coming in for a hot landing. There might be debris, flames and black smoke. Nothing to do but hang on, so you show up at my messy office, where you predict the devastation, anticipate the casualties. You need Kleenex.
Cancer. Betrayal. Death. Joy, too, babies and victories. But whether you’re in a free fall or glad flight, the pastor’s study is mainly a place to search through the box of answers you bring with you and to remember, always remember: In messes or atop mountains, we’re never alone. Our Unseen Guest, as my Grandpa Miller called Him in table grace, is with us, but when you and I hold hands and pray, we’re way beyond caring whether God is a boy or girl. We believe in the One in whom we live and move and have our being: God. Those three letters are plenty. The wreck may end up worse than you fear. We look at the cross and recall that Jesus crashed hard. With uncertainty scattered everywhere, we breathe in God’s old promise: “I will not leave you or forsake you.”
A promise and each other, that’s what we’ve got. When you walk out of my office, you leave me a gift that I’ll always hang on to: the image of your face as we crossed the valley of shadows and how it brightened when you felt the Unseen One traveling with us.
Your face. Abiding Hope faces. I keep them all in a safe place. And I want you to know, I have the faces of those you love and have gone on to glory.
At the funeral home, after everybody passes by the body, I stay behind. The funeral directors close the doors, then lower your loved one into the coffin and fold in the fabric. I watch. I want to be the last person to see that face because love should consume the moment. I see to that. Before the lid clicks shut, I say inside, “I’m still here. You matter.”
Of course, I will carry with me some objects that bear weight. The two most important are t-shirts that have a story behind them. They came from you, though you may know nothing about them.
During my first few years at Abiding Hope we had a fair number of teenagers, my daughter Elena and son Micah among them. Our youth group was lively, and two adult advisors made t-shirts for everyone. The trouble was, Micah wasn’t much interested in participating, heading as he was down a dark path that involved black clothes and a volcanic temper.
One evening when I showed up for an activity, Karri handed me a white shirt with “Pastor John” embroidered under “Abiding Hope.” White was our color. But then she handed me a black one with “Micah” and “Abiding Hope” in a barely visible dark purple: “If he won’t wear white, maybe he’ll wear black.” Mary did the stitching, I believe, but I don’t know who came up with the idea.
Over the years I’ve grown to understand that all of Abiding Hope handed me those t-shirts. You have always said, each in your own way, “Show up in your own color. You might find love here, maybe grace and hope, too. And an arm around your shoulder.”
My soul can no more leave you behind than my body can bury its own shadow. We belong to each other.
But now I’m off to another church family, where I’ll come to love more faces. I’ve got a couple days to finish boxing up the pastor’s mess. Thank God you and all we’ve shared are already packed in my safe place–no rust or moth there. For a while I’ll be putting some tears next to you, then sighs, and eventually, joy and gratitude.
Love, peace, thanks, and so long,
The thing I most enjoy in reading what you write, is the love that always emanates from your words. I imagine your parishioners are bereft at your leaving. I hope that you are not going far.
Hi, Mary. Yesterday was my last day. Lots of tears. I’m going to serve a congregation about an hour away, but will continue to live in Erie. No way Kathy and I will move away from that grand baby and the next one on the way. Peace and thanks, John
A new grand baby?! How lovely. Congratulations all around.
And we found out that new grand baby will be a boy. I’m good with anything, but Kathy’s kind of giddy.
Of all the churches in all the world, I thank the Unseen One that you happened to be in the one I stumbled led into. I see His hand in that, but I think only you will see His hand here and now. Be happy and don’t ever change.
I’m glad you rolled in to Abiding Hope, Vince. I’ll try not to change, except for the better.
I did not know you were moving on. I can’t imagine how you are feeling, but your post gets me halfway there. I wish you huge blessings as God sends you new shoulders to put your arm around. Thinking of you this weekend.
Thanks, Melanie. Yesterday was the last day. Pretty emotional. Next Sunday off to the new place, but still living in the same house. Thanks for the blessings! John
Be happy my pastor, my friend. I will treasure the memory of the simple guidance you gave me during the some of the most difficult days I’ve experienced. You will be tucked safely away in my heart, and the hearts of my children, as well.
I have lots to treasure from Abiding Hope, Vicki–your joy and care at the top of the heap. Any church that has the Saskas in the fold is pretty lucky. Peace, John
And, pastor John, we all love you just the way you are. Even those of us who may not show up every Sunday, or catch every post. You make a difference, and you will continue to make a difference. No matter where life takes you.
Hey, NTT. Hearing from you is one of the best things to happen in a while. So glad you’re still in circulation. Thanks for the pat on the back! Hope things are well with you. Peace, John
I’m still here. Maybe working on a little something something myself…
Oh my. What a transition. My heart is full for you.
Thanks, Sally. My last day at Abiding Hope was yesterday. It was emotional, but felt right. Next Sunday, off to the new place, but still living in Erie. Got to stay close to the grand baby . . . and the new one on the way. Peace, John
I’ve been thinking about this: “Anyway, the world devotes much time and effort convincing us to improve, so I figure hearing a word of unconditional love over and over can’t hurt.” So true. And I am as guilty as the next person for exhorting myself or my children to improve. We could all use some unconditional love.
All my best, Sally
I’m in Franklin–beer is cold and hearts are warm here, too! If you ever have the inclination to visit with an old friend just hollah.
Cold beer and warm hearts–what a combo. I might just overshoot Greenville one of these days and stop by. Peace, John
I knew exactly where to come to read your words and cry. Maybe I should start with,
Yesterday I walked into Andrew/Kirsten/Mom & Dads house (I haven’t been to Erie in weeks as we know that will happen from time to time), I was greeted with a hello, a glass with wine closely following, and a you NEED to sit down. I was of course concerned (what, who, what…), but never refuse the glass or the wine. As I take my first sip (good wine, forgot to ask what it was) Kirs started with so I went to church this morning and… I caught up to her words when she said John is gone. I sat there in confusion and I must have looked odd (odder than usual), because she looked at me and said you heard me right. Now you know I have the more level head of the two of us (HAHAHA) and I know she had already lost it, so I asked calmly what, why, what? So the conversation continued. The drama queen (?) in me had to share the above, but I’ll get to the point of this reply to your post, and your lack of presence on Peach St. You have been a guide, an ear, a warm hug, a teacher, and a perfectly imperfect man, who by sharing so much of yourself and your faith you have helped me see what true faith, love, and forgiveness is. I will say to you now what I said to Kirs, John needs to do what he needs to do, and so it is what it is. I have to be cool with that. Be happy and healthy, play with the grands, and know your face and warm hugs are in my safe place, until I see you again. Peace. ❤
Oh, Carrie! What a loving and understanding note. First I have to say how sorry I am that neither you nor Kirsten received the letter that went out to the congregation. I have no idea what happened, as I saw you both on the address list I approved for the mailing. But . . . I guess that’s water under the bridge. I’ll make a mental note to send you the letter in an email so you can get the words everyone else got, but the skinny is this: the past few years have been really tough, so much so that I really felt that to get energy and mojo back, I needed to find a part-time call. I just didn’t want to be one of those fifty-somethings whose obituary you read in the paper–heart attack, whatever. So I made the heart-breaking decision. I’ll tell you what though, if I shared half of what you say I did at Abiding Hope, I’ll rest easy in the knowledge that I was able to do some folks some good. Peace and love always, John
You surely, shared that and soo much more. I couldn’t list it all if I even tried. I will be looking for your email, as I will love to read that. But know this, the Lord works in mysterious ways, he always guides us, if we listen. Oh that’s right you taught me that. So know this, you are loved and will be missed lots. As always my friend Peace and warm hugs.