As I begin writing tonight, I have 99 hours left of my 15-year tenure as pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Urbana. When I wake up Friday morning, I will be the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Mattoon. I feel strange: a little sad, a little relieved, a little excited, a little numb. For weeks now I have been clearing my head and house so I can travel light into my new responsibilities. These are days of letting go.
I'm suddenly having trouble with my memory (for about two months now.) And then I remember that I always lose chunks of my memory whenever I move to a new church. My brain erases factoids willy-nilly (I guess so I have room to remember new names and stories.)
For 15 years now I've felt a strong duty to keep my promises to the people of Grace. Those promises can be summed up in a liturgy we held when I was first appointed here. In that worship service, one person from the congregation handed me a Bible, symbol of my promise to teach and preach from that book. Another person handed me a bowl of water, symbol of my promise to seek, enlist, and grow disciples of Jesus Christ. Another person handed me a loaf of bread and a cup of wine, symbol of my promise to lead the people of the congregation into deeper awareness of how much God loved them. Another person handed me a towel and basin, symbol of my promise to put the needs of others ahead of the devices and desires of my own heart. Another person handed me a hymnal, symbol of my promise to lead the people in song, prayer, and praise. Another person handed me the Book of Discipline (rule book of the United Methodist Church,) symbol of my promise to administer the life of the congregation in obedience to our denomination's rules. Another person handed me a globe, symbolizing my promise to lead this congregation into ministry with all persons, whatever country they might be from.
So with 99 hours to go here, I am feeling relief, of sorts. For the first time in 15 years, I think tonight that I might make it to the end without losing it. For there have been times I have wanted to whack people with the Bible rather than preach it or teach it. There have been individuals I wanted to re-baptize, conniving that if I dumped the whole bowl of holy water on them they might be chastised into becoming sweeter. There have been times I wondered if I needed to drink the whole bottle of communion elixir myself, and I don't mean the Welch's grape juice. More than once I just wanted to throw in the towel. At times the only hymn I felt like singing was, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." Instead of painstakingly following the rules of the Book of Discipline, I've often wanted to let some folks just try it their way and see how far they get. And sometimes I've looked at the globe and pined to escape to the other side and hide out with my Chinese friends who've returned.
But all churches and pastors face tough times. And the tough ones make it through. Look around Grace today and you will see some of the toughest and most gracious people in the Kingdom of God. They have to be: to still be so compassionate with me after all these years. Dozens of Grace people have been my guardian angels, helping me NOT do the things I mentioned in the paragraph above. Only by the grace of God, and only with the aid of so many Grace members these 15 years, I have kept my promises, the basic promises we United Methodist pastors make when we are ordained. We seek to keep these promises in each church that the bishop entrusts to our care. Not a single one of those promises is easy to keep. And when one is pastor of a congregation for 15 years, those promises weigh more and more each year.
It seems to me that my life is built around three basic promises. One is my promise to God, expressed in my ordination vows. The promises I describe in paragraph three (above) are at the core of all Christian living. They inspire and inform everyone who seeks to follow in the ways of Jesus.
A second basic promise is found in the marriage vows: when we promise to love and cherish one another, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health. This is a promise that instructs and inspires not only married couples, but family life in general. We extend this tenacious loyalty to our parents and children, our brothers and sisters, to all our kin.
And the third basic promise is the one we say when we pledge allegiance to the flag. In that pledge, we affirm our love of country, our commitment to freedom and justice, and our awareness that only through humility can we rise to the ideals that attract people from around the globe to join our nation. It is a promise that informs how we treat neighbors and strangers alike, in our day to day public life.
So now I have 98 hours to go...to keep my promises at Grace. And come Friday, I will awake with a prayer to ask God to help me make and keep them anew for the people of Mattoon. Thanks be to the people of Grace Church. Thanks be to God. And may God have mercy as Grace merges this weekend with Quest. And may God have mercy on Mattoon and myself. --Mike