Holding on underneath this shroud

Every once in a while someone will ask me what I actually do, aside from the preaching. Only a few of them seem suspicious that I’m spending my days at a secret clubhouse where vocational pastors gather to eat cereal all day, play video games, and laugh about how rich we’re getting while pretending to have real jobs. Most who ask seem sincerely curious. My answer almost always starts with, “Every week is different; every day is different.” And it’s true. There are rhythms that are consistent, but the particulars are always changing.

I usually continue my answer for long enough to notice the person who asked start to nod off, at which point I realize they wanted the short answer. I’m still working on a short answer that makes sense. When people ask my pal Ross what pastors do all week, his favorite answer is, “Listen to all your problems and keep all your secrets.” I like that a lot. It also is quite true.

Whether or not I have a succinct way of telling someone what I do, doing it is one of the great joys of my life. I haven’t always felt that way about work. In fact, I had only brief glimpses of true satisfaction and joy in my work before I became one of the pastors of Community Church. And though I loved this job from day one, the first few years were more or less me doing one thing with some familiarity and confidence – teaching on Sundays – and spending the rest of the week realizing just how much I had to learn to do the bulk of the job well. At times I felt completely inadequate and inept for the task of wading into the mud and muck of people’s lives and somehow being a helpful or useful presence. I’m forever indebted to those who have loved and embraced me as their pastor anyway.

I can’t say that I’m over all of those feelings of being incomplete. I suspect I’ll always be acutely aware of what I don’t know, where I’m not gifted, and how I just can’t help. But more recently, I’ve received this beautiful gift of being aware of all of that and not being afraid to be a pastor anyway. And some days there is plenty to fear.

Today I spent the afternoon and evening in Medical Center, an area of downtown Houston comprised almost exclusively of hospitals and other medical facilities. It’s bigger by square mileage and population than many Texas towns. My first stop was to visit with a sweet couple I’ve known since I was 12 years-old who were a constant presence in my life for many years. In fact, he retired from his job as superintendent of schools twenty years ago as my class graduated, so I’ve always joked that we retired from Crane ISD together. He now is a month removed from an incredibly invasive procedure to remove colon cancer from his body. His prognosis is good, but he has spent over a month in hospitals with various tubes running in and out of him, and he has no idea when he’ll go home.

After I left them, I walked a mile or so across Medical Center to Texas Children’s Hospital. There, I sat with a young mother in our church community whose four month-old foster daughter was being moved back to intensive care after having a catheter placed in her tiny heart. This baby’s lungs just aren’t working, and medically the deck is stacked against her in several ways. We talked and cried and prayed, begging God to prove that the odds are always in His favor and that He’s been working to give this precious girl life long before any of us – even her foster mom and dad, who couldn’t care less about the label “foster” – knew she existed.

Before, in between, and after that, I was trying to keep in touch with a friend in our church whose father is being sent home from the hospital with terminal cancer and with one of my closest lifelong friends who just found out that his young daughter has a tumor the size of an egg behind her heart, next to her spine. Nine months ago I helped lead his 42 year-old sister’s funeral after her battle with cancer. Saturday, Amy, the kids, and I will drive to Temple to see them.

Each of those situations was a mix of sadness and blessing, some skewed to one end of that spectrum and some to the other. Some of them already see God at work in ways they never could have imagined – and ways possible only because of their trials. Some don’t. After praying in the cardiac waiting room of the children’s hospital, a gentleman who was probably in his 60’s approached us and, in broken English, asked me to write down the name of the child we had been praying for. He then said, “My wife and I – we pray for her. God will help you.”

And then I knew what Jesus meant when he said the Kingdom of God is “like a single mustard seed that someone took and planted in his garden. That tiny seed grew and became a tree so large that the birds could fly in and make their nests in its branches.” Our new friend’s name is Enrique, and his tiny seed of faith reminded us that God is growing safe places beyond what we can imagine – for that sweet baby and for all of us.

I made the drive home from Houston overcome with both heaviness and gratitude. I’m not the pastor who can make sense of all – or any – of those situations, but I want to be there with people in the midst of the mystery anyway. I want those people to be my people, and I want to be theirs. I’m not a hero. That’s not why I’m describing all of this. In fact, I may not be very good at whatever I’m doing; sometimes I know I’m not. I’m just no longer afraid to be there, and I’m more convinced than ever that the choice to be there is at least half of what matters in what I do. Wanting to be there is a grace even of another kind, and it’s a gift I’ve received in surprising portions the last few years. That’s of no credit to me; it certainly is not my natural state.

As I exited the highway at the end of my drive home from Houston, my phone shuffled to one of my favorite songs: Rain by Patty Griffin. Music had been playing for a half hour or so, but I’m not sure I had heard a word of it over the thoughts and groanings rattling around inside me. But these words silenced all the noise as they told the stories I saw and entered today.

Sometimes a hurt is so deep deep deep
You think that you’re gonna drown
Sometimes all I can do is weep weep weep
With all this rain falling down

Strange how hard it rains now
Rows and rows of big dark clouds
When I’m holding on underneath this shroud

Strange how hard it rains now
Rows and rows of big dark clouds
When I’m still alive underneath this shroud

And that’s when I realized what it is I do, on days like today and on simpler days in simpler ways. And I realized that I only do it because it is what we do – those of us, regardless of vocation, who have said yes to something more than a religious identification that does something for us. We have embraced a Way that also does something to us, in us, through us.

We have known what it is to hold on underneath our own shroud and somehow come out alive. So now we climb underneath the shroud with others, and we hold on with them. We remind them that it won’t rain forever…that they’re still alive.

And together, we hold on. That’s what we do, and I’m so glad.