i am no minister

I was right smack in the middle of my seminary career when my grandfather died. It was at the most inopportune time, ordination exams were right around the corner, and my January term class had just ended. I had two and a half years of education behind me and a year a half to go, but for the most part I could have sworn that I was a minister.

I don’t remember a lot about the call that told me he was gone. My mom was the one who told me; and I remember feeling relieved that his time had come to an end. I also remember thinking, “I’m a minister I guess I need to do something.” So I decided rather quickly that I would pay my respect with a prayer at his funeral, and relayed that thought to my mom.

Comer was the first of my immediate family to die, but we knew him as “Whitey.” He was my father’s father, and he was the only person I knew who had a brick grill inside his home, where he would cook steaks for us, and then give us the evil eye if we dared ask for any condiment except salt or pepper. He was the person who would give our family a whole side of salt-cured country ham for Christmas; even to this day, when I open a package of sliced country ham, I become a ten-year-old brat sneaking into the refrigerator and tugging off a hunk of salty hammy goodness.

I never really knew him much beyond those memories. You see, these were the prim and proper grandparents; the kind of grandparents that had parlor furniture that was unsuitable for children; the kind of grandparents who put multiple forks and spoons on the table and expected us to use every one; the kind of grandparents that were more comfortable with adults than with children.

A few years before he died, he had a stroke. This cooker of steaks and giver of hams became a fixture in his recliner. I remembered Christmas visits when he would struggle with walking from his chair to the table. Usually, my wife and I would enter the house and proceed to the bedroom where my parents would encourage us to tell him about our lives. We would sit on the edge of his bed and ask superficial questions like: How’s that radio working, or where’d you get that sweater? As the years progressed he became less communicative. Finally, at Christmas dinner one year he just didn’t come, and his incapacitation was complete.

I barely remember my last visit with him. It was unremarkable because I was unremarkable; actually, I was frightened more than anything else. I sat on the edge of bed, in plain sight, but just out of reach and told him stories of my life. He barely moved, barely acknowledged my presence, except for his eyes. I have no idea if he knew me, but his eyes were alive, and they told the stories of his pain; the progressive denial of the use of his body, the perpetual silence that haunted his mouth, the exhaustion of fighting to remain alive. Of course, I didn’t see these things then, I couldn’t. I was afraid to touch him, physically or otherwise. But, I’m not afraid to touch him now; if he were here I would no longer be afraid of his pain and silence.

But of course, he was gone with one swift phone call. His broken and immobile shell no longer held the spirit that lay within. All I could think of was my duty as a minister. So I set about writing a prayer for a man I feared. I drove to Athens, Georgia, and on a rainy day in January I stood before the assembled masses, the people who knew him, and I exhorted the mighty God for this man, this father, this lifeless shell that I was afraid to touch…

A few weeks later the shit hit the fan, what had I done? I was no minister or grandson to him. His life and death became nothing more than a call to duty for me. And so I sat in bed and I wept. I wept for not knowing him. I wept for my fear of him. I wept for not touching him and allowing him to touch me. I lay in bed and my wife cradled me as I wept. She gently rocked me, and held her words to herself. She allowed silence and tears and anger and fear to do its work on me. She just held on as his death became real.

I learned more about being pastoral from her in that moment, than in a lifetime of classes. Her gentle touch and strong arms held me through the pain and regret, and her silence brushed away my tears. I am not sure that I am a minister anymore, nor do I believe I want to be. But I am son now, and a grandson, and a husband, and a friend, and sometimes I stand in a pulpit and tell people about how I experience God in this world, but I’m pretty sure that I am no minister…

grace and peace



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