In one year I will have entered thirty years of service with the United Methodist Church. What does a pastor do to mark his time?
On my morning drive to the church office I found myself sitting at a stop light and considering the volume in sermons I have written since 1985. How high would that stack of papers rise…above the roof of my car or higher than a stop sign? Baptisms, weddings, and funerals, I have officiated hundreds and hundreds and each one of them has marked a life before God at a time of transition, from birth to life, from life to death or a covenant between two people in love until they are parted by death.
Truly, I have had days when the burden of the congregation was more than I wanted to carry. People can be a frustration, and church membership does not appear to inoculate this human ill. Still, over the broad sweep the years have been a blessing and when I look back my heart breaks open with a smile. So, I live with gladness that I still have plenty of time before my retirement.
Through the years my craft has improved. I listen better than I did when I was young, and my words are more wisely chosen in preaching and pastoral care. The gospel still compels me, but I’ve come to understand that my role is to help others discover how the gospel has compelled them as well. Time has taught me that ministry with a congregation is a partnership.
As a way to celebrate what has been and to set my sights on the years ahead, I have decided to take a leave. It’s not a long one, just three and half weeks, but long enough to cut myself loose and rekindle my inner flame that burns for the pastorate.
I’ll be leaving after church on Sunday, May 4th
to hike the far southern portion of the Appalachian Mountains, from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Damascus, Virginia. The hike is about 460 miles through some of the most remote forest of the lower forty-eight. I hope to return with a prophetic voice and more tender heart for God’s people.
I’ll miss three Sundays from the pulpit. Jennifer Hupko, will be preaching one of those services, and the other two will be led by good friends: Dana McKim, the chaplain of Pfeiffer University and Cindy Sloane, a Deacon of the church I most admire. Mark Larson, our pastoral counselor will be on call if there is an emergency. I have received some funding from our Annual Conference and the encouragement of our Staff/Parish Committee.
Emma Gatewood was the first woman to hike the more than 2000 miles of the Appalachian Trail. She was 67 when she started out. After the last of her eleven children was raised and supporting herself, Grandma Gatewood heard the white blazes
were calling her forth.
She wrote the following after sleeping under a million pinpricks of light in a blanket of darkness on a mountain summit in Maine. “It was just as clear, and it looked like I could almost reach out and get the stars, and pull them down…Oh, I lay there and watched them. It looked so, it was so nice, and it was…Oh, I enjoyed the night. The little growth on there was just about so high and just as thick as it could be. There’s a lot of little pines around there, and I got down, I got down to sort of break the wind, you know? I’ll tell you that was a nice night. I lay there and looked at those stars, and that moon.”