Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Winners and Losers

Lately I've been thinking about Pastor Arlo, the retired pastor who was a member of my first parish our in rural South Dakota. He was a member of Our Saviors, a pretty little country church with its own cemetery: one of three churches in my parish. He had been a basketball star in high school. He graduated from high school, married and went into farming, like so many others of his era. Then in the late 1950s, he went to college and then to seminary. He spent his entire ministry serving two rural parishes, in Platte, Nebraska and in New Effington, South Dakota.

After he retired, he served as the interim pastor at the churches were he grew up. He held his last service the week before I arrived. He announced to all of the churches that he would not do any pastoral ministry: no baptisms, no funerals, no weddings. From now on, he said, they would have a new pastor. At the time, I don't think I realized the magnitude of his gift, or his sacrifice.

My second day of ministry, I got a phone call from a funeral home. One of the members of my parish had died. I remembered that we had prayed for him on Sunday, and I had checked in on him at the hospital when I was in town getting my checking account. This family had not been in church on Sunday and had not heard Pastor Arlo's announcement. They wanted him to be involved in the funeral service in some way. What should I do? I didn't want to turn down their request to include a beloved pastor, and someone they had known since childhood, as well.

As it turned out, I didn't have to do anything. When they called him, he said "No." And that's what he always said, every time someone asked him to help with a funeral. He was always available if I wanted him to help -- once I lost my voice due to a bad cold, and he offered to help with the services. And he preached and presided for me when I was on vacation, if he was available.

Sometimes he would come to my office and ask me questions about the changes in the church: why did we have Passion Sunday now instead of Palm Sunday? What is the significance of the "imposition of ashes"? What's the difference between the Christ Candle and the "Paschal Candle" we are supposed to use now? All these things were new to him.

Sometimes he would come to my office just to make copies to send to Medicare. He told me that his doctor told him he wasn't supposed to drink cofffee any more. He said that in one small community he served, he saw what happened when a retired pastor stayed in the community. Every time there was a special event, a baptism, a funeral, a wedding, they asked the former pastor. "That young man never really got to serve his people," he said. "That's wrong."

He was unfailingly supportive of my ministry. If he had questions regarding women in ministry, I never knew about it. Often he would take the time to comment on something from a sermon he and his wife had enjoyed. He supported me publicly in congregational meetings.

I described him once as a "gracious pietist." He was a tall man, but he always walked with a little stoop, as if he were bending over to hear you a little better. He never gave advice unless he was asked, but when asked his advice was always sound, and always with the gospel -- and the people -- in mind.

With our ears to the world and its values, we often hear about "winners" and "losers." If you want to "win," they say, you need to get a plan and stay on it. You need to buy your home early so that it will appreciate in value. You need to start putting away money when you are 18 or 22, and you need to look at every transaction as a financial one. There are no other values to look at, and if you think so, then you are one of the "losers".

Should Pastor Arlo have left the farm and gone to college and seminary? Was he a "winner" or a "loser"? When he died in 2005, he wasn't a rich man, as the "winners" define wealth. He didn't own a home until he retired. He served out in prairie towns, where often pastors are reluctant to go these days, where towns are dying now. He was a faithful pastor in an age when many people decry religion as bunk.

As for me, if I can tune out the noise long enough, I think I can hear the music of a still small voice, "Well done, good and faithful servant."


Serena said...

What a great (healthy) pastor! Thanks for "remembering" him with us. This reflection is a reminder of why I love officiating at memorial services ... the opportunity to get to know another of God's saints.

Barbara B. said...

Pastor Arlo sounds like a great guy!

I love the picture -- quintessential Dakota prairie church!

Diane said...

Thanks Barb -- I thought you might enjoy the scenery.

Marsha said...

Beautiful post Diane. You make me wish I knew this man and glad that I know you, if only through your blog!