Mrs. Clark opened her door after I knocked. “I was baking bread this morning and thought of you. Here’s a loaf. I hope you like it.” She took in a deep breath, bowed her head and crumpled forward like a flower drooping. Bringing her clasped hands up to her chest a second passed before she breathed again and straightened to meet my gaze. “You remembered.” She said. “You remembered. It’s been a year today since my Walter died.” We visited a little bit there on her cozy front porch before I headed back down the street two houses to my own house where one of my babies was napping and the other two needed to be picked up from nursery school.
I didn’t remember it was the anniversary of her Walter’s death but I let Helen think whatever she wanted to think. But here’s what happened:
I’d been at the church the night before. There was a meeting and as was fairly common for that congregation someone acted ugly about something. Some congregations are truly skilled at arguing about things about which Jesus, the Holy Spirit, God Almighty and all the angels don’t give a rat’s patootie. This congregation got a lot of things right, but boy–howdy some of them sure could act ugly. And sometimes they directed that ugliness at us, their co-pastors. Even when it wasn’t aimed directly at us, some of it usually splattered in our direction.
When I climbed into bed I congratulated myself for not being worked-up about the ugliness. My skin must be getting thicker, I thought. I’ve been doing ministry long enough I’ve learned to let things just roll off my back. I thought. Hmm. I thought, a little over ten years into this and I’m getting the knack of it.
At two a.m. I woke up because someone was sobbing. It took me a moment to realize the person sobbing was me. With a sleeping husband beside me and three sleeping little boys across the hall I stifled myself quickly. And then as I was just waking up to my heart-wrenching doubts that so frequently follow on the heels of church members complaining–I’m not cut out to be a minister, this has all been some big mistake–I heard, in my head, but plain as day, an instruction, “Go downstairs and read.”
For years and years a thin little volume called, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants (Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983.) has been my frequent companion, spiritual guide and source of strength. The morning of the church meeting I skipped my prayer time. The boys were little, life was demanding and I just skipped praying (it happens!) In our family room at 2:00 am I turned to the words I missed in the morning, the words I was told to go downstairs to read. The Psalm was about God not abandoning us in a pit. And one of the readings for reflection was from St. Teresa of Avila (Way of Perfection). Part of it read,
Sometimes, too, God allows his servants to have stormy days…although they are distressed and seek to calm themselves, they are unable to do so…Let them not tire themselves seeking to infuse sense into an understanding which is, at the moment incapable of it. But let them pray as well as they can and even not pray at all, but consider the soul to be sick and give it some rest, busying themselves in some other act of virtue.
Wow! I read the words again and again. They sure seemed to be written just for me, just for right then.
I spent the rest of that sleepless night writing a letter to one of our youth group kids who was going through a rough time and making some bad choices in the process and then baking bread so there was a fresh loaf for my family to wake up to and another to share.
By mid-morning I was wondering if I was maybe a little crazy for thinking God had time or inclination to call me downstairs in the night. But then I took the loaf of bread to Helen Clark for no real reason other than she was the first person who came to mind when I thought about what to do with it.
I bowed my head on my way home from her house. I don’t know how, I don’t understand God’s mysterious ways, but it sure seemed to me, I’d just been used.
I’d just been used by God to carry comfort in the form of freshly baked bread to a woman who needed comforting, and in the process God lifted me from my own little pit of church drama and self-doubt to comfort me, too.
I don’t usually hear instructions in the night. But if God spoke to Joseph and Samuel and others of his servants in dreams and in that still small voice long ago, based on that one night when my children were young and I was, too, I have to believe, as our United Church of Christ brothers and sisters affirm, God is still speaking today. It’s up to us to be sure we listen.