I have never before told this story.
Last week’s death of a woman reminded me of the time I exercised perhaps the worst judgment of my entire eighteen years as a pastor.
The set-up to the wonderful conclusion takes a bit, but I am confident that, if you wade through it to the end, you will be glad you did.
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The old joke is that ministers only work one day a week. The actual joke is that they can often go for many weeks without enjoying a full twenty-four day with no church work.
During my eighteen years as a pastor, my own joke was fashioned. Whenever I tried to take a vacation, a church member died. Well, not every vacation, but it happened often enough that I found myself holding my breath whenever a week off was near.
The first occurred a couple of years after I arrived at Port Hope in 2001. An older woman died a few days before deer season. Since 1981, my family had held deer camp on state forest land near my home town of Montague. After I became a minister, this week in November, which I would spend in the woods with my brothers, along with other family and friends, often was the only chance in the year when I could get home.
The woman’s funeral would be on November 15. Opening Day. Deer camp always began a day or three before the hunting season, and I didn’t want to miss the festivities we had on Opening Day Eve, even if I would have to miss hunting on the first day. I drove to West Michigan on the fourteenth, then, on the fifteenth, hit the road early to make the four-and-a-half-hour drive back for the funeral. After the funeral lunch, I was back on the road to deer camp.
I will not recount every vacation which was interrupted for funerals, such as the deer camp when not one, but two members died, and the year when Julie and I were at her folks’ in Iowa when a member died, then, as we cut short our vacation and were driving home, I received a call from the daughter of a yet another member who had died.
Okay, I just recounted those two disrupted vacations. Here’s one more.
I had not been able to attend a high school class reunion for many years, and I was really looking forward to my thirtieth, in 2005. Julie and I made our way to West Michigan a couple of days before the party. We were enjoying a leisurely afternoon with some shopping when my cell phone rang. It was the funeral home. A beloved woman had died, to whom I had ministered at her home as she could not make it to church. Her funeral would be held the day after my class reunion.
Since I didn’t have a service folder or sermon written, I couldn’t dash home the morning of the funeral, as I did for the Opening Day funeral. Julie and I would have to head back to Port Hope the day before. Saturday evening. During my class reunion.
We went to the reunion and crammed into two hours as many conversations as possible, then headed home. We arrived in Port Hope well into the wee hours. The next day was Sunday. Of course, I had someone lined up to lead worship in my place. It was weird, having the church bells ringing for the 8:00 a.m. service acting as my wake-up call. I arose, did my funeral prep, and then did my job.
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If you are wondering why I came home for funerals, the answer is complex. First, I was the pastor for these folks, and, often, I got to know them very well, so I wanted to be there for them and with them. Second, these folks got to know me, too, and they counted on me to bring them God’s Word. Most churches, which are large enough to have as many funerals as St. John did, have two ministers, or, at least, a regular pastor and a retired one, so a pastor can go on vacation and not have it interrupted by church work. As for smaller congregations, which I served my first five years in Iowa, they have fewer funerals—I had two to four each year—and, thus, fewer chances to coincide with a vacation.
Also—and this had the biggest impact on me, as to why I didn’t enlist the pastor at a nearby congregation when I was out of town—early in my time in Port Hope, one of our church elders commented, “If you are within driving distance, we expect you to interrupt your vacation.” So, I did what was expected of me.
After a decade of rarely being able to enjoy a full week off, I was worn out with the interruptions to the point of being . . . yeah, I gotta admit it: I was angry over how often it happened. I dreaded the last few days before a vacation, waiting for the phone to ring with the bad news.
November of 2011 arrived, and I was ready to take my week off in the woods. I had a wedding on Saturday, November 12. I would lead worship the next day, then head to Montague after church.
Julie and I returned to the parsonage from the wedding reception and, when I entered my office to put away my stuff, I saw the light on my office phone machine was blinking.
I was afraid to play the message.
I played the message.
The news caused me to drop into my chair and cry. Hard.
A member had died. He was a lovely gentleman. I had ministered much to him and his wife, and to their extended family. There was no way I could see myself telling the son that, hey, I was going on vacation, and couldn’t they please call the pastor in Harbor Beach or Bad Axe to officiate?
The funeral would be the day after Opening Day. I drove to deer camp after worship on Sunday, enjoyed two days there, then drove back the morning of the funeral. I was in my office, an hour or so before the funeral, when my phone rang. I found it odd that it was the funeral director.
“Warren, I’m going to see you in a few minutes. What’s up?”
“Another member of yours just died.”
“But, I’m on vacation! I shouldn’t even be here, today!”
I told him that I didn’t know what I was going to do, but that I might not be sticking around. I needed this vacation, something fierce. I already was hurting over having to interrupt it once, and the years of disturbed vacations was weighing on me. If I were to officiate this funeral, the rest of my week would be lost, and I couldn’t extend it because Thanksgiving was the week after that.
I was fit to be tied.
I loved the man who had just died. I had ministered to him and his wife, in their home, most of the decade I had been in Port Hope. Indeed, I had officiated her funeral only two years earlier. I wanted to be there for the family, all whom I knew well.
Fit to be tied quickly grew into downright miserable. If I didn’t have this time off, I would not be able to get away until I had no idea when. I was mentally pooped. I longed to be with my family, to enjoy the quiet of the woods, to not be the pastor for a week.
I decided that I would not be staying. I mustered my courage and called the daughter. I explained my situation, then I suggested, “You can call the pastor in Harbor Beach, or the one in Bad Axe.” I answered her various questions and gave her this tip and that information, to leave her equipped to do everything that needed to be accomplished.
We hung up, and I tried to convince myself that I had handled it well, and everything would be okay.
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You guessed right. All was not okay.
The rest of the week I was at deer camp, my conscience gnawed at me, but I was convinced that I did what any reasonable person would do, and any reasonable family would understand.
My first day back on the job, I immediately went to the daughter, who was St. John’s church and school secretary. I asked how everything went. I told her how badly I felt for not being there, but how I needed the vacation even more badly. She was quiet in her responses, but didn’t argue with me. She was her usual, kind self.
Once again, I tried to convince myself that I had handled it well. Sometimes, I can be such a dope.
Within days, that church elder—the man who told me that I was expected to be there for funerals if I were within driving distance—came to the parsonage. He had heard that the family was not happy with me. I didn’t argue with him for long. The Holy Spirit finally kicked me upside the head hard enough that I got it. I was able to recognize that I had made the wrong decision, a monumentally selfish one.
I had not been there when I was needed to do the job for which I was called to St. John.
It was time for me to do what I taught from God’s Word all Christians are to do, and then it would be up to this woman to do the same. Times like these are exactly when we too often do not follow the correct path, because it is hard to admit our sins directly to another person, and it can be just as hard to let go of our hurt and forgive the one who repents. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It was time for us to put our faith to work.
I contacted the daughter.
We sat down together, just the two of us. I went back over everything that had transpired, wanting her to recognize how I got into the rough spot I had found myself. But, now, I didn’t use it as an excuse. Now, I confessed to her, “None of that matters. I blew it. I did not do right by you. I was so angry that yet another of my vacations was ruined that I wasn’t able to see straight. I wound up making the wrong decision. If I could change it, I would. I am so sorry that I was not there for you. Will you please forgive me?”
She had tears in her eyes. She didn’t speak quickly, but finally she was able to look at me and say those precious words. “I forgive you.”
With my own eyes now welled with tears, I thanked her.
Because she was St. John’s secretary, she and I interacted a lot. I immediately knew that she had truly forgiven me because, the rest of my years in Port Hope, our relationship was as good as before I sinned against her and her family.
Oh, how I wish I could once more return to Port Hope, for her funeral on Friday, to proclaim the Good News of our Lord Jesus for the sake of her eternal life, and for sake of all of those gathered.
I would gladly tell of the time I was the sinner in need of absolution, and Andrea Piotter was Jesus-in-the-flesh for me, forgiving this trespasser as lovingly as the Lord always forgave her.
Thank you, Andrea. I eagerly anticipate our blessed reunion at the throne of our Lord Jesus Christ—the reunion which will never be interrupted.