Wednesday, November 09, 2011

God, Rocks, and Souls

The address that follows is an introduction to John McLarty’s book in progress, GOD, ROCKS, AND SOULS, a memoir of an “old, white, liberal Adventist pastor”.

What follows is a “chapter…not in its final form” from that book in progress.

Chapter 51. A Curmudgeon and a Queen

Remembering Kurt Paulien’s complaint that I had not attended board meetings during my earlier connection with the church, I didn’t wait for Elder Roehn to schedule meetings. Every week, I asked him if he wanted to get together. Most weeks he said yes. We’d visit at his home or at the church. There was no particular structure to our meetings. He gave me no assignments. We talked theology and church politics, pastoring and people. In these conversations, I learned something of the personal history of my new teacher. During WWII, he served in the German Navy and he retained a secret admiration for the effectiveness of Hitler’s political and military apparatus. Hitler may have done some bad things, but he had his good points, too. Herb ended up in the pastorate by accident, having never finished college, much less seminary.

Given Herb’s history and his reputation as a bullying, abrasive pastor I didn’t expect to learn much. My job was to humor him, to help him end his career with some measure of grace. I was prepared to grant him this: he was clearly my superior when it came to knowledge of cars, especially German cars. Already, back when I had been his unofficial (and unrecognized and unappreciated) assistant, I had benefited from his freely-offered and smart guidance when my Volkswagen was balky.

Our conversations uncovered huge contradictions–contradictions that also came to light in stories church members told me. Elder Roehn's crusty, abrupt manner was layered over a fierce compassion.

Frieda Feyl told me that once when a church member had been sick, Herb had called her up and told her that since she was head deaconness, it was her duty to nurse this woman. He didn’t ask. He ordered. That was his way. So she did it. She wasn’t happy with the way he treated her, but it was work that had to be done. She had her own full-time job and a husband and two kids to care for. Still before work she went by this woman’s apartment to make sure she had taken her medicine and had food for the day. Then after work she came by again to feed her supper and clean the apartment and give her a bath. This in addition to keeping her own place clean and making sure her husband and kids had food and clean clothes. For months Mrs. Feyl managed on four or five hours of sleep a night. But her patient survived. And the church’s reputation as a community of caregivers was upheld. Listening to her, I heard her resentment at being ordered around by Elder Roehn and a bit of pride that she had managed to do it.

In one of our regular conversations, I asked Herb what to do about panhandlers. I encountered them every day coming out of the subway at 86th Street. Often they came by the church and rang the bell. I felt guilty ignoring the guys on the street and saying no to those who came to the church, but I was sure they would spend anything I gave them on drink. It was something that ate at me when I was in NYC as a student. When I returned after seminary and worked for Metro Ministries, the same issue gnawed at me. I asked Herb what he thought.

“John, stop and think,” he said. “How many of these drunks are likely to end up in heaven?”

“I don’t know," I said. "But even if I did know, how would that help me know whether to give them money or not?”

“Come on John. You do know. The Bible says that drunkards cannot enter heaven. And how many of these guys are going to change? How many of them are going to give up their drinking?”

“Well, if you put it that way, hardly any.”

“So why not give them a dollar or two. Let them spend it on alcohol. They aren’t likely to have any pleasure in the next life so whatever pleasure they have now is all they're going to get. Alcohol is the only pleasure they have in this life. So give them some money and don’t worry about what they are going to do with it. Since they’re going to hell anyway, you might as well help them have a few moments of happiness in this world.”

I was astonished. Herb may have been a curmudgeon, but his heart held surprising reservoirs of kindness. In spite of his crude style and lack of education, he was the teacher. I was the student.

Another time, he talked about a couple of members who lived over in Jersey. Both in their eighties, both widowed. Seldom came to church any more. The trip was too difficult. Herb visited them occasionally. The man lived upstairs and owned the house. She rented an apartment downstairs in his daylight basement.

“What do you think I’m supposed to do?” Herb asked. “I know they’re living together. They ought to get married. But if she gets married she loses her pension because it comes from her late husband. His pension alone won’t pay for the house. Without her money they’d both be on the street or in public housing. Do you think I should bring them up before the church? We could censure them or disfellowship them. What do you think I should do?”

It was a perfect case study for a hypothetical exploration of sexual ethics, except it wasn’t hypothetical. Of course, our church does not believe it is right for men and women to live together outside of marriage. And for good reasons. But I could see no righteous answer to Herb’s question other than the route he had taken–quietly accept their pretense of separate living in a shared house.

* * *

The head elder asked me to preach three times a month. Herb was going to preach once a month in English. I checked with Herb and he acknowledged he was okay with this. I couldn’t tell if he was happy or resentful. Once I began preaching weekly in English, new people showed up occasionally. Mr. Feyl, the deacon, greeted them at the door with a bone-crushing handshake and irresistible warmth. Gertrude Paulien invited them home to New Jersey for amazing dinnerAs after church. She and her husband invited young adults to accompany them to the beach at Coney Island on Sundays. Within months a nucleus of socially-attractive young adults gathered. They became friends of one another and were an instant attraction for any other young adult who walked through the door.

We began dressing up the church. Painted the front door cardinal red to contrast with the gray schist facade of the building. Installed flower boxes around the street trees in front of the church.

Denise’s sister Elaine began attending occasionally with her boyfriend, William. Elaine was achingly beautiful. He was a wonderfully eccentric, brilliant professor at Cooper Union. When he first began accompanying Elaine to church he considered himself an agnostic. Who knew what was beyond the world of observation and sense? But as he got acquainted with other young people at the church, he was taken with our practice of Sabbath keeping. An entire day devoted to the cultivation of spiritual and philosophical life, to reading and conversation. He became an avid Sabbath-keeper. His agnosticism was not at all antagonistic to faith. Quite the contrary. But how could one know about all the certainties promulgated by the church and believers? Sometimes he stopped by the church at nine or ten p.m. on his way home from work. We’d go out for supper. His first glass of wine always loosened him and he would expatiate on some esoteric, abstruse topic. I found him more interesting before the wine, more entertaining afterward.

My relationship with William was complicated by Elaine. Her face was a mesmerizing fusion of stunning beauty and vulnerable neediness. This being New York, it was customary for men and women to greet each other with airy kisses on the cheek. That kind of closeness to Elaine unnerved me. Even talking to her at close range unsettled me. I thrilled to be in her presence, but avoided it because of the thrill. I could not give her the relaxed, warm attention that was my ideal in the pastorate. I thought she, too, seemed uncomfortable in our interactions. I wondered if she sensed my discomfiture at her beauty.

William became more and more involved in the life of the church; Elaine less and less. Several years later, when they were visiting us at our home, Elaine, with the encouragement of William, finally voiced her concern. Why did I avoid her? Why didn’t I reach out to her when she came to church? Why didn’t I make contact with her when she was clearly becoming estranged from the church? It seemed to her my only interest was new people. When someone first showed up at church, I was keen to give them attention. But once they were there, once they weren’t “new people” any longer, I took them for granted. It did not feel good to be ignored by the pastor while watching visitors receive all the attention.

Her criticism stung. I apologized. I thanked her for having the courage to confront me. I acknowledged the truth of her complaint. On Sabbath mornings, I did focus more on visitors than regulars. I promised to give more attention to her, to be her pastor as well as pastor for the visitors. Then taking a big breath, I confessed the truth. I was so unsettled by her beauty that I had not known how to treat her. I wished everything good for her, but had not known how to properly minister to her.

She accepted my words without shock. She laughed just the tiniest bit, but did not let me off the hook. That was my problem, not hers. She needed a pastor not another admirer. And my job was to be her pastor.

Elaine was as unlikely a teacher as Herb. My education cost her. I hoped the instruction was worth her pain.


Post a Comment