If one of the blessings of being a pastor is that I get to be with people at the most important junctures of their lives—good and bad—one of the curses (at least for those wired as I am with aural fixations) is that many time folk are not often if ever able to express in a more than a pro forma or perfunctory way what my presence, my ministry, means to them. I want, even need, to hear such a blessing from those I serve, but my need is not binding. And in fact the served cannot always discern the impact the servant has had in a given situation or setting. Perhaps with a season of reflection, with passage through other junctions, they may—but even then chances are it will remain a private conclusion.
Left in the silence, and woven-through with tendencies to both pride and despair, I find motive and opportunity to drape these episodes either with banners of self-congratulation or palls of self-loathing: my ministry made all the difference; my ministry made no difference at all. Either extreme is in its own way a kind of hubris, a toxic and ultimately idolatrous self-regard whose only effective antibody is humility, a recognition of the incarnational and sacramental nature of my work. But such humility is the product of a holiness I have not yet attained, and so I bounce between the rock and the hard place, between bedevilment and the deep blues. The word of blessing I so desperately hunger to hear—an echo of the Word I so fervently hope to hear: Well done, good and faithful servant—is, rarely, forthcoming.
But on Friday last some of those words came—and publicly, which too seems a part of the remedy.
Some of those to whom I have ministered told me what it meant to them for me to be there, and in almost every case long enough after the fact that the word was ripe, seasoned, refined with time. Some friends told me what it meant for me to be a friend to them—and not in the blush of first attractions, but in the aftermath of long experience, good times and bad. Students were able to tell me lessons they had learned under my tutelage. Editors talked to me of my writing meant, and in a way that was not superficially cordial or complementary.
This grace came to me under the specific sign of a surprise birthday party, a “This Is Your Life” kind of affair on my fifty-third. Everyone was in on it—family, friends, parishioners. Some of them have serious repenting to do. But I was and remain so thankful. They are thankful that I was and remain so gullible, so clueless and naïve. I believe what people tell me, in other words, and in this case, that quality proved a double-benefit as Jo, my wife, and Bethany and Jacob, conspired with others to bless me beyond measure. I mean, sometimes you just have to trust what people say.
I have to admit I have been feeling down. I said as much to Jo more than once over the last few weeks. My knee surgeries (a total replacement in June of 2006, and then, 13 months later, a revision of the replacement and the difficult rehab that followed) have left me feeling both old and decrepit. My books are not really selling. My church is rather small—leaving me feeling that my ministry is rather insignificant. All told, I had been feeling more and more irrelevant as my birthday approached. I was taking it pretty hard, turning 53, harder than I when I grappled with and lost to 50.
That morning I went to the Abbey, prayed with the monks. It seemed a good way to start my birthday. I met Jo at the shoe store to get some new clogs. She dropped me off at the theatre where my son, sick as he said he was of “lovey-dovey chick flicks” had given me a coupon for a “man’s movie.” We went to see Aliens vs. Predator. Spare me the dialogue and nothing else besides!
Soon we would be heading out for what I thought was a birthday dinner. My family had led me to believe—actually , I came to my own conclusion and they did not disagree—that we were going to a dinner theatre or some such. But Jo made a point of saying she wanted to stop by the church just for a moment, to say hello and a quick prayer with the Emmaus folk—five young couples who are covenant discipleship partners.
Even when I saw all the cars in the church parking lot, I just assumed that some other church members were doing some other something in the fellowship hall—which they were, in fact: having a party for me—but I still did not make the connection.
If all of that proves I am gullible, the icing on the birthday cake came before we even got to church. We stopped by the CVS on the way, in reality to arrive at the far parking lot so that I couldn’t identify the “special guest’s” cars but ostensibly to get some hair pins for my daughter who was having a bad hair night. I decided I wanted to get a chapstick (and they saw no reason to prevent me from doing so), so in Bethany and I walk—only to see my best childhood friend Jeff at the check-out.
Jeff lives in Memphis. He was in fact in town for the party—Jo had arranged for him to serve as MC for the ceremonies soon to begin at the church. But in a classic case of misdirection, he had called me earlier in the morning to wish me a happy birthday, to tell me he was in Phoenix, probably would not be able to call later (we usually trade birthday phone calls at night). I would later find out that he had not been in Phoenix at all but in Lake Wylie, SC, a few miles from my home. And there he stood, big as life. He looked at me and immediately laid his head on the counter, trying to hide behind the cash register. Too late.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
My daughter, in on the plot, turned to go back to the car, to tell Jo and my son Jacob that the surprise was ruined, that Jeff was in the CVS. While she was gone, Jeff, a banker and therefore a good liar—and quick on his feet besides—told me he had a layover in Charlotte on his way back home from Phoenix to Memphis, had decided to try to surprise me by coming out to see me. This logic and argument seemed plausible to me—later I am thinking, Does one fly so far east of Memphis as that to fly back west? Possibly, but Atlanta would make more sense. Besides, he had in fact dropped in on us one time before in just such a way. Still, I did not connect his presence to my birthday or my family’s excursion. I just believed what he said.
“Wow, you almost missed us,” I said. “Jo and the kids are taking me to the theatre or something and I would have hated it if you had missed us.”
“I was willing to take the chance,” he said. Then, he said, “I really need to go to the bathroom.”
“Well, we are on our way to the church for a second… follow us and you can use the john there while we say hi to our friends…and then you can go to the airport from there. I’ll ride with Jeff,” I said to my family, thinking that I could have a few minutes with him anyway. All agreed. On the short way I showed him my latest scar, tried to catch-up quickly on all the news since he and we would be leaving in a short while.
Then we get to the church and I see all these cars…but I still don’t draw the obvious conclusion. No wonder car salesmen love to see me coming. Only when I walked in and saw the balloons did I realize.
After “Surprise!” and “Happy Birthday!” I greeted folks as they quickly ate some of the birthday cookie and drank some drink. I told everyone that Jeff’s presence was accidental, that he was on his way home from Phoenix to Memphis and took a happy chance to come see me. Wasn’t it fun, that coincidence? We nibbled and jabbered for a few moments, me working the room, talking to the 70 or so people who were there. Then we went to the sanctuary where two things occurred.
The first was that, as I sat in a chair in front of the group, people from my past took turns speaking (they were behind a door with a microphone). They told of who I was to them, what I had meant to them. Jo hoped I could recognize the voices, which I did, and then when each person appeared I told the assembled who the person was to me—where I had met or known or served them.
There were a good number of my ministerial colleagues, a few former church members, my two best friends in ministry—one of whom had driven from Atlanta just for the occasion. Several more had planned to be with us, I found out later—my old New Testament professor from Nashville and a long-time friend, co-author and colleague from Murfreesboro, TN, as well as my therapist/friend from Atlanta—who had to cancel at the last minute. The most of those who did not make it sent letters, which Bethany read to alternate with the “voices.”
The letters were memorable, with great lines, and the best of both from my nephew who said I was his hero without even knowing it and partly because I remained true to and did not give up on people who should have loved me better than they were able to or did.
That deeply touched me. And God knows I have tried to do that.
Then there was a Power Point presentation my son had concocted: “Tom Steagald: The Man, The Myth, The Minister.” The first part was mostly photos, with his captioning, focusing on my childhood and adolescence—my fashion sense and the evolution of my facial hair. The second had to do with my “career” as an athlete and musician. The third was some pictures of my ordination, me preaching and directing choirs, etc.
Then three short video clips, two from friends in Florida and the last one from my editor, Liz, who is, besides my wife, the most wonderful and terrifying woman I know and my good friend besides. “Teachable,” she calls me, which basically means I roll over and do whatever she says.
I only lost it once—when a letter was read from a couple whose baby had died on Super Bowl Sunday 22 years ago, while I was serving their church. They spoke of what my ministry had meant to them during that time, and it is through that lens that I began reflecting on what I was experiencing through the various testimonies and such.
“You have heard your funeral,” one of my friends said, and it is true. Perhaps I will die before my next birthday—maybe Jo had an inclination she needed to do this just now. Or perhaps I will merely pop the DVD in the player next January 4 and every year thereafter (and also when I am blue with self-loathing or peacock-proud with self-congratulations).
Those who were there are to be commended for enduring 90 minutes of such stuff. Most said they enjoyed it and that they knew me much better now.
John, my friend from Atlanta, left pretty quickly after he made his speech—had to get back for a meeting the next day. Jeff had to excuse himself pretty quickly, too—he really did have a plane to catch back to Memphis. But others stayed till the end. I prayed a prayer of thanks for the places and people that it has been my honor to serve. And then we were done.
Still, my thoughts are whirring. I am wanting to reread the letters. To watch the video of it all. To keep exploring what it means to have people celebrate you in all the aspects of your life, knowing full well the many times and many ways you have failed but loving you still. It was an amazing night. A singular moment.
Short of disease or injury, I think I will never forget it.