Even pastors have sad days

Dan was the fittest 66 year old I'd ever met. He was perpetually tan from being outside, always sat in the very front pew for worship with his wife, Jenny, served on church council as part of the building and grounds committee. A former hospital administrator, he was a practical, concrete thinker who helped our council wade through side discussions and get back to the nuts and bolts. He was an optimist and liked dreaming big about the future.

Last Thursday evening, I was packing for a weekend trip to Chicago for the exciting and long-awaited ordination of my dear friend, Charisse. I stacked some clothes on the bed and then settled into the rocking chair to put Sam to bed, an hour later than I'd hoped.

My phone rang - a local number - and felt that pastor-dread come over me. An unfamiliar local number calling after 9:00 p.m. rarely resulted in good news.

It was Brenda, a friend of Dan and Jenny's, calling to tell me that Dan had lost control while biking on the trail that wraps around our town. He went head over handlebars, and broke one of his top vertebrae, severing his spine. He had been airlifted to the Mayo Clinic, and was currently unresponsive, on a ventilator, in critical condition, and unlikely to make it.

After conferring with my colleagues, they found no reason that I shouldn't still go to Chicago as planned. Chad would go up and visit, we'd all be in contact throughout the weekend.

Friday morning, I was packing up my toothbrush and getting Sam ready for the car when I received an email: Alison, another member of the congregation, had collapsed the previous afternoon, and after having been evaluated at our local emergency room, had been sent up to Mayo, confirming a diagnosis of multiple malignant, inoperable brain tumors.

Again, a flurry of phone calls and texts, and again, the encouragement to drive to Chicago as planned.

The five-hour drive went by smoothly and quickly. Sam slept. I listened to music and caught up on podcasts. I kept thinking about Dan and Alison, and then not thinking about them because it was too sad, and then thinking about them all over again.

I arrived in Chicago to my parents house, where I saw my dad for the first time since the start of his cancer treatments earlier this summer. He looked like himself, and yet like a shell of himself. Thin arms and legs, gaunt face, tired from all of the chemicals waging war inside his body, as quiet as I think I've ever seen him.

As I settled into bed later that night, all I could think to myself was, "I am just sad. Capital 'S' Sad."

Sunday afternoon, I slipped into red shoes and buttoned my clergy collar around my neck. I pulled on my white alb and then slung my red stole around my shoulders; the stole that I received at my own ordination, five years ago. Red with flames and sparkles and strips of white that looked like newspaper, all pointing to the rush of the Spirit and the good news of God's grace and mercy and hope borne on her wings.

I processed in with fifteen other clergy. I sang hymns. I stood to present Charisse for her ordination. I laid my hands on her head to bless her. I wrapped a red stole around her shoulders. I welcomed her into the ministry.

But what exactly was I welcoming her into? A life of being at the center of sadness and need. A life of balancing joy and hope and passion with the ordinary stuff of budgets and property concerns and clashes of new ideas with "that's the way we've always done things." A life of hospital visits and funerals and counseling. Of seeing and hearing and knowing things that you often would rather not have known.

As I looked around at the diverse bunch of us clergy-types standing together in the front of the sanctuary, and as I rejoiced with the two candidates who were being ordained, I also thought about Dan and Alison and my dad, and all who struggle and suffer. I felt sadness in the midst of rejoicing. And it was a fleeting reminder to me of exactly why so many of us take on the yoke of ordained ministry in the first place. Here were two new ordinands, adding their gifts and hands to the work of ministry. Two more people to be in the business of professional hope-bringing. Two more red stoles, blazing like fire in a cold and dark world. Two more people extending the reach of God's love, even (and especially) into places of grief and brokenness and sadness.

At the exact same time that we were blessing our ordinands and receiving them into their holy work, Dan's family was holding vigil as the doctors removed his ventilator and as God received him into the eternal arms of his mercy.

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Dan. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. (from Evangelical Lutheran Worship funeral service)

There is nothing magic about a red stole. Before ordination, after ordination, you are still you. A red stole does not shield you from criticism and it does not protect you from pain. Pastors might be bearers of hope, but that doesn't mean that they are immune from sadness. In fact, that red stole might just mean that pastors feel things even more deeply, on behalf of many more people.

I am still sad. And I am still rejoicing. I see the pain and brokenness all around me. My heart hurts. But I also see the red fire of joy in the Lord, and souls committed to turning love of God into a vocation. Comforters and those needing comfort. Healers and those needing healing. Peace-bringers and those needing the deepest peace of God that passes all understanding.

Care for God's people, bear their burdens,
and do not betray their confidence.
So discipline yourselves in life and teaching
that you preserve the truth,
giving no occasion for false security or illusory hope.
Witness faithfully in word and deed to all people.
Give and receive comfort as you serve within the church.
And be of good courage, for God has called you,
and your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
(from ELCA Rite of Ordination)

This is a calling. This is a charge. This is what the red stole is all about.

Almighty God, who has given you the will to do these things,
graciously give you the strength and compassion to perform them.
(From ELCA Rite of Ordination)