It’s been a quiet week in Oak Forest, my hometown, although there’s been a lot of hoopla over at my local church, the Hopeful Reformed Christian Church. We’re a likeable congregation, recently emerged from a collective COVID quarantine of sorts, finding our footing again just in time to celebrate our 60th anniversary. As someone once said about a wedding anniversary, “An anniversary is the celebration of love, trust, partnership, tolerance, and tenacity. The order varies for any given year.” From what I know of the church—and I’ve been a member for over 30 years—all those traits describe Hopeful, especially the tolerance and tenacity it took to make it through the COVID years.
Our pastor is both tolerant and tenacious. He’s weathered a lot of storms, baptized and buried members in his lengthy tenure, and has been known to recruit new members in the locker room of a neighborhood health club, a unique form of church growth and evangelism. Arvid Nelson is his name, and one of his recent sermons set the stage for the 60th anniversary, something about the arc of the universe tilting toward kindness and justice. There were many of Nelson’s sermons where the universe tilted, so much so that the church council was considering installing seat belts for safety and serving Dramamine with intinction. They were good sermons, mind you, always memorable and helpful, and they gave his congregation room to wrestle and wriggle with their doubts. Which is why the church council dropped the idea of seat belts. Everyone has their doubts and should feel free to wriggle in faith.
Nelson is a fine pastor, a rare combination of wisdom and wit and an uncanny human touch. He loves what he’s called to do and knows his people well, knows what makes them tick and what ticks them off. Looking forward to the anniversary celebration brought many members of the congregation to mind, with their rogue’s gallery of idiosyncrasies and quirks Some were delightful and some disturbing, yet one and all were members of his church.
Nelson finds himself looking back often these days, especially in this anniversary year, with thoughts about all the things about pastoring a church he never learned in seminary. Some things you just can’t be taught. Other things you could never imagine.
Nelson remembered the elders he’d met through the years, women and men who also had no idea what was in store for them. He remembered Hilda Woldman in particular. Although she and her husband had only been at our church for five months, she was chosen to be an elder. Our church believes in sacrificing fresh meat on the altar of leadership, and Hilda was still learning her way around. She had a big compassionate heart which served her in good stead during a very gray ethical dilemma that clarified what it meant to be an elder. It involved Irma Vander Sloot.
Irma was a real humdinger in her day and remained feisty in her late 80s. She was in Hilda’s elder district, so Hilda would often pick up Irma from the retirement home and bring her to church and back again. Hilda and Irma first met one Sunday when Hilda was passing the grape juice tray during communion. Hilda stumbled over a hymnal in the aisle and spilled several full communion cups right on Irma’s shiny white satin blouse and pristine pearl necklace. Before Hilda could get her apology out, Irma offered a barn-yard expletive loud enough for several rows to hear. She stared at Hilda with an icy cold look that could have frozen Medusa.
In the years after World War II, Irma worked in a big downtown bank, and she learned a great deal about big city life from her friends at work. She had already learned to smoke at the local Christian high school, but it was at work where she learned about cocktails, enough so that she could have rivaled the best bartenders in one of those classy downtown hotel lounges.
On a ride home from church with Hilda several months after the notorious spilled grape juice incident, Irma asked Hilda to pull over at the Slick and Quick carry-out liquor store. She was low on Scotch and needed to restock. And she felt Hilda owed her one.
Hilda’s mind raced back to the elder’s charge in the Church Order, along with the elder’s handbook and elder’s orientation, and quickly came back emptier than Irma’s liquor cabinet (which was a clandestine dresser drawer in her retirement home apartment). “What’s an elder to do?” Hilda wondered. It wasn’t exactly buying booze for a minor, after all. Yet Hilda felt complicit in some form of illegal activity, like aiding and abetting senior citizen licentiousness. What if Irma shouldn’t be drinking at all for her health? What if Irma should be drinking for her health? What if Irma gets caught in the retirement home and implicates Hilda? Was this a case of ecclesiastical “Don’t ask, don’t tell”? Was Irma trying to get Hilda in trouble because she spilled grape juice on her? (That never would have happened, of course, with intinction!)
After much internal debate, Hilda bought the Scotch, and it gave her a chance to apologize for the catastrophic communion spill. Would you believe the apology earned Hilda the trust to usher Irma, in her last days, into glory? Nothing in seminary would have helped Pastor Nelson give advice to Hilda. But the way things worked out between the two women sounded like grace to him and the rest of the elders.
Arvid Nelson never learned about intinction in seminary either, by the way. He only learned of it when one of the church musicians went off to one of those fancy seminars and came back with the idea, which the elders thought a good one. Introducing it to the congregation was not without its problems, however. At first, Nelson felt as if he were an air traffic controller, explaining to worshipers how to come to the front and how to return to their seats gracefully. He would wave his arms in a wide circular motion, point to the directions of the proper flow, and then watch the congregation come forward in such chaos that it looked like a roller derby match had broken out in the aisles. Some people went to two of the three stations. One member of the congregation was so disoriented that he took the bread, ate it, and when he came to the cup without any bread to dip, dipped his pinkie into the cup instead, right up to his second knuckle. He licked the wine right there. He was so embarrassed that he walked back down the aisle and right out to his car. From then on, the children of the church referred to him, unkindly, as the Big Dipper.
Weddings and funerals were never explored in depth at seminary either, but Nelson sensed very early on that these big life events carry great meaning and importance in ministry. He has officiated at destination weddings in Jamaica and the Bahamas and several other islands, including Blue and Rock. He has married them young, middle-aged, and in a variety of AARP categories. He described one recent older couple in his homily as “having their oars in the water longer than most,” which was a nice warm touch and caused the couple and the congregation to laugh. He’d officiated with priests and rabbis, something he never imagined in seminary. Yet none of this prepared him for the time he co-officiated with a pastor who suggested that after the vows were spoken, and while the congregation sang a hymn, the newly married couple could celebrate a semi-private communion with her and Pastor Nelson. The four of them stood together, each pastor holding a loaf of bread purchased earlier that day by the mother of the bride at a local bakery. As they broke the little loaves, Arvid struggled. The soft loaf offered some resistance at the center. It seemed stuck, and hard. With one hearty twist he saw the problem, as a small hot dog tucked inside split in two. The other pastor offered a gasp and a slightly salty comment, without thinking that her mic was hot. Nelson never looked at a pig-in-the-blanket the same way again. He also never agreed to private wedding communion parties.
As for funerals, again very lightly touched on in seminary, he noticed that these gatherings tended to bring out the best, and worst, in families. They were either a time of rich blessing along with the mourning, or an occasion to resurrect old family wounds and grudges. His favorite funeral memory, however, showcased a different kind of family.
Eddie Mokey worked for one of the members of our congregation—Wendell Tucker—an older, kindly man who ran a large garbage company. Eddie was hired by Wendell out of compassion, because, through no fault of his own, Eddie wasn’t very bright. Eddie cleaned offices and swept floors and gathered the trash that would blow off the trucks as they came back to the garage at night.
Eddie seemed to be alone in the world. He never spoke of family and didn’t think of the woman who had moved in with him as his wife. She moved in to take advantage of him. She would sweet-talk Eddie into shoplifting fancy nightgowns and underwear from the department store in the mall. She spent his paychecks, and they twice faced eviction from their small, dumpy apartment. Wendell Tucker became a familiar face at the local jail, where he’d post bail for Eddie, and also a frequent visitor in courtrooms explaining Eddie to various judges.
When Eddie died, Mr. Tucker asked Arvid to conduct the funeral. Arvid was honored by the invitation, and the chance to spend time with Wendell Tucker. As far as anyone knew, Eddie wasn’t a man of faith. You might catch him whistling what sounded like a hymn tune on occasion, maybe from his distant childhood, but a church building was a very intimidating place to Eddie. Arvid expected that the graveside ceremony would be a small gathering. Wendell wondered if Eddie’s paramour would show up.
Turns out that the only ones to attend the burial were members of Wendell’s family, who had known Eddie through the years and through Wendell’s stories. Arvid had just about finished the ceremony when Wendell asked him to stop, without offering an explanation why. Wendell went back to his car and, out of Arvid’s sight, brought a walkie-talkie to this mouth. By the time Mr. Tucker returned to the graveside the parade had begun: a dozen freshly washed garbage trucks drove in single file down the narrow cemetery road blasting their air horns in unison, out-tooting even Gabriel. They stopped behind the hearse, and when the drivers got out and walked toward the graveside, they wore freshly laundered uniforms and each carried a dozen roses, which they laid on the casket as it was lowered. And while he’d never sung in the church choir, and most often struggled to carry a tune, Wendell softly sang the words of “Jesus Loves Me.” To his amazement a handful of the drivers joined the chorus.
There they all were, a great cloud of witnesses, acting out one of the best sermons Arvid had ever observed.
For Arvid and Wendell, it was one of the strongest and finest examples of the universe tilting in the right direction. God points the way and keeps his word. Arvid thought: this was something hehad heard about in seminary. Grace finds its way, irresistibly, unexpectedly, and often unusually, where you’d least imagine it. And grace is what Hopeful Reformed Christian Church’s 60th anniversary is all about.
What Arvid has learned over the years since seminary is that when it comes down to it, pastoring is about people, and while the gathering on Sunday fuels the fire through liturgy and sacrament and Word and music, it’s where the church shows up and lives out God’s grace the rest of the week that ultimately makes the difference.
Well, that’s the news from Oak Forest, where at Hopeful Reformed Christian Church, the women are bright, the men are sensitive, all the children are above average, and always eat their broccoli.