Arthur called last week to ask if I would like to accompany him to a baseball game. Columbus is home to a pretty good minor league team, the Triple-A affiliate of the American League’s Cleveland franchise. A friend of his with season tickets was out of town on business, so he had given Arthur his tickets for the game he would miss while he was traveling.
Arthur’s wife, Ellie, is an enthusiastic baseball fan, and ordinarily she would have used the second ticket. On this occasion, however, she was involved in some sort of work-related activity which she could not circumvent, and so Arthur offered her ticket to me. I was happy to accept.
I didn’t really enjoy the game. The home team lost. A constant stiff wind drove the 45-degree air through my sweatshirt and into my bones. A fellow under the influence of a few too many beers lurched into me, and I spilled coffee all over myself. And the guys in the seats behind us never stopped talking through the whole game.
Still, Arthur was in a pretty good mood (never a given), and we were able to laugh about the evening’s misfortunes on the drive home.
At one point in our conversation, for some reason that I cannot now recall, I asked Arthur if he had ever considered what kind of work he would have done if he had not felt called to Christian ministry.
“Oh sure,” he replied. “I would have been a lawyer.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yep. A litigator, I’m sure. And I would have been a good one. In fact, even while I was in seminary, I visited a couple of law schools and filled out the application for one of them. I never sent it in, though. I’m not sure why. I guess it was partly my wife’s constant reminder that I should never forget my ‘calling.’ I’ve often wondered how my life would have been different if I had mailed that application.”
That led to an exchange of “war stories,” episodes from our past where difficult or unusual circumstances put our sense of “call” to the maximum test. For example, I recalled the time a family had left the church I pastored, a congregation in the Free Church tradition, because I refused to baptise their twelve-year-old son when he was either unwilling or unable to articulate a cogent, convincing testimony of his personal faith in Christ.
Arthur followed that with a more humorous recollection of an occasion when a family in his church had butchered a number of the young fryer-size chickens they were raising and presented Arthur and his wife with a grocery bag filled to overflowing with chicken feet, claws still perfectly intact. No other parts of the chicken. Just the feet. Arthur remembered the gift-bearer, smiling broadly as he made his presentation, telling Ellie, “Lots of meat on them claws. Make real good soup stock.”
We laughed so hard, I momentarily forgot about the discomfort caused by my coffee-soaked jeans.
We exchanged a few more stories like that, then Arthur turned serious. “I’m glad I have a few memories of my life as a minister that make me laugh,” he said. “Most of my memories, unfortunately, make me wistful or angry or sad.”
“Surely there must be happy memories,” I said. “Times when you sensed that God was using you in a particularly significant way? A funeral, perhaps, or a wedding or child dedication. Or maybe a home or hospital visit, or a counseling session where you felt you were really helpful.”
“Oh sure,” he replied. “There were times like that. Unfortunately, they are overshadowed by the times when I felt so inadequate I almost questioned my call. And more than that, my memories include those times when, even though I was a minister, I nevertheless needed the ministry of the church. It’s probably an unfair overstatement, but when I think of those times, I conclude that, in my moments of greatest need, the church was not there for me.”
“Could you say a little more about that?” I asked.
“Well, when our first baby died,” he said, “I was a pastor. Because of that, apparently, the church didn’t know how to relate to us in that moment of grief and loss. It was a terribly lonely and painful experience. Same thing when Ellie miscarried a few years later.
“When I lost my job five years ago, and our situation was complicated by Ellie’s cancer diagnosis at the same time, we were in transition from the Free Church to the Anglican community, so we didn’t really have a home church. And boy, did we know it. Again, we felt alone and uncared for.
“And then, when I requested release from my Holy Orders last summer. It was a really difficult decision. In the months since then, I would have welcomed the opportunity to talk about it with someone from the diocese, but nobody has called.”
“I’m sorry, Arthur,” I said as I pulled into his driveway. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s okay,” he said, and slapped me on the knee as he was getting out of the car. “Thanks for going along tonight… and for driving.”
“Hey, it was a fair exchange for the free ticket,” I said. “And I actually had fun.”
“So did I,” Arthur said. “And thanks for the conversation. You know, as I think back on my life as a minister, even when I consider all the tough times, I still have to say that, if I had it to do all over again…”
“Yes?” I said.
“If I had it to do over again, I think I would go to law school.”
I assumed he was joking, so I smiled broadly. He touched the bill of his cap, gave me the thumbs-up sign, and turned to walk toward his door. But he did not smile.