Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Looking at old photos

In the photo we’re shaking hands, my father and I. Both of us dressed in albs after worship and obviously posing for the shot. I’m looking at the camera, about to make some wisecrack, judging by the expression on my face. My father’s eyes are closed, smiling gamely, about to say something too. What he’s about to say is anyone’s guess now. He appears self-conscious and eminently uncomfortable as the center of attention.

This photograph was taken at my formal installation in my second parish. I didn’t take my father’s advice and stick it out longer in my first parish. I lasted just two years. In my defense, it certainly seemed a lot longer though.

My first call out of seminary was to the coal regions of Northeast Pennsylvania. I landed in a typical ‘first call’ parish. Small church, well past its heyday, such as it was, with little prospect for growth. Black lung and disability benefits were the largest source of income and funerals outnumbered baptisms something like 20 to 1. No one expected longevity in place like this. You came here to get your pastoral feet wet. While I was thrilled to finally be out of seminary, I also remember being confused and feeling so out of place among people I had so little in common with.

My father kept telling me to be patient.

"This could be a peach, a real gold mine, if you give it a chance," he’d say.

"The only thing coming out of this mine is coal," I’d snap back.

He’d shake his head and that would be the end of it, until the next time. What I didn’t know then; what I didn’t understand about my father and his advice was that it was too much for him to come right out and say that even stubborn, small-minded, difficult people deserve a pastor.

"Yes dad, they do indeed." I want to say now, "perhaps more than most folks, they need a pastor. But, that’s an awful lot to ask of the young man in this photo."

Looking at this photo today, it’s easy to see what my father must have seen then. How green I was! I burst out of seminary with my degree and ordination papers under my belt, and all I wanted was to set the world on fire. It wasn’t until I hit my first parish that I realized something very important. They don’t give out matches in seminary.

I suppose it comes as no surprise that my first call was a colossal flop. My father continually telling me to stick it out inadvertently magnified my sense of responsibility. When this photo was taken, I remember feeling like it was all my fault.

Now, I’ve gained some perspective. Some of it was my fault. My inexperience, impatience and unrealistic expectations took their toll. But realistically, the ending of my first pastorate was just the latest in a string of short-term pastorates in that parish. The guy who followed me didn’t even make it as long as I did. I out-lasted him by 3 months. (How do you like them apples!)

As I look at the two men in this photo, I believe it was hard for both of them to fully grasp how much the church and ministry had changed. My father, at the time this picture was taken, was coming up on his 30th anniversary of ordination. I would celebrate my 3 year ordination anniversary in about 2 more months.

The ministry he’d come into and the ministry I was coming into were worlds apart. The problem was, the only way I knew how to do ministry was the way I’d seen my father do it. I couldn’t understand why, what I’d seen work so well for him, fell flat on its face whenever I tried it!

It took me a long time and a lot of black eyes, to learn the importance of context; the Kairos of being in the right place at the right time. In this photo I see two men, one not knowing how to ask for help and the other, not knowing how to give it. Tangled in something sweet, and precious and not knowing exactly what to make of that either. Fairly typical of fathers and sons I suppose.

Today, I understand the young man staring back at me with the wisecracking expression, about to tell his mother (I assume it was her taking the picture, no one else could have made us stand that way for so long) to ‘put that camera away’ if I can read my own lips. My distaste for the center of attention comes honestly, I suppose.

Little did I know, the fiasco of my first parish would be nothing compared to what I would experience there in my second, where they’d run my predecessor out of town on a rail, so to speak. But, no one has gotten around to telling me that yet and sometimes, when you are looking at photographs, it’s best not to know more than the people in the photo know. And, in this photo, I am confident, exceedingly hopeful and secretly beaming inside. You see, my father is beside me, shaking my hand, and for that moment, I’m on top of the world and anything is possible!

Looking at these old photos has become a bit of a ritual for me lately, especially after my father died unexpectedly in 2001. I find it comforting. A photo gives context to the unknown, and there is something reassuring about holding the past in your hand while trying to guess what’s ahead.

For what pictures like this depict most clearly is the mystery of a grace that is hidden within the most ordinary circumstances. It seems we live most of our lives oblivious to the grace that surrounds us like air. And, sometimes I think, if we had the eyes to see it, what these old photos actually add up to is a kind of composite snap shot of God. Ha, I wonder what my old man would say if I told him that!

These old photos remind me how much I miss not having him to bounce ideas off of late at night around the scotch bottle. Occasionally, I’d like to tell him what these 17 odd years of ministry have amounted to since the night that picture was taken. Maybe he’d be surprised, maybe he wouldn’t. But that begs the question.

See, in the picture, my father has his left hand on my shoulder while he shakes my right hand. It’s a pose you’ve seen a thousand times. I always thought he was clapping me a hearty congratulations, sort of typical for these kinds of PR photos of oversized checks and oversized smiles. But this year, I see a tenderness I’ve never noticed. A gentleness you wouldn’t expect from a meaty paw like his.

It’s easy to want more; a more attractive figure, more money, more luck, and yes, even one more chance to say what should have been said then. The true treasure in these old photos though, is the witness they bear, that everything you’ve always needed has been right there in front of you all the time. You don’t need more because now is enough.

But look, I bet that’s just what my old man was about to say.

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