Ministry in isolation

Ministry is what I do. According to my title, it’s what I am. Church ministry is what I’ve done most of my working life. While I’ve not always kicked goals and there have been seasons of injury, I’ve stuck at it believing somehow that what I do matters. In the last two months, though, my confidence has wobbled.

Since late March, we Australians have been in isolation. Along with all places of public gathering, my church is closed, my neighbourhood and city shut down.  For seven weeks there have been no services, no visiting, no meetings with staff or pastoral encounters of any physical kind. Day after day it’s just me, my home office and this wretched computer screen. 

I’ve done all right, and I’ve nothing to complain about. Australia has been spared the tragedy of numbers — infections and deaths — that other countries have staggered under. What’s more, I have a roof over my head, a job that pays the rent and keeps the pantry full, and a loving family around me. That said, my sense of what it is I am meant to do and to be as a minister is challenged. 

The word ‘ministry’ is amorphous at the best of times. My Oxford Australian dictionary offers the generic “to render aid or service; the actions of a kind-hearted person.” In the context of the church, we normally aim for something more specific, more theological. I have long imagined the ministry of a pastor as accompanying a community of people in the life of faith: encouraging, teaching, supporting and believing with and in them as the people of God.  Whatever its particularities, it’s a very hands-on business. There’s nothing remote about it. It depends entirely on encounter and presence. If I am the hands of Christ among a community, then those hands need to get dirty. Christian ministry is a very physical and fleshy thing. So what do we do when all the physicality is gone? 

I don’t know really. I wish I could say I’ve had a revelation. I haven’t. I’ve struggled from the beginning and as we emerge out the other side, in some ways I feel none the wiser. That said, I do feel more sure about some things that, for me, are important to ministry and to the core of what I do.

Ministry is community

There are some who have claimed this time of social lockdown as purifying for ministry — an ideal opportunity for the distractions to be stripped away and for all that interrupts the bold proclamation of the gospel to be let go.  But gospel without the blemished flesh of community is not good news. It’s empty. Indeed, it’s impossible. By community, I mean that messy, funny, aggravating, awkward, ridiculous business of being the church — not some vague notion of church that floats in the middle of nowhere and demands nothing of us, but a real, local flesh-and-blood body of people that manifests Jesus while occasionally smelling bad and singing off-key. I reckon what I’ve discovered afresh is that the messy distractions and interruptions that come with people — people of all stripes and colours pressed up against one another — lie at the heart of ministry. They are not marginal to it. 

The virtual sucks!

There are many who champion the rise of the ‘virtual’ as a new signpost for ministry today. While they’re all much more hip than me, I’m still not convinced. Sure, the whole virtual thing has been good for a bit. I’ve learned a lot during this season about the role of social media, the potential of digital formats and online networking platforms. I’ve gone from Zoom novice to master in a matter of weeks. I’ve become the producer of video content that has honed my ability as a communicator and stretched by pastoral instincts. Regardless, ministry and the virtual remain the most awkward companions. While virtual mediums might be a handy addition to the ministry toolkit, the word’s definition points to their limitations: “almost or nearly as described, but not completely …”  I reckon I’ve discovered for myself that while the virtual can aid ministry, on its own it’s a crock!  

I confess, I hate emails. I always have. I loath phone conversations and Zoom just leaves me exhausted. But as a classic introvert, I really thought I’d do better at all this. I even thought I might secretly enjoy it. But, honestly, all it’s done is mess with my head, because ministry and isolation just don’t go together. Not for me.

I want coffee. I want to sit across from you in a cafe or perch at your kitchen bench; to hug when we meet; to smile at your stories and cry with you when life hurts. I want to pray with you and hear about your grandkids. I want to sit in church with you and sing together and meet your eye when I stand in that old pulpit; to break bread with you and remind you of God’s endless grace. I want to intercede with you for the world and advocate with you for justice, to work at welcoming strangers and loving our neighbours together. I want to bake you a cake and share a slice of pizza at Stellini Bar and imagine with you the life that God calls us to live. 

Because apart from all of that, I’m not sure I know what ministry is. 

The work of a pastor

I am a pastor, though I don’t always know why. 

I did once. I began in this business with deep conviction. To be a pastor was my calling — a vocation that I imagined chose me as much I chose it. To be a pastor was a profound responsibility invested by God upon those chosen for the task. To be honest, the odds were stacked against me. I was young and shy, introverted, tentative and emotional. Still, I was possessed of a knowing, and one not easily dissuaded. It was a knowing that others affirmed and, some would say, has proven itself true over time. 

Now, though, I’m not so sure. I still have a knowing, but a more pragmatic one. I know I am good at what I do. I know what’s required of a pastor and, as far as I am able, I give it my best. I know the texts and rituals of the faith, the rites of passage that I’m responsible to lead. I know congregations and how they work. I know people and I care easily for them. I certainly know the Church — the institution I represent. I know its history and theology, its strengths and its failings, its potential and its wretchedness. What’s more, I know first-hand the experiences of belief and doubt — the essentials of a durable faith. 

But as to why I am a pastor? To be honest, sometimes it feels more like a consequence than a vocation, the result of family background, circumstance and personality. Don’t get me wrong: I maintain a deep sense of calling, but it’s that calling shared by all people of faith not something all my own. Certainly, I have a strong awareness of God in what I do and of its worth, but as to why I have this role and do this work, I’m not always sure.  That said, I’m glad. 

I’m glad to be a pastor. I sense the privilege of what I do every day. Yes, I get tired, discouraged and cheesed off. Sometimes I despair. But in the midst of it all, there is an underlying sense of gladness. As Eugene Peterson says so beautifully, we pastors are called by a particular community to “pay attention” to what’s going on between and around us; to discern what is of God. Essentially, he says, we are witnesses: “A witness is never the centre but only the person who points to or names what is going on at the centre — in this case, the action and revelation of God …” 

While I can no longer claim too boldly the unique imprimatur of God upon my life as though I stand out from the crowd, what I can embrace is this extraordinary privilege I’m given by the people of God at Collins Street  —  the privilege to witness as best as I am able to the purposes and presence of God within and around us. I may not do it alone nor always do it well, but I get to do it no less. And for that I am glad. 


Most Sundays I stand in a pulpit. It’s an imposing old thing, central to the internal architecture of its 19th century home. Though I can’t say I relish the sermon, it is a valued part of my tradition. In fact, for Baptists like me, preaching is central to the worship event. Really, I have no choice but to give it my best.

That said, doing so is fraught. There are at least two dangers for the regular preacher – dangers that sit at either end of a spectrum.

At one end, there’s the preacher who chooses ‘professional distance’ from the subjects she speaks on, ensuring nothing of herself is ever a part of what she says. From this perspective, the preacher’s task is to get out of the way and let the Word speak for itself.

At the other end, there’s the preacher who makes his own experience central to every sermon he preaches. At worst, his sermon becomes a weekly act of self-indulgence: ‘Look at me!’ I have long understood these two dangers as equally hazardous.

Frankly, I’m in danger of the second more than the first. Professional distance has never been my thing. At my best, I like to imagine it as a choice for vulnerability. I have always believed that if the preacher is not prepared to be fully present in his preaching, then he has no right to stand in a pulpit. Where there is no honesty, the possibility of truth that transforms is minimal. What’s more, my experience tells me that when a preacher leaves her own experience out of the sermon, it is almost guaranteed that her listeners will do the same. Still, the hazards of this approach are real.

First, we have to be honest enough to say that while personal engagement and self-indulgence are two different things, they lie perilously close to each other. Tread carefully!

Second, it’s a rare preacher whose own life and experience is so interesting as to be a riveting source of weekly inspiration. Think more broadly!

Third, the practice of constantly giving oneself away in the sermon can take an emotional toll on the most resourceful preacher. Go gently!

One of the most important things I have learned in preaching is that bringing oneself to the task, fully and honestly, does not equate with every sermon being confessional. Sometimes it is more about the vulnerability of one’s spirit than it is about what one reveals.

Like so many others in my profession, I face personal experiences of struggle: those of loss, grief and failure. In those moments, honestly, I would rather do anything than stand in a pulpit. What’s more, naming those feelings publically is more than I can do. What I have learned to lean upon at those times is the gentle and gracious invitation of God: ‘Be present to the task, Simon. That’s all of you that I require today.’

Men in the Kitchen: Food, Gender, Church & Culture

It’s been four years now since my mother died. Mum was an extraordinary woman, a force of nature — gregarious, chaotic, funny, eternally optimistic and with an endless capacity to love. She loved God, she loved her husband, her boys, their wives and her sixteen grandchildren. She loved her church and her neighbours and still she had reserves for anyone else who came along. In her passing, mum left behind a hole in my life and many others that remains. She also left behind a recipe book.

It’s an old school exercise book, the tattered cover post-box red and bound along its edge with a strip of woven tape. Mrs Holt’s Recipes it says on the front. In the painful process of sorting through mum’s life following her funeral, my father took the book down from above the refrigerator. “I don’t know who else would want it,” he said as he handed it to me.

The truth is, my mother had nothing to do with the compilation of this book. I did it. As a boy of nine or ten, despairing at the cardboard box stuffed with recipes at the bottom of mum’s pantry, it was me that got her organised. With a set of coloured pens and my best artistic flourish, I created chapters: casseroles; main dishes; large cakes; small cakes, slices, biscuits and confectionary; soups; and desserts. Each page was carefully numbered. Some recipes I handwrote, adding editorial comment here and there: “this one is good.” Most I stuck to the pages with sticky tape. Everything found its place and the cardboard box was thrown out.

Of course, my mother’s style was never an ordered one. The book today bulges with recipes randomly stuffed. There are casseroles in the biscuits section and sweet and sour pork in desserts. The recipes for curried sausages and cod casserole — the ones I thought I’d gotten rid of — had reappeared. Each time I hold the book, cuttings and scraps, even whole pages, fall to the ground. The book is everything mum was: overflowing, erratic, generous, and all-encompassing. In memory of her, I have nothing else as fragile and nothing as robust. It’s like holding a sacred text.

Recipe books like my mum’s are ubiquitous. You probably have or remember one yourself. Perhaps it’s a well-ordered book or just a collection of cards shuffled together. These collections tell us many things. Like a family photo album, a recipe collection provides unique snapshots of the way life was at another time. They hold memories, ones we can still taste and smell. What’s more, if we are prepared to read them just a little more closely, they can tell us far more than the ingredients for boiled fruit cake. They speak of our identity. The provide windows into issues of gender, taste, class and culture. They remind us, too, that sex in the kitchen is not what it used to be.

For men of my father’s generation, the kitchen stove was a woman’s place and home cooking an almost entirely feminine task. Men did other things. They may have been out taming the wilderness with the lawn mower or presiding over ‘the high altar’ of the backyard barbecue. Typically they were not found in the kitchen, except perhaps to do the dishes. Today things have changed. I am one of six sons. At least three of us are seasoned home cooks. No longer limited to carving the Sunday roast or washing up, men have moved from sink to stove in considerable numbers. Indeed, things have changed, but perhaps not as much as we imagine.

The most current research still points to women carrying the lion’s share of daily, domestic responsibilities. According to the ABS, Australian men, on average, spend twenty-eight minutes per day on household chores while women spend one hour and eight minutes. Life in the kitchen is no different. In 84% of Australian households, women remain the primary cooks.

It is certainly true that men are cooking at home more than they have. Generally, though, the nature of the cooking they do is different. The truth is, men are more motivated by cooking as performance than as an act of service. Research tells us that men in the kitchen typically place a higher value on the mastery of technical skill than on the nurturing of those they cook for. I have a friend who is currently fascinated with the gadgets of backyard smoking and slow grilling. His mastery of these gadgets has led him into all manner of online groups where men share their skills with religious fervour. It is a particular male obsession. What’s more, as the social researcher Rebecca Huntley observes, the male household cook is much more motivated by an audience and playing to them. Consequently, while the male cook may be lauded as “the kitchen hero” on weekends, it is still predominantly their female partners who keep the family fed and watered during the week: “the deeply gendered distinction between cooking as a vocation—as technical skill—and cooking as a domestic chore—as caring work—holds fast.” So, while sex in the kitchen may be different to what it once was, it is, according to Huntley, “still in the missionary position.”

The extraordinary success of television cooking shows provides an interesting commentary on our contemporary understandings of food. The celebrated Australian chef Gay Bilson, now retired to a farm in South Australia, has become one of our nation’s most intelligent food writers. For Bilson, the trajectory of shows like MasterChef is entirely “aspirational.” That is, they have little to do with the daily domestic life of our kitchens and more to do with the glamorous world of artfully stacked restaurant food we’re all meant to aspire to. While we salivate over stylized images of food ‘plated’ for the discerning consumer, we return to the dinner table with a diminished sense of what’s actually before us, its connection to the earth and the care that’s made it possible. The distance between what is aspired to and what our ordinary lives most need is wide. Most notably, Bilson argues, the value of the domestic cook is marginalized.

This marginalization has a long history. In his wonderful book The Pudding That Took a Thousand Cooks, Australian writer Michael Symons observes that for much of history, household cooks “have been in the background — both ever present and unnoticed. Their contributions have seemed too common, pervasive, trivial, unproblematic. These cooks generally have been women, and their achievements overlooked as inglorious and private. They have been restricted to the chopping board and spice rack. But while each of the cooks’ actions might be infinitesimal, the results have multiplied into civilization.” Indeed, if the old adage is true, we are what we eat, then household cooks have not just made our meals, they have made us. For most household cooking — the cooking that marks our days and feeds our bodies — is not about art or performance. It’s about service and the daily sacrifices of earth and home. It’s about nutrition and wellbeing. It’s about the rituals and routines that hold us together as households and families.

It was this that my mother instinctively understood. When it came to cooking, mum did not care for detail. For the most part, her recipes are simple and to the point. Like the one she called “Chicken Casserole a la Jean.” Jean was mum’s older sister. As it happens I remember mum writing it down at Aunty Jean’s table. The truth is, neither mum nor Jean liked cooking. Life was too full to be distracted by detail, especially in the kitchen. The recipe is brief.

I chicken pulled to pieces
Fry onions and peppers and mushrooms
Add 1 tin of celery OR asparagus OR chicken soup
Add to chicken and into oven

I have never made Chicken a la Jean, and I probably never will. But there is something in the spirit of this recipe that hovers over me today. I am a serious cook, more serious and skilled than my mother was, but I am always conscious of her presence when I cook. “That’ll do!” she would always say. When I am prone to make food more important than people, and to give the processes of preparation more time than I give to those who will eat it, I hear her say, “That’ll do!” Mum cooked entirely driven by love, her love for those for whom she cooked. It was a service pure and simple.

Culinary historian Henry Notaker (A History of Cookbooks) writes on the role of women in professional kitchens. Though women are in the majority of professional cooks through history, Notaker demonstrates the degree to which they too have been marginalized, demeaned and paid substantially less than their male counterparts. Sound familiar? In 19th century France, women cooks were paid just a third of what was paid to men. Though these men commonly took the plumb roles in palaces and mansions, it was women who filled the majority of roles in household kitchens. They often combined cooking with other household duties, whereas men only cooked.

As women began enrolling in professional cookery courses in France in the late 1800s, one male gatekeeper was indignant and accused women of usurping a profession that did not belong to them. He was aware that women were immersed in cooking from birth and had no objection to women who cooked at home, but he claimed that they had no right to enter what he called “our work,” which, by the way, he considered too fatiguing for the female constitution and also too extensive for their flimsy knowledge.

Thankfully, there has been a long and honourable line of women in history who have persisted, the ones who have been able to see through the hubris and hypocrisy of men claiming their birth right in the professional kitchen. These women have found the courage to call out these male cooks as egotists with little real concern for the health and well-being of those they fed. The author of the first cookbook written by an Italian woman and published in 1900, said this: “For male cooks it is enough to pose as artist, these cooks are seeking a name for themselves and they want glory and laurels, even at the risk of spoiling other people’s digestion.” She accused men of pandering to the epicures and gluttons rich enough to pay, while female cooks were concerned that food is healthy, nourishing and an expression of care.

It is now 40 years since Victorian Baptists first ordained women to pastoral ministry. It was a bun fight at the time and our behaviour during that period is nothing for us to be proud of. You would imagine that four decades later we could confidently say that sex in the church looks fundamentally different. Indeed, there are instances where that is the case. Certainly we have made significant strides and women are now able to play roles in our movement they’ve never played before. But in other ways, little has changed. Still a majority of our churches will not consider a woman as pastor and certainly not as a senior pastor in a team ministry context. There is something at the heart of this continuing resistance that rests on a basic question regarding the nature of pastoral ministry. At its essence, is ministry a performance or an act of service?

As the youngest son growing up in suburban Dandenong, I got to sit next to mum in church. We Baptists only celebrated communion on the first Sunday morning of each month. Each time we did, it was men, exclusively men, who sat behind that table. It was a man, always a man, who stood to his feet and, as he held the elements aloft, uttered the words of Jesus: “this is my body given for you … this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” What I remember, however, is that prior to the service, I would accompany mum in the church kitchen as she cut up slices of Tip Top white bread into the tiniest pieces; as she poured the grape juice ever so carefully into those little Baptist shot glasses lined up in wooden trays. There was one roster for the men who would flank the pastor behind the communion table, and another roster for the women who made everything ready. The men performed; the women served. It seems that regardless of our brand or the clerical uniforms we wear, our churches confront the same persistent issues.

In today’s restaurant kitchens, more than 75% of head or executive chef positions are maintained by men. Indeed, it is a stubborn figure that does not move. As a rule, it is men who perform at the pass while it’s women — those who make up more than 60% of kitchen staff — who serve in the background. It seems that today’s professional kitchen and today’s church have much in common.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus met with his disciples to anticipate his death and the challenges that lay beyond it. To demonstrate the essence of the ministry for which he was preparing them, Jesus took off his outer robe, knelt before them and washed their feet. There was no audience to play to, no positons to protect, no power to maintain or authority to exercise. There were only dirty feet, and it was Jesus who washed them. “You do likewise,” he said to them.

In 2017, my wife and I enjoyed some of the most delightful weeks in Tuscany, Italy. As part of our travels, we spent a day in the fortress town of Montepulciano. While we were there, I had the opportunity to visit the Church of San Biagio, a magnificent 16th century edifice built on an open field below the town. As it happens, I was the only visitor inside. For as long as I was there, it was just me, a magnificent space, and a priest.

The priest was an industrious young man, dressed in uniform black. Though he smiled warmly at me, we did not speak. He was busy. With his clerical collar unbuttoned, he was carting stacks of plastic chairs from the central sanctuary to an outer door. Seated in a pew, I watched him for about half an hour. Back and forth he went, stack after stack from one place to the other. At one point I offered to help, but he brushed me away with some words in Italian I couldn’t understand.

As I sat in this sublime place of worship watching my brother work, I reflected on just how domestic is most of what we do in this business. No matter what our tradition, no matter how grand or plain our context, how large or small our congregations or how notable our titles, so much of what we do is carting chairs. Oh, there are moments, those grand unforgettable moments: those occasional sermons in which our spirits sore; those pastoral encounters in which we sense God’s transforming presence; those remarkable moments in a church’s life when you know the delight of God in the most extraordinary way. But then, you go back to carting chairs. After 30+ of pastoral ministry, I have come to understand that it’s this that lies at the heart of what we do.

At the end of the day, you know, for all the TV hype, the cooking shows and celebrity chefs, those who cook for a living offer a service of the most basic kind. They feed us. When all the glamour is stripped away, they are, in fact, part of the modern, professional servant class. A contributor in the pages of the journal Quadrant reflected recently on the contrast between her life as a writer and her work as a functions manager on weekends. In this reflection she describes “the gross materiality” she confronted every evening in those she served: “Mess, vomit, rotten food, garbage, sour smells, burnt offerings, and drunken bodies regularly confronted me at the end of the night. Quite literally, I had to put my hands in the muck that other people had left behind. My job was to sort refuse, dispose of it, then create a picture anew, as if it had never taken place.”

It’s a pretty ordinary business really.

As fond as I am of my mother’s recipe book, I know that I cannot romanticize it too much. Mum never liked cooking. For her it was a means to other things. It was an act of foot washing. Seven nights each week, for twenty-plus years of my life, my mother took of her outer robes, put on her apron, knelt down and washed my feet. There was no heavenly light streaming through the window as she did so. There was no audience, just a table full of tired and hungry people who were just as likely to turn up their noses at what was on their plates as they were to give thanks. Cooking was service, a humble and routine act of service. But in that service there is something of the essence of ministry and the spirituality that shapes it.

As we in the church continue to wrestle with the nature of ministry, with what it means to be communities of faith in which all contributions are received with gratitude, we have much to learn from our kitchens and much to learn from the God who inhabits those kitchens as much as God inhabits our churches.

I conclude tonight with a prayer, a responsive prayer inspired by the words of Baptist pastor and writer Kenneth Sehested (In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public, 2009). Perhaps you can join me in reading those words printed in italics.

breast-feeding God,
hungry and thirsty we return to your lap
and to your table again.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.

Fill us again with bread that satisfies,
with milk that nourishes.
Drench our parched throats
with the cool taste of your goodness.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.

We come to your lap
and to your table
to rediscover your romance with the world.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.

As you nourish us with the bread of life
and the milk of your Word,
let your Spirit hang an apron around our necks,
fashioned and patterned
like that worn by Jesus.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.
Nourish our hearts and strengthen our bodies
so that we can feed others.

Instruct us,
here in the halls
of your kitchen-kingdom,
with the recipes of mercy and forgiveness,
of compassion and redemption.

Leaven our lives
‘til they rise in praise:
offered, blessed and broken
for the healing of this earth.


Violence and ‘biblical manhood’

The horrific tragedy of Eurydice Dixon’s rape and murder in Princes Park in June was close to home. I live in Parkville just across the road from where Eurydice died. The park is where my partner and I walk every morning. Even more, my daughter Ali lives in a share house in Carlton just blocks away. The route Eurydice took that night is one she walks. Though shaken by the tragedy of this woman’s death, I was more deeply impacted by Ali’s response. She is 23. Standing with thousands of others at a candle lit vigil in the park, Ali’s tears were more than momentary. Her feelings of vulnerability, fear and rage were sustained, confronting, and mirrored in the countless young women who surrounded her. As I stood in this crowd myself, the intensity of these feelings was overwhelming.

In Ali’s case, her despair is heightened by her studies in social work. In her recent placement at a women’s prison, she confronted the fact that every woman she connected with was the victim of domestic violence or childhood sexual abuse, most commonly at the hands of husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles. As they are elsewhere, the statistics around domestic and sexual violence in this city are shocking, the overwhelming majority of cases in which men are the perpetrators. As today’s paper reminds us, though Eurydice’s story may have gripped our community in a particular way, there are countless other stories, equally appalling, we do not hear.

I have felt many things since that night. Most deeply I have felt inadequate. I have struggled to know what to do or how to respond. While I may be able to say ‘I am not violent’ or ‘I am not an abuser,’ I cannot say ‘this is not my problem.’ Standing with my daughter, I understand afresh that this is my dilemma as much as it is hers. This is so because I am her father, of course, but there is more to it than that. It is mine because I am a citizen, a neighbour, a church leader and, most significantly, a male. The stark realities of male violence and their underlying causes are mine as much as they are anyone else’s. But what to do with that reality, that’s where I stumble. And I am not alone.

There is much talk today of a “crisis of confidence” among men. The goal posts have shifted, we are told, as traditional roles have been up-ended; the image of the male as provider, protector, leader and defender is no longer assumed. Apart from the fact that we have proved ourselves atrociously poor stewards of such roles, the underlying assumption that they are ours for the claiming is now vigorously questioned. And rightly so.

As a member of the church, I am part of a community that struggles with this “crisis” in a particular way.  It is often argued by Christian men that the answer to our predicament is to reassert our authority, to retake our God-given roles as leaders and protectors. According to this view, the “radical feminisation” of society has led to the emasculation of men and the disorder that has followed. Conversely, it is only by reclaiming what’s called our “biblical manhood” that Divine order will be restored and society healed. What this order includes, of course, is the “complimentary” role of women to comply, to submit and to go back to their kitchens. Such is the passion behind this view of things that the call to re-embrace manhood becomes a call to arms. We are urged, in the words of Brad Stein’s anthem of Christian manhood, to “grab a sword, don’t be scared; be a man, grow a pair.”

To be honest, any talk of “biblical manhood” makes me nervous. I have a sense that, in truth, this coupling of leadership with testicles has little to do with Christian virtue and more to do with a base need for men to reassert their dominance.  Type the word “masculinity” into Google and countless images come up of shirtless men flexing their biceps. Traditional views of manhood are equated with power. Thus when we men feel powerless, vulnerable, emotional, afraid or uncertain, we have learned to identify such feelings with weakness and emasculation. Consequently, we lash out at the shifting of traditional roles and want desperately to reinstate them. But to whose benefit? Rather than finding a way to hold our vulnerability, to name our emotions, or to own our fears and responsibilities as human beings, we grasp again for power.

The fact is, this idea of “biblical manhood” is challenging. While images of masculinity abound in the bible, they are so tenuous and various as to be, at best, illustrative but rarely prescriptive. Think of David and Jonathan: David the warrior and slayer of giants, a philanderer who can’t keep his pants zipped; his dearest friend Jonathan, a man of letters and poetry, moderate, wise and politically manipulative. Take brothers Jacob and Esau: one a hairy outdoorsman and the other a mother’s boy, hairless and soft of skin; one given to underhanded deception and the other to bouts of uncontrollable anger. Think of disciples Peter and John: gregarious Peter, fickle and full of bravado, a risk taker who wears his heart on his sleeve, and John, quiet, unassuming, leaning against the breast of Jesus with deep affection. The truth is, while the bible is full of ‘manly’ stories, none provide stellar models of manhood. From beginning to end, these men are as broken and fragile as they are heroic.

Personally, as I think of those young women, my daughter included, gathered at the memorial for Eurydice Dixon, I struggle to see how the benevolent re-application of male authority could be an answer to their despair. Indeed, I cannot imagine how the call to reclaim the balls of a “biblical manhood” has anything to say to this tragedy that is not deeply offensive.

If I find anything in my faith relevant to this issue, it is not a call to Christian manhood, but the persistent call of Jesus to be human, fully human. Foundational to the Christian faith is the belief that we are made in the image of God. In this is our common call to personhood, and it is ours no matter what our gender, race, religion, sexuality or the colour of our skin. This shared identity, affirmed and reclaimed in Christ, is what binds and obligates us to each other.  If the God-given roles of leadership, providence and protection are ours — and I believe they are — they are not the exclusive rights of office or gender. Rather, they are responsibilities that we share as those made in God’s image.




The farmer and the pastor

1484163717072I’ve just finished reading a collection of letters written to young farmers. Surprisingly, they are captivating, even to me. The contributors are mostly seasoned agriculturalists, though commonly they have other roles as well. Writing is one of them. Their shared concern is to encourage those who are new to the profession, calling them to a deeper and more considered commitment to their work.

Granted, it’s an odd book for the pastor of a city church to read. My daily work is about as far removed from the land as one could imagine. My interest in food, however, is strong. Connections of dependence upon those who work to provide food for my table and others are genuine and daily. I could claim other connections: my father was a farmer; I was born onto a dairy farm in the Gippsland; I own a small part in a some acres in central Victoria. But none of that makes me any more a farmer than I am an astronaut. The farm is not my world.

That said, I can see in the exhortations of these mentor-farmers applications to the work I do as a pastor. It makes me wonder if the distance between our worlds is really as wide as I imagine. Some of the observations that struck me are these:

The farmer is a professional

There’s an affirming spirit to these letters, a reminder from seasoned to budding farmers that their work is important, no matter how it is regarded, or disregarded, more broadly. The words “I am just a farmer” have no place here. “However calloused your hands,” Barbara Kingsolver writes, “however grimy the uniform, however your back may sometimes ache, you are a professional. Your vocation is creative, necessary, and intellectually demanding.”

As with many professions, only those who know farming from the inside can appreciate its demands. Amidst the complexities of environment, climate and the global market, successful farming today requires significant levels of competence, risk and skill. The encouragement is clear: take your work, your competence and your importance seriously, even if others don’t.

There is wisdom here for pastors too. While there is no place for an inflated sense of ourselves, we do need to take ourselves seriously as professionals. Though we may not often feel the esteem of the surrounding culture, we know well what our work demands and the potential contribution it makes. As with all professions, we submit to systems of accreditation, rites of ordination, the needs for academic qualifications and professional competencies earned through time. While these are not everything, they ain’t nothin’ either. Whatever assessment others make of us, our work is important. We do well to remember it.

To farm is a vocation

This second observation follows on from the first. At the same time, it provides a counter to it. Routinely these writers speak of farming as a spiritual calling. More than a profession, a skill-set or work to be done, farming is a vocation that says as much about identity as it does about the work itself. Farming is not only the work a farmer does; it is who the farmer is. It’s this that can hold a farmer to the land when nothing else can make sense of it.

This is a point the Franciscan farmer Gary Paul Nabhan makes well. “As best I can figure, becoming a farmer is not that much different from becoming a monk,” he writes, “because it is ultimately about adhering to a spiritual path. You have to have faith that it is your calling because undertaking it does not make much economic, social, or political sense at all. Very few of you will get rich, get famous and powerful, or get laid simply because you are a farmer.”

We pastors get this. Our work is more than the work we do. It flows from our identity as men and women of faith. Pastoral leadership is more than qualifications, degrees or contracts; it is who we are. So when our work doesn’t make sense, when it’s hard beyond anyone’s knowing, and when its rewards are slim, we keep showing up. To do otherwise would be to walk away from something deeply part of us.

To farm well is to work from your strengths

This third theme I noticed is one that took me by surprise. I have commonly assumed farming as a long line of responsibilities that simply have to be met. Surely from one dairy farm to the next, from one field of grain to another, the tasks are much the same. How little I know. It’s clear from these letters that farming takes a great deal of creativity and will look different from one context to the next and from one farmer to another. It’s here the uniqueness of the individual comes into play.

In an especially energetic letter, Joel Salatin presses young farmers, “What are you good at? What do you know? What do you enjoy?” he asks. “Where those three universes intersect is the sweet spot for your success. Many times, we fritter away most of our time struggling with things we don’t like or aren’t good at and fail to capitalize on areas of passion and proficiency. Life’s too short to be squandered that way.”

Clearly it’s a good point for farmers, and pastors too. Just as there is more than one way to farm a piece of land, so there are multiple ways to pastor a church. Thank God for that. We are not all cut from the same cloth or made for the same expressions of ministry. At our best, we do what we do as an expression of who we are, not who we would like to be or who others wish we were. How much energy I have squandered over the years trying desperately to compensate for my inadequacies, peddling ever faster in areas of ministry in which I’ll only ever be mediocre. My “passions and proficiencies” are the best of me. If I do not operate as much as possible out of these, I short change myself and the church.

Sustainable farming requires a sustainable farmer

Some of the most impassioned advice for young farmers relates to their sustainability. There is a consistent call to ‘balance’ in these letters, a balance of time and energy that enable the farmer to flourish over the long haul.

“Farming can be all-consuming,” writes Mary-Howell Martens, “especially at certain times of the year, and without a plan to protect an acceptable level of personal balance, you may find the farm takes all. Farming will invariably define your family, your self-esteem, your financial choices, your self-image, your priorities, and your time. It will profoundly shape how you interpret life and death, weather, money, time, food, community, exercise, and faith.”

It’s this all-consuming nature of farming, fed by a deep sense of vocation, that is the farmer’s greatest strength and potential downfall. Richard Wiswall underlines the danger: “When the financial numbers don’t line up, farmers … can be famously guilty of self-exploitation. Like many entrepreneurs, farmers believe in what they do so much that they will do what it takes to succeed: work longer and longer hours, sacrifice family and leisure time, balance the books at night so as not to waste precious daylight hours. Deep meaning derived from their work is one of the fuels that keep farmers going despite increasing hardships. But there is no limit to this.”

I can only imagine how this danger plays out for the farmer. I know first hand it’s impact in pastoral ministry. Our sense of vocation is both enabling and compelling. It’s the compelling part that can lead us into all kinds of dysfunction. The price paid by relentlessly driven pastors — not to mention their spouses, families and churches — is commonly too large a cost to bear.

Farming within communities

The final observation is the reminder to young farmers that they farm within communities … always. No successful farmer flys solo. Given the hours that farmers work, often alone and hidden from public view, it is easy to see farming as a work of solitude. According to these writers, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Farming is a work of connections and relationships. Farming is a community sustained through time, a relationship to land, place and story that only has meaning when those connections are named and nurtured. This is so at the most local level — in towns and communities where land, place and work are shared — as well as in a broader sense: the provider of food, the preparer of food and the consumer of food are all connected. It is as though the farmer has a place at my table every night.

The American conservationist of the early twentieth century Aldo Leopold once said that land is “not a commodity belonging to us” but “a community to which we belong.” There is profound truth in this for the farmer, and truth for the pastor as well. As the farmer does not own the land, so the pastor does not own the church and its mission. We belong to it, sustained by it as we work to strengthen it. The church is a reality so much larger than we are, and in the context of a world held in God’s sustaining hands. We play just a small part in a much grander work.

Here’s the book

Martha Hodgkins, ed. Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2017.

And a great related video too

The need to be relevant

I sit routinely with Harry, a good and gracious man who has lived his faith and served his church for more than eighty years. Now, with failing eye sight and a body that creaks, he is not able to be at church as often as he would like, nor volunteer time in the way he once did. There were days when his church could count on him to do things, to run things, to make things happen. But those days are gone. Though Harry understands why, the disappointment is real. As we sit together over a pot of tea, he speaks regretfully of his body’s limitations and the losses that have followed. With equal parts grief and hope, he leans in: “I still need to be feel relevant, Simon,” he says.

It’s a common cry among older adults. Though rarely communicated with such precision, I hear this need repeated often, alongside fears for its absence—irrelevance: those feelings of being ‘put out to pasture’; of being marginal to a community and inconsequential to its future. These fears are tangible for the aged and can manifest in particular ways: bemoaning change; holding tenaciously to traditions; responding like ‘sticks in the mud’ when it comes to innovation. Sadly, the deeper cries that sit beneath these responses go unnamed.

Of course, this need for relevance is not unique to those who are older. We all feel it. It’s human—the need to be needed; the longing to be acknowledged at life’s centre rather than linger unnoticed at its edges. It’s equally true for institutions as it is for individuals. There is much talk in today’s church about the need for relevance: a ‘fading institution’ that once had a central place at the tables of culture and politics, desperate to be a player still. Trouble is, the sort of relevance the church reaches for has more to do with appearance than substance: music, cutting edge multi-media, a youthful congregation, and a pastor in jeans.

I wonder, though, if the real essence of relevance is misunderstood, its worth misplaced by surface estimates of fashionability: we’re up-to-date; we’re cutting-edge and popular. Perhaps the real worth of our presence is found in the signs of our irrelevance. In a society that judges age as the movement to marginality, we esteem it as the gift that enriches our communities. In an age enamoured with veneers of material success and physical beauty, we prioritise character and integrity. In a culture where speed, efficiency and profit win the day, we invest in values of slowness, depth and generosity. In a milieu that prioritises self-interest and tightly drawn borders, we strive for communities of inclusion and hospitality.

No doubt, Harry’s longing for relevance is real. We do people a great disservice when we fail to take their felt needs seriously, no matter what their age. That said, the great gift that Harry gives at this stage of his life, often unconsciously, is his presence. His relevance is not in what value-adding activity he contributes, but in who he is. As Harry sits in his pew each Sunday morning waiting for the service to begin, he holds the bulletin in his hands, reading of the church’s pastoral concerns and praying. As he moves about the congregation after the service, he lingers in conversation with numerous people, listening and encouraging, especially the students from overseas who struggle with English. Harry is no respecter of skin colour, language, sexuality or age. He cares indiscriminately with care that’s neither hurried nor forced. He prays consistent and believing prayers that hold us all. And he embodies grace, demonstrable and practical grace without reserve.

To be honest, it is hard for me to imagine a more relevant presence in the church than Harry’s. Or, to put it differently, perhaps it is Harry’s glorious irrelevance that renders his presence an enduring gift to the church.

An Honoured Name

A month or so ago I had the privilege of reviewing Ken Manley’s most recent book, a biography of one of my predecessors here at Collins Street. The review is published in Our Yesterdays, a journal of history among Victorian Baptists.


As the 16th pastor of the historic Collins Street Baptist Church, I work each day surrounded by portraits of those who preceded me. Though most inhabited a different age to my own and faced challenges unique to their time, I find an odd sense of comfort knowing that I minister under their gaze. Each of these predecessors brought a distinct mix of gifts and passions to the role. Some of their stories resonate more immediately than others. One of those is Samuel Pearce Carey, pastor of Collins Street from 1900 to 1908.

Though a gifted man of impeccable Baptist heritage – great-grandson to the pioneer Baptist missionary William Carey – Pearce Carey arrived at Collins Street in a period of incredible change.  The twenty-three year tenure of the great Samuel Chapman had come to an end; and so, too, the period of the church’s most sustained growth. The turn of the century saw the burgeoning of the suburbs with new churches flourishing beyond the city centre. Collins Street’s membership suffered. Regardless, Pearce Carey arrived with a strong sense of vocation and led the church with great energy. In the face of ample challenge and more than his share of opposition, Pearce Carey was a pastor and preacher of considerable impact. He is a man I’ve long admired.

2611d76c0998456b8e226c869eddbabdUp until this point, all I have known of Pearce Carey is related to his years at Collins Street. I have written about them here. Now, through Ken Manley’s biography, I have a broader appreciation of the man; and my admiration is deeper still. Manley, a significant Baptist scholar and leader in his own right, has done us a tremendous service in telling Pearce Carey’s story in full, from his Baptist roots and English childhood to his ministry as pastor, writer, social activist, missionary ambassador and denominational leader. There is so much in Manley’s telling of this story that is fascinating, but it is two challenges to the nature of pastoral ministry that I found most rewarding.

First, it is clear that Pearce Carey understood his ministry as both particular and broad. In each pastoral appointment he gave himself with energy to the wellbeing of the congregation. He was an effective pastor, a fine preacher, and a man who invested intentionally in strengthening and uniting the church’s leadership. At the same time, Pearce Carey reached beyond the church to the denomination, the city, political and cultural arenas and issues facing society as a whole. What’s more, his love of literature and his commitments to scholarship found room to flourish. Pearce Carey’s identity as a minister of the gospel was not one that narrowed his interests but broadened them.

Second, Pearce Carey managed to hold together a deeply evangelical allegiance to Christ with a progressive and open theology. It was a mark of this ministry from beginning to end. It seems there was never a tension in his mind between a spirituality shaped by his love of the Gospel and a critical evaluation of the scriptures and theological thought.  Mind you, this was not an easy path for Pearce Carey to follow and one that drew criticism from within his churches and his denomination. Regardless, he would not be swayed. There is an integrity in the man I cannot help but admire.

Of course, there is much more to Manley’s biography than this, but if such stories of the past can play a role in critiquing and shaping our ministry today, then we are well served by books of this calibre. I commend to it to you.

Ken Manley, ‘An Honoured Name’: Samuel Peace Carey (1862-1953), Oxford: Regent’s Park College, 2016.

Some thoughts on Whitley and the role of theological education

When a church faces a change of leadership, it is prodded to ask important questions about its identity and mission. To determine the pastor it needs, it needs first to know the sort of church it is and the church it wants to be into the future. In times of change the local church is reminded just how key leadership is to its mission.

Institutions of theological education are no different. When a seminary or college faces a change of leadership, it’s time again to ask the hard questions: What is the purpose of theological education within the wider community of churches? What is God calling this institution to do and be into the future? These are questions my own denominational college is facing right now. As the retirement of Whitley College’s current principal looms, the prospect of new leadership prods all those with a vested interest in its mission to voice their hopes and express their concerns. And so they should.

Addressing these questions is a complicated business. A college’s constituencies are as diverse as the expectations they bring. There’s the denominational structure in which the college sits and was founded to serve. There are the local churches that demand well-trained pastors. There are the agencies of the denomination and the wider community that require people skilled for a diversity of cross cultural and intercultural work. There is the academy of higher education to which the college belongs and is dependent for its ability to provide reputable degrees and quality research programs. And there are the lay people in churches looking for a place to discern their vocation, work out their discipleship, or wrestle with persistent questions of faith.

In all of this, theological colleges face their share of criticism. Whitley certainly has, and with a particular intensity this past year. There’s nothing new in that. I have been a student in three denominational colleges here in Australia and in one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the US. What’s more, over the past two decades I have taught in and been associated with many more. And in all of these, no matter where they sit on the theological spectrum, the criticisms are much the same: the perception that these institutions are removed from the hands-on mission of the church, of professors disengaged from the needs of practitioners in the field, allegations of theological compromise, and of a creeping disregard for the orthodox teachings of the Christian faith.

In my experience, criticisms like these often hold a kernel of truth mixed with a good dose of ignorance and hyperbole. Too often such criticisms are leveled by those who have never sat in a class, never pursued a sustained conversation with a teacher, and never read anything of substance written by those they deride. Sadly though, when mud is thrown it sticks, deserved or not. That said, theological colleges deserve critique — intelligent critique. In fact, they need it, especially from those sympathetic to their mission. As pastor of a church, I know too well that theological teachers can be their own worst enemy in communicating with churches and in addressing the needs felt most deeply by those who lead them. Though I want to be stretched in my thinking and practice, I, for one, and sick to death of having theological ‘experts’ list everything that is wrong with ‘the church’ without ever asking an intelligent question about the neighbourhood I inhabit or the particular challenges my congregation and I face.

In my view, theological colleges are at their best when they embrace their ministry as two fold: priestly and prophetic. As a priestly community, the theological college is one that nurtures and enables the local church. It is concerned for the church’s wellbeing and for the enrichment of its people. As a priestly community, the college speaks directly into the deepest needs of the churches and their leaders – those felt and those unnamed. By listening to and engaging with the churches, it determines the best forms of training: training that nurtures leaders who understand the faith of the church; who rightly handle the scriptures as the revelation of the truth of God; who administer the church’s rites and rituals with excellence; who lead with competence and preach with conviction; who draw deeply on the spiritual resources of the faith; and who are able to provide the best possible expressions of pastoral care. If the theological college is failing in its priestly role, the churches have every right to call it to account.

That said, the best theological college is more than a priestly community; it is a prophetic community. In my view, it is here that the more poorly understood responsibility of theological education lies. Theological educators must be prepared to stand on the sidelines of the church and call it to account. Like those pesky prophets of old, courageous theologians call the church to be different than what it is, a challenge to a radical transformation and a critique of the status quo. If the theological college is simply made in the image of the churches it is called to serve, it has failed to embrace its vocation. Even more, it has failed its churches. Prophets smell bad. They say things we do not want to hear and they press us to see things we struggle to see. If the theological college is not drawing criticism from denominational leaders and the churches of its tradition, chances are it stands on shallow ground.

As we Baptists of Victoria launch into this period of discernment about our college’s future, I want to say publicly how very grateful I am for Whitley College. Though my beginning with Whitley as a reluctant undergraduate in theology was six shades of awkward, my thirty years of study, teaching and association with the college have been one of the most formative influences of my life. It is through Whitley that I discovered that Jesus’ call to discipleship is more far-reaching and all-embracing than I could ever have imagined. It is through Whitley that I learned to read the Bible as the life changing Word of God and to wrestle with its truth. It is through Whitley that I was invited to breathe again as a person of faith, open to a theology that’s alive, obligating, and wonderfully relevant to the world I inhabit. And it is largely because of Whitley that I remain a Baptist, actively engaged with and committed to our particular way of being the church and embodying the good news of Jesus.

Whatever lies ahead for us, I pray that Whitley will remain a life-giving, life-interpreting and life-challenging community within our Baptist family.


The Making of a Minister

This piece, written by the Lutheran Walter Wangerin, was first published in the American journal Christianity Today back in 1982. As a young man preparing for the possibility of ordination, I was moved by Wangerin’s words but with scant appreciation for their real meaning. Regardless, I copied the words into my journal. Some thirty years later they still resonate, but now with a far greater depth.

Though longer than a usual blog post, for those engaged in the practice of pastoral ministry this is a story worth revisiting.

 The Making of a Minister

Arthur lived in a shotgun house, so-called because it was three rooms in a dead straight line, built narrowly on half a city lot. More properly, Arthur lived in the front room of his house. Or rather, to speak the cold, disturbing truth, Arthur lived in a rotting stuffed chair in that room, from which he seldom stirred the last year of his life.

No one mourned his absence from church. I think most people were grateful that he turned reclusive, for the man had a walk and a manner like the toad, a high-backed slouch, and a burping contempt for his fellow parishioners. Arthur’s mind, though mostly uneducated, was excellent. He had written poetry in his day, both serious and sly, but now he used words to shiv Christians in their pews. Neither time nor circumstance protected the people, but their dress and their holiness caught on the hooks of his observations, and pain could spread across their countenance even in the middle of an Easter melody, while Arthur sat lumpish beside them, triumphant. No: none felt moved to visit the man when he became housebound.

Except me.

I was the minister, so sweetly young and dutiful. It was my job. And Arthur had phoned to remind me of that.

But to visit Arthur was grimly sacrificial.

After several months of chair sitting, both Arthur and his room were filthy. I do not exaggerate: roaches flowed from my step like puddles stomped in; they dropped casually from the walls. I stood very still. The TV flickered constantly. There were newspapers strewn all over the floor. There lay a damp film on every solid object in the room, from which arose a close, mouldy odour as though it were alive and sweating. But the dampness was a blessing because Arthur smoked.

He had a bottom lip like a shelf. Upon that shelf he placed lit cigarettes, and then he did not remove them until they had burned quite down, at which moment he blew them toward the television set. Burning, they hit the newspapers on the floor. But it’s impossible to ignite a fine, moist mildew. Blessedly, they went out.

Then the old man would increase the sacrifice of my visit. Motioning toward a foul and oily sofa, winking as though he knew what mortal damage it could do to my linens and dignity, he said in hostly tones: “Have a seat, why don’t you, Reverend?”

From the beginning, I did not like to visit Arthur Forte. Nor did he make my job (My ministry, you cry. My service! My discipleship! No – just my job) any easier. He did not wish a quick psalm, a professional prayer, devotions. Rather, he wanted to sharply dispute a young clergyman’s faith; he tested my mettle, my character. Seventy years a churchgoer, the old man narrowed his eye at me and debated the goodness of God. With incontrovertible proofs, he delivered shattering damnations of hospitals (at which he had worked), and doctors (for whom he had worked over the years): “Twenty dollars a strolling visit when they come to patient’s room,” he said, “for what? Two minutes’ time is what, and no particular news to the patient. A squeeze, a punch, a scribble on their charts, and they leave the sucker feeling low and worthless.” Wuhthless, he said, hollowing the word at its center. “God-in-a-smock had listened to their heart, and didn’t even tell them what he heard! Ho, ho!” said Arthur, “I’ll never go to a hospital.” “That cock-a-roach is more truthful of what he’s about. Ho, ho!” said Arthur, “I’ll never lie in a hospital bed, ho, ho.” And then, somehow, the failure of doctors he wove into his intense argument against the goodness of the Deity, and he slammed me with facts, and I was a fumbling, lubberly sort to be defending the Almighty.

When I left him, I was empty in my soul and close to tears, and testy, my own faith in God seeming most stale, flat, unprofitable at the moment. I didn’t like to visit Arthur.

Then came the days when he asked for prayer, scripture, and the Lord’s Supper, all three. The man, by late summer, was failing. He did not remove himself from the chair to let me in (I entered an unlocked door), now even to pass urine (which entered a chair impossibly foul). The August heat was unbearable. I had argued that Arthur go to the hospital. He had a better idea. He took of his clothes. Naked, Arthur greeted me. Naked, finally, the old man asked my prayers. Naked, he opened his mouth to receive communion. Naked. He’d raised the level of sacrifice to anguish. I was mortified. And still he was not finished with me.

For in those latter days, the naked Arthur Forte asked me, his minister, to come forward and put his slippers on, his undershorts, and his pants. And I did. His feet had begun to swell, so it caused both him and me unutterable pain in those private moments when I took his hard heal in my hands and worked a splitbacked slipper round it; when he stood groaning aloud, taking the clothing one leg at a time; when I bent groaning so deeply in my soul. I dressed him. He leaned on me, I touched his nakedness to dress him, we hurt, and his was sacrifice beyond my telling it. But in those moments I came to know a certain wordless affection for Arthur Forte.

(Now read me your words, “ministry,” and “service,” and “discipleship,” for then I began to understand them, then, at touching Arthur’s feet, when that and nothing else was what Arthur yearned for, one human being to touch him, physically to touch his old flesh, and not to judge. In the most dramatic terms available, the old man had said, “Love me.”)

The last week of August, on a weekly visit, I found Arthur prone on the floor. He’d fallen out of his chair during the night, but his legs were too swollen and his arms too weak for climbing in again. I said, “This is it, Arthur. You’re going to the hospital.” He was tired. He didn’t argue any more, but let me call two other members of the congregation. While they came, I dressed him – and he groaned profoundly. He groaned when we carried him to the car. He groaned even during the transfer from the car to wheelchair: we’d brought him to emergency. But there his groaning took on new meaning.

“I’m thirsty,” he said.

“He’s thirsty,” I said to the nurse, “Would you get him a drink of water?”

“No,” she said. “What?” “No. He can ingest nothing until his doctor is contacted. No.”

“But, water — ?”


“Would you contact his doctor, then?”

“That will be done by the unit nurse when he’s in his room.”

Arthur slumped in his chair and hurting, said, “I’m thirsty.”

I said, “Well, then, can I wheel him to his room?”

“I’m sorry, no,” she said.

“Please,” I said. “I’m his minister. I’ll take responsibility for him.”

“In this place he is our responsibility, not yours,” she said. “Be patient. An aide will get him up in good time.”

Oh Arthur, forgive me for not getting you a drink of water at home. Forgive us 20 minutes wait without a drink. Forgive us our rules, our rules, our irresponsibility.

Even in his room they took the time to wash him long before they brought him a drink.

“Why?” I pleaded.

“We are about to change shifts. The next nurse will call his doctor. All in good time.”

So Arthur, whose smell had triggered much discussion in the halls, finally did not stink. But Arthur still was thirsty. He said two things before I left.

He mumbled, “Bloody but unbowed.” Poetry!

“Good Arthur!” I praised him with all my might. Even malicious wit was better than lethargy; perhaps I could get him to cut, slice up a nurse or two. But he rolled an eye toward me for the first time since entering the place.

“Bloody,” he said, “and bowed.”

He slept an hour. Then, suddenly, he startled awake and stared about himself. “Where am I? Where am I?” he called. I answered, and he groaned painfully, “Why am I?” I have wept uncontrollably at the death of only one parishioner.

Since the hospital knew no relative for Arthur Forte, at 11 o’clock that same night they called me. Then I laid the telephone aside, and cried as though it was my own father. Anguish, failure, the want of a simple glass of water; I sat in the kitchen and cried.

But that failure has since nurtured a certain calm success. I do not suppose that Arthur consciously gave me the last year of his life, nor that he chose to teach me. Yet, by his mere being; by forcing me to take that life, real, unsweetened, bare-naked, hurting, and critical; by demanding that I serve him altogether unrewarded; by wringing from me first mere gestures of loving, and then love itself – but sacrificial love for one so indisputably unlovable – he did prepare me for my work and for life itself.

My tears were my diploma, his death my benediction, and my failure my ordination. For the Lord did not say, “Blessed are you if you know” or “teach” or “preach these things.” He said, rather, “Blessed are you if you do them.”

When, on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, he sat and said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things,” said Jesus, “blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:14-17). Again and again the Lord expanded on this theme: “Drink to the stinking is drink to me!”

One might have learned by reading it . . . but it is a theme made real in experience alone, by doing it. At first flush this experience is, generally, a sense of failure, for this sort of work severely diminishes the worker, makes them insignificant, makes them the merest servant, the very least in the transaction! To feel so small is to feel somehow failing, unable.

But there, right there, begins true servanthood, the disciple who has, despite himself, denied himself. And then, for perhaps the first time, one is loving not out of his own bowels, merit, ability, superiority, but out of Christ: for he has discovered himself to be nothing and Christ everything. In the terrible, terrible doing of this work is the minister born. And curiously, the best teachers of the nascent, immature minister are sometimes the neediest people, foul to touch, unworthy, ungiving, unlovely, yet haughty in demanding [and sometimes then miraculously receiving] love.

Arthur, my father, my father! So seeming empty your death, it was not empty at all. There is no monument above your pauper’s grave – but here: it is here in me and in my ministry. However could I make little of this godly wonder, that I love you?


2006_wangerinWalter Wangerin, Jr., “The Making of a Minister” in Christianity Today, September 17, 1982.