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