Magazine article The Christian Century

Pastoral Letter: A Preacher Looks Back

Magazine article The Christian Century

Pastoral Letter: A Preacher Looks Back

Article excerpt

As he nears the end of his life, the Reverend John Ames is writing an account of his life and family for his seven-year-old son. Ames, a Congregationalist, is the son and the grandson of preachers. He thinks back to the years after the death of his first wife and before his second marriage, and refers to his lifelong friendship with Jack Boughton, a Presbyterian pastor.

I'VE ALWAYS BEEN taller than most, larger than most. It runs in my Family. When I was a boy, people took me to be older than I was and often expected more of me--more common sense, usually--than I could come up with at the time. I got pretty good at pretending I understood more than I did, a skill which has served me through life. I say this because I want you to realize that I am not by any means a saint. My life does not compare with my grandfather's. I get much more respect than I deserve. This seems harmless enough in most cases. People want to respect the pastor, and I'm not going to interfere with that. But I've developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp.

Thank God for them all, of course, and for that strange interval, which was most of my life, when I read out of loneliness, and when bad company was much better than no company. You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite For things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have. "The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet." There are pleasures to be found where you would never look for them. That's a bit of fatherly wisdom, but it's also the Lord's truth, and a thing I know from my own long experience.

Often enough when someone saw the light burning in my study long into the night, it only meant I had fallen asleep in my chair. My reputation is largely the creature of the kindly imaginings of my flock, whom I chose not to disillusion, in part because the truth had the kind of pathos in it that would bring on sympathy in its least bearable forms. Well, my life was known to them all, every significant aspect of it, and they were tactful. I've spent a good share of my life comforting the afflicted, but I could never endure the thought that anyone should try to comfort me, except old Boughton, who always knew better than to talk ninth. He was such an excellent friend to me in those days, such a help to me. I do wish you could have some idea of what a fine man he was in his prime. His sermons were remarkable, but he never wrote them out. He didn't even keep his notes. So that is all gone. I remember a phrase here and there.

I think every day about going through those old sermons of mine to see if there are one or two I might want you to read sometime, but there are so many, and I'm afraid, first of all, that most of them might seem foolish or dull to me. It might be best to burn them, but that would upset your mother, who thinks a great deal more of them than I do--for their sheer mass, I suppose, since she hasn't read them. You will probably remember that the stairs to the attic are a sort of ladder, and that it is terribly hot up there when it is not terribly cold.

It would be worth my life to try to get those big boxes down on my own. It's humiliating to have written as much as Augustine, and then to have to find a way to dispose of it. There is not a word in any of those sermons I didn't mean when I wrote it. If I had the time, I could read my way through 50 years of my innermost life. What a terrible thought. If I don't burn them someone else will sometime, and that's another humiliation. This habit of writing is so deep in me, as you will know well enough if this endless letter is in your hands, if it has not been lost or burned also. …

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