Magazine article The Christian Century

Among the Strays: A Pastor's Vocation

Magazine article The Christian Century

Among the Strays: A Pastor's Vocation

Article excerpt

IN MY DAY JOB I teach theology and grade papers, but I have another line of work. A friend gave this calling a name several years ago when she called to ask if I'd do a funeral for someone who had no church connection or pastor. "Do you still have a ministry to strays?" she asked. As a young man, I had worked for several summers as a truck driver for a nationwide moving company. Later I attended seminary. Now I look back and realize that the driving experience helped prepare me for a churchly vocation that my seminary professors didn't cover in their lectures.

Back when I was one of them, we over-the-road truck drivers endured profound loneliness. As nomads in the world before cell phones, we'd pull into a truck stop looking for casual conversation with perfect strangers. Like us, they were taking a break from staring at the broken white lines. These truckers and assorted transients seemed destined to spend their lives on the road.

Eventually it dawned on me that truckers and clergy travel a similar metaphoric highway. We discover a measure of our vocation among the "strays"--the wandering, wayward and "beditched" who have no priest or pastor.

Soon after my ordination, when hippies still roamed the country and picking up hitchhikers wasn't yet a sign of insanity, I gave a ride to a young couple and their baby. As we talked, my clergy status came up. After a whispered exchange between the parents, they asked me to baptize their child. I called to mind the relevant fragments of my seminary education and explained that they shouldn't think of baptism as magic or as a vaccination, but as incorporation into a body, a community. When they got back to California, I suggested, they should find a congregation that would baptize their child and make him a member.

I later regretted and repented of that decision, and I still pray for the child whom I failed thanks to my theological correctness. I knew the words. All we needed was water. I should have found some and then pledged to help that pair of vagabond parents find a flesh-and-blood outpost of the body into which I had baptized their baby.

I swore never to repeat that mistake. Since that time, most of the people whom I've baptized on the roadside have found a place within a community of Christians. A few have not. This latter group I entrust, along with many others, to the persistent care of the Holy Spirit, who promises never to quit on anyone marked with the sign of the cross.

By contrast, I probably should have declined a good share of the weddings I've agreed to perform. I have married relatives, friends, friends of friends and relatives, and perfect strangers. I have conducted ceremonies in churches and chapels, in parks and gardens, on beaches and boats--and once in the shadow of Cinderella Castle at Disneyworld. Like everyone else who plays this role, I have joined inebriated grooms, frightened brides, and couples who couldn't bear to touch each other during the previous night's rehearsal.

In other words, I have joined together dozens of couples who had as good a chance of making it as anyone else, despite the fact that very few had a clue about the inescapable trials of the life they were entering or what it would take to tame infatuation and grow it slowly into love. Some may recall shards of my standard wedding homily, like the line about how much every marriage needs the aid and comfort of a community. All would have to learn the practice of industrial-strength forgiveness and the necessity of dying to their powerful need to be right about everything. …

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