Preaching is hard work.
I was a pastor for 30 years. So I must have preached at least two thousand sermons.
There were times when the tank was pretty dry.
My church members were good people. Each family came with its own hopes and dreams. I guess that’s why I felt a tremendous responsibility to nourish and encourage them at the start of each week.
One time I asked a handful of people to give me regular feedback. My team included a farmer’s wife, a retired pastor and a retired school teacher. I was looking forward to their insights.
The farmer’s wife wrote “You are such a blessing, pastor.” The retired pastor commented, “Good job, more eye contact please. Work on your conclusions.” However the retired school teacher handed me a note that simply read, "D+."
Later that week I decided to pay her a visit. It was a very formal meeting. Mrs Patel’s daughter ushered me through to a sitting room where her mother was waiting to receive me. Tea and scones were laid out on expensive plates.
“Mrs Patel, I was wondering if you could elaborate.” I placed her note on the table.
The old woman stared at me for a long time before answering.
“How long have you been a pastor?” she asked in a voice that was barely a whisper.
“Nearly 25 years,” I replied. Somehow I felt like a naughty school boy.
“Then I expect much more from you.”
The following week I spent more time than usual preparing my message. I added a funny story to the conclusion. It felt good to hear the sound of laughter.
The farmer’s wife wrote, “Keep up the good work.” The retired pastor wrote, “Good outline. Good use of supporting scripture.”
Finally I took a deep breath and opened Mrs Patel’s note. “Comedy is a poor substitute for content,” it said.
At first her comments stung. But as the weeks passed I started to look forward to her notes.
One day Mrs Patel’s daughter took me aside and gave me the sad news.
“Next week will be Mum’s last time with us. She is moving into a nursing home.”
Suddenly my next sermon took on a sense of urgency. That week I did very little else except study, prepare and rehearse my message. I was determined to make this sermon a tour-de-force.
And it was.
After the service I walked Mrs Patel to her car. She was unsteady on her feet and held onto my arm. The frail old lady handed me her final note.
“You have been a good pastor,” she said. “I have enjoyed your ministry.”
As the car pulled away from the curb she lifted her arm in a regal wave. Then I slowly unfolded the piece of paper. There was only one word on it. “Adequate!”
A year later Mrs Patel died and her family asked me to lead the service. We laughed, we cried and each speaker shared a story about the pint sized terror who had inspired hundreds of student to strive for excellence.
Finally it was my turn. My message covered the hope we have of a better life. Finally I paused. My notes did not have a conclusion.
It was a moment inspired by desperation as I closed my bible, folded my notes and stepped out of the pulpit.
“As a young I enjoyed watching police mysteries. Every detective knows that a human being will always bring something to a scene. He also knows that we will take something with us.”
I had no idea where I was going with this.
“What did Mrs Patel leave behind?” I asked. Then I had a light bulb moment. “Simply this, Mrs Patel made me want to be a better person”
Somewhere in the congregation a voice responded with a loud amen.
“And for that I am truly grateful.”
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