Sunday, February 01, 2009

February 1, 2009 - Authority

My, but I’ve been busy. With my seasonal teaching gig at New Brunswick Theological Seminary still under way, I’m now working three jobs. Besides serving as pastor of the church, I’m also working part-time as Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Monmouth (a Presbytery is a regional governing body in the Presbyterian Church, sort of like a diocese in the Roman Catholic Church). A Stated Clerk is like corporate secretary, archivist and parliamentarian rolled into one. In early January, there are all kinds of end-of-the-year reports to complete, and as a newbie Clerk, I’m learning how to do them for the first time. Bottom line is, I’ve scarcely been able to think about a blog entry, let alone write one. Until this afternoon.

Today in worship, I preached about authority. My text was Mark 1:22, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

During the second service, I learned about one of the pitfalls that go along with authority – at least, authority of the pastoral kind. Robin, our church’s associate pastor, had called in sick today, so I was up there all by myself, except for one of the junior-high youth who did a fine job reading the Old Testament Lesson. When it came time for the New Testament Lesson, I guess my mind was wandering, because I skipped it. Just blew it off. There was a long silence, as I just sat there. I was sure Sara, our organist – filling in for our absent choir director today – had lost her place in the service. Finally, she just moved on, launching into the choir anthem, while I continued to sit there, blissfully unaware of my blunder. When I arose to give my sermon after the anthem, it was – still unbeknownst to me – sans New Testament lesson.

The curious thing about it is – nobody told me about it. Not, that is, until I was shaking hands at the church door much later, when about the twentieth person in line gently asked, “Did you mean to skip the New Testament lesson?” Most of them knew all along that I’d goofed, but nobody felt bold enough to correct me on it.

Pastoral authority is a funny thing. When you stand up there and speak for God Sunday after Sunday, sometimes folks get a mite confused. They can be hesitant to point out errors they wouldn’t think twice about correcting, had a lesser mortal committed them.

The icing on the cake came after I walked back up the aisle, and was making ready to leave the Sanctuary by the exit nearest the church office. Little Sara, the three-year-old granddaughter of our organist, was standing there. When she saw me, she gave me a wave, then a big grin that would light up the darkest of days. “Hi, God!” said she.

I’ve been addressed as “God” before, by kids her age. “Jesus,” too, on occasion. (Never “Holy Spirit,” but I suppose the third person of the Trinity is a harder concept to grasp.) This just goes with the territory of ministry. It’s an understandable error for little minds to make, as they try to puzzle out what church is all about. Their parents tell them they’re going to “God’s house,” and after looking at the same guy standing up front in that funny-looking costume week after week, they make the logical connection.

I corrected her, of course. Her grandfather, who was standing nearby, thought it uproariously funny. The story was already making the rounds at the Communion Breakfast in our fellowship hall, by the time I made it over there a few minutes later.

“Doctors playing God” is a stereotype in the medical world. There’s even a corny old joke about that. A famous surgeon dies and goes to heaven, but finds quite a crowd of fellow new residents lined up in front of St. Peter’s imposing desk. The minutes tick by. The line’s moving very slowly indeed. The doctor, who’s been something of a V.I.P. in his earthly life, is starting to get impatient.

Finally, a man with a long, white beard, clad in a lab coat with a stethoscope around his neck, goes barreling up to the desk, passing right by the long line of applicants. Giving St.Peter only the briefest of nods, he strides right through the pearly gates.

The distinguished physician has had enough. He walks up to St. Peter and says, “I’d like to lodge a complaint. Some of us are doctors, too, and we’ve been waiting a very long time.”

“You don’t understand,” replies St. Pete. “That wasn’t a doctor. That was God playing doctor!”

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

I imagine most docs hate that line about playing God. I figure most of it comes not from the doctors, though, but from the patients. All of us wish, in our heart of hearts, our medical caregivers had godlike qualities of omniscience, omnipotence and benevolence.

They don’t, of course. They’re only human. It’s a good thing for us patients to pay attention to what our medical caregivers are doing, and to ask questions when it appears something important has been omitted. Authority doesn’t carry with it infallibility.

We’re partners in this healing thing, after all.


Anonymous said...

Great story! Will be repeated ad infinitium! Little Sara will be remembered for generations - just like Mary and the Magnificat! ;)

Who is the boy in the last photo, and is he laughing, singing, or what?


Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

Thanks for the fun post about a serious topic. Have a good week.
With hope, Wendy

Anonymous said...

Really funny. I hope that if I had been there and paying attention, I would have shouted from my seat in the back row, "Carl, what about the New Testament lesson!!" But decorum, would probably have won the day. No one wants to embarass the minister in public like that. MB