Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
March 24, 2016
What follows below is an entry from my journal, dated December 31, 1981, lightly edited for the sake of confidentiality. By way of setting the context, I need only mention that at the time I wrote this entry, I had been the pastor of a small congregation in rural Wisconsin for several years, and had recently announced to my congregation that I would be moving in a few months to begin doc-toral study in Milwaukee.
A strange and beautiful thing happened today, one of those episodes in the life of a parish minis-ter which illustrates the curious ambiguity of human life.
K. invited Marilyn and me to her home. I have spent a lot of time with K. in the past 3½ years, having baptized her baby, comforted her through a nasty divorce, aided her in getting a job, and supported her with care and attention when she owned nothing and had nothing to look forward to. Perhaps my best gift to her was giving her the newsletter from a local chapter of Parents Without Partners, where she is now actively involved, and where she has met a new boyfriend.
K. lives in a rural apartment wither her daughter L. They have very little furniture, money or op-portunity, and little prospect of acquiring more. K. does not drive, has a limited education (she once suffered from encephalitis, and was institutionalized), and is very poorly equipped to han-dle life. She is one of those who qualify for the title, “God’s poor.” Her faith is ill-informed (she has dreadful opinions about reincarnation, stemming no doubt from feeling that her life will sure-ly not bring her all she would like), but like many very poor people she knows what it means to have a Savior. (Indeed, one of the grave temptations which comes to bright, well-placed indi-viduals like myself is a contempt for a religion of salvation. We prefer a religion of illumination, since knowledge is infinite and we can always acquire more of a good thing. Why bother with salvation when life is pleasant enough to tolerate on its own terms. There is nothing we want to be saved from!)
Well, Marilyn and I went over to K.’s apartment this morning, responding (somewhat reluctantly) to her invitation. After some strange conversation about abortion and reincarnation, plus a run-down of highlights from the seasonal celebrations, K. produced a dreadful Day-Glo painting of Jesus, wearing improbably baby-blue robes and gazing off at the Jerusalem skyline. The painting was framed in a dusty, chipped, badly designed wooden frame. As art it is ghastly, and it was embarrassing to thank her for the gift without deceitfully praising the picture.
But K. proceeded to explain that she had bought this when she was living in Minneapolis, that is, in the mental institution where she was committed after her brain fever. She had spent more on it than she could afford, and had purchased it against the protests of a friend. She had kept it with her through a turbulent marriage, a painful divorce, a lonely life. It had given her courage to face each day, despite a violent husband, a lecherous and incestuous father, a string of unfortunate love affairs, a penurious existence, and the responsibilities of a lonely single-parenthood. And now, in gratitude for our help over the past couple years, she was giving it to us as a going-away present.
The picture made me think of Helmut Thielicke’s story of his photograph of the Christian pag-eant in the prison, where the parts are played by convicts and murderers(1). It made me think of John Dexheimer’s Christmas sermon of many years ago, in which he said that the real sadness of Christmas among the poverty-stricken is not that some children get very little, but that some par-ents have almost nothing to give them(2). It shames us to think that we can give nothing away, that we cannot express our love in acts of generosity, and that we cannot do for other what we want. There is perhaps a good lesson in thwarted greed. But there is a deep sadness in frustrated magnanimity. K.’s gift made me think, too, about Paul Tillich’s sermon, Holy Waste, a commen-tary on Mark 14:3-9. Tillich writes, “without the abundance of the heart, nothing great can hap-pen…. Religion within the limits of reasonableness is a mutilated religion, and calculating love is not love at all.”(3)
It may be said of K. that she did “a beautiful thing for me.” She gave of the abundance of her heart, something deeply meaningful to her, something treasured, something she herself could probably use more than I can. Despite her lack of education, her confused theology and her des-perately straitened circumstances, K. understands what it means to “waste” oneself out of love. And I am deeply grateful for this humbling lesson.
Lord, preserve me from imagining that Christian ministry is merely a matter of what I know, or say, or believe or do. It is, finally, a matter of how humbly I can receive your love, and how gen-erously I can give it to others. Amen.
(1) Helmut Thielicke, Being a Christian When the Chips Are Down, trans. H. George Anderson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), pp. 99-101.
(2) The Rev. John Dexheimer was the pastor of the Cranford United Methodist Church in Cranford, New Jersey, the congregation to which I belonged from 1960 until my ordination to the diaconate in 1976.
(3) Paul Tillich, The New Being (New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1955), p. 47.