For some reason I have an odd need to reveal what I’m thinking and feeling on the spot with most anyone. The older I get, the more I tend to risk "going there" with people, whether friends, relatives or total strangers. The urge has become a sense of urgency in my old age; idle chatter is becoming increasingly painful.
Just last night, I stepped outside at about 10:30, looked at the house next door and the one directly across the street and wondered why I didn’t truly know the inhabitants. I know one guy’s name is Charlie and the other is Joe. We’ve lived within a hundred feet of each other for over twenty years and I have no idea what goes on inside their minds and hearts, their deepest fears and highest hopes. Does it matter one way or the other that we merely wave, nod, or chatter for a few seconds about twice a year? The older I get the more I think about such bizarre things. Do I merely have a need to get in on some gossip? Could be, but I don’t know what I’d do with it because the rest of the residents on our block probably wouldn’t give a rip about most neighborhood hearsay.
Before I began going to church, and certainly before becoming a pastor, I assumed members would be open to readily sharing their honest feelings. The notion may have been influenced by Holden Caulfield, the young character in Salinger’s book Catcher in the Rye. The publication came out in the early 1950s, around the time I began attending churches. Holden criticizes his fellow students and faculty members at his prep school for being superficial, or, as he bluntly put it, “phony.” My first impression of church life was that it didn’t seem a whole lot different than neighborhood life; one step from waving and chattering, and mostly “phony.”
But then I assumed as a pastor I had the right and the responsibility to ask parishioners about their deepest fears and highest hopes. Well, at least that’s what I thought my official position permitted. I had impertinent church members challenge me on occasion with “Are you allowed to ask me that?” and I’d reply, “Only God and I will know.” Very few countered “I’m not worried about God knowing.”
Take premarital counseling sessions, for instance. In my early years of ministry I was pretty safe and proper in those settings but in time I realized that, not unlike those hapless pew sitters who were held hostage on Sabbath morns, the clueless nuptial duo knew not what they were in for.
After some pleasant small talk in a session; I wouldn’t call it chatter, I’d ask them to tell me why they chose each other. The male types stumbled and gave it their best shot but the brides-to-be often beamed while addressing their intended. When I sensed they were beginning to feel relatively comfortable with me I would ask bluntly “OK, now let’s reveal what you don’t like about each other and what you might hate.” The guys always seemed to want to go first. If I felt they were up for it I would then ask “Now tell me and each other your deepest secrets and fears.” Gasps and recoils by both followed by awkward silence and disbelief.
“Do we have to answer that?”
“I have a right to ask; it’s part of my job description,” I’d fib, but they never asked for verification.
A retired pastor told me about the time an elderly church member called him to say her dying husband wished to speak to him at their home. His wife showed him the way to the bedroom and mentioned her husband wanted to see the pastor alone. The feeble patient confessed “We’ve been married for nearly fifty years and I have never loved that woman!” He evidently died peacefully. We need to have a chance to talk turkey up front.
I do believe Holden Caulfield would have wanted to be present in those counseling sessions when tears began to flow and deep fears were divulged mixed with profound love feelings. The confessions may have had to do with anger toward parents, siblings, God, a boss, each other and sheer fear of the future. By the time we finished such sessions I felt right with the universe and I think many of the couples felt the same.