"Excuse me, Father. But do you think you could spare a dollar for a cup of coffee?”
“I can give you a dollar, but I’m not a priest.”
“You’re not? I thought you were.”
That was an exchange I had several years ago with someone on the south side of Chicago. It was the third time in a span of two months that someone had confused me for a priest.
What the hell, right?
I suppose I could have replied “No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express.” Remember that series of television commercials? The message was that ordinary people could perform extraordinary feats after sleeping there.
The truth is I have never slept at a Holiday Inn Express. And one night wouldn’t come any where close to transforming me into a priest! At one time, however, I did entertain the idea of religious life. I even attended a prep seminary my freshman year of high school, but it wasn’t for me.
Today I have no religious affiliation; I attend no conventional church. When people ask why I don’t, I reference the late Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.”
Do I believe in God? Yes, I do. Do I have to attend a church, or belong to a specific religion in order to believe? Many people have told me I do. I respectfully disagree. What’s that famous line about “sitting in church no more makes you a Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car”?
Isn’t it what we do outside of church that should matter?
I mention all of this because someone said my column from last week was like a little sermon. That wasn’t a conscious decision on my part. But after rereading it, I could see how one might interpret it as such. So, OK, let’s call it that then: Pastor Ron’s First Sermon.
You know, I actually have a card and a certificate that says I am a pastor. (Yep, you really can get anything off the Intemet.) And it’s all legitimate! A couple of years ago it gained me visitation rights to see a young man incarcerated in a county jail.
I have to be honest and tell you that I felt a bit out of place during that first visit. You see, I was visiting my young friend at the same time two “traditional” pastors were visiting other inmates. They were engaged in Bible study and such; I was simply talking with my friend. Should I have been there?
Later that day I told a friend of my discomfort. “Your friend had been in jail for well over a week, with no one to talk to,” she said. “You knew he was getting depressed and having dark thoughts.” All of that was true.
She then looked me in the eyes and said, “You were every bit a minister to that young man as those others. Don’t think for a minute that you weren’t! Your visit mattered.”
There are numerous things I need to work on and improve upon in my life. To that end, I keep plodding and stumbling along. As I do so, I hope I am never just standing in a garage pretending to be a car.
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