The last time I saw my grandpa alive, he teased me that pastors only work one day a week. “What does a pastor do all week anyway? You only work like one hour.” I wanted to tell him our church has three worship services on Sunday morning, and they go four hours by themselves, and I get there long before we open and stay long after we’ve closed. But that response has too much snark. Really, I wanted to tell him this.
I wake at 4:45 a.m. to the muted vibrating of my iPhone. The phone rests on my nightstand on top of a book and a hand towel because the extra padding dulls the noise: phones on wooden nightstands that vibrate two hours before first light do not make for happy marriages. I know from experience.
By 5:00 a.m. I am on my living room couch to read through the three chapters of the book of Nahum, a book that ends with a provocative question: “All who hear the news about you clap their hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?” The prophet asks it concerning the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. I read this, and I am reminded of a little Bible trivia. Only the book of Jonah also ends with a question, which also happens to be a book about Nineveh.
Each year I try to trek through the Bible from cover to cover. Some mornings a verse or phrase sparks deeper joy in God. Some mornings a verse or phrase sparks conviction of sin and a deeper understanding of my need for Jesus. This morning, like a lot of them, the sparks do not fly, my eyelids droop, and I wish I had mined more from God’s word than trivia factoids.
After I put Nahum away, I open my laptop to edit a friend’s book proposal, the business plan for an unwritten and unpublished book that dreams of someday hitting Amazon and blessing readers—and maybe the author. I know something of these dreams.
At 6:44 I email my friend who lives in London his book proposal. A few hours later he tells me thank you and that “the feedback was spot-on,” which is nice to hear but is tempered with the knowledge that no traditional publisher has ever found my own book proposals spot-on.
I eat breakfast around the table at 7:00 with my wife and six children. This morning Brooke made toasted bagels and turkey sausage links. We all talk about our day. For three minutes I also read a children’s Bible based on the book of Acts as I wonder to myself if I try to cram too much into the morning. We have never read anything as a family at breakfast, and maybe we shouldn’t.
Breakfast ends with my toddler yelling from the bathroom potty for my wife to come help. I help instead because my wife does it all the time and taking my turn makes me feel like an “Ephesians 5” type of husband, even though I know I’ve domesticated the idea of a husband loving his wife as Christ loved the church, giving himself up for her.
When I make it to church, I record a nine-minute sample section of an audiobook in the church basement before the rest of the staff arrives. I wanted to get the recording done before my true workday starts.
Now the day picks up. I answer emails and read a chapter of a book about the gospel by Ray Ortlund. At noon, a man will come to talk about the chapter because he will lead our small group Bible study through the material this coming Sunday night. The study this week engages with Galatians 2. How exactly in 2:4, we wonder, did false brothers slip in to spy out their freedom in Christ [not to be circumcised]? This would have required strange spycraft. And the “circumcision party,” we think, does not sound much like a party. I hold my fist to my mouth and make a kazoo noise. We both chuckle. He is a newer Christian, and this will be his first time leading. Just two years ago was the first time he had ever been to a small group Bible study. Aslan, as they say, is on the move.
But before my friend can meet in the church café, I walk in the rain holding an umbrella. With another staff member I visit a neighbor who will likely die in the next day or two. The wife of the dying man opens the door. She sent the church a note through our Facebook page. I saw her message as I set my wakeup alarm right before I crashed but did not respond; I knew I would just show up when I could. She had also messaged us eight weeks ago when they first got the news her husband was dying.
“The doctors gave him three to six weeks, and here we are at week eight,” she says to us while I sit next to the metal gurney bed placed in their living room. He lays on the bed with his eyes closed and breathes heavily. The bed, like death, does not belong in the living room. “He wanted to beat the doctor’s six-week prediction,” she tells us, “and live to vote one more time.” He did both.
But when we visited eight weeks ago, we all sang acapella about peace like a river and listened to this child of God, who looked so healthy, tell stories of how God saved him and called him into prison ministry. He also told us of his love for birds. On this visit he tells no stories as sorrows, like sea billows, roll. The morphine has already induced sedation. Although his bed sits by the window to see his bird feeders, the blinds are pulled shut. Together we pray with his soon-to-be widow and wipe our sniffles away from behind our disposable masks. I stand up, pat his legs, and tell him he has run a great race and God will carry him home. He opens his eyes and speaks his last words to me. “I’m just so gassed.” I say back, “God will carry you.” We leave in the rain and walk back up the street and alley to our office.
More meetings in the afternoon. First, a team of four offers critiques of the merits of my sermon from the previous Sunday on John 4. Not my best sermon, we all agree, but still good.
Then we have a staff meeting, which assigned me a few action items I quickly knock out so that I can have more time to call a husband. This husband had asked me to talk a while ago, but I could not make time for him—and I have felt bad about that. But now we talk, and I hear more about his marriage, which we have discussed several times before. I hang up the phone and contemplate that today I had prayed with a man on hospice and now pray with a man whose marriage might as well be on hospice. The marriage might recover, but we sort of doubt it. The morphine of lawyers and legal separation, as it were, has put the marriage in sedation. I fear it is only a matter of time before it passes. Only God knows.
Surprised I finished my office day before 4:00, I realize I can squeeze in a quick trip to the gym, so I do. Someone going through our church membership class raised questions about our eschatology and had emailed me a sermon by David Jeremiah. I could not make time to watch the sermon last week or the week before, so I play the sermon about the end times on YouTube at the gym while I do a CrossFit workout. The workout involves alternating between the rowing machine and throwing a twenty-pound rubber ball ten feet in the air. I like our new member and believe he likes our church, but I wonder if he noticed the sermon said my view of the return of Christ did not take the Bible seriously. Maybe he did notice and sent it for that reason.
I make a quick trip home from the gym so I can make the most of my quick hour at home to talk with my wife and kids before I go back to work. I sit at the table and read a chapter of The Magician’s Nephew with one of my daughters. We don’t finish the chapter before I have to shower quickly and scoot back to work.
I’m in the church basement again—this time a different room. I sit in a circle of chairs with our team of pastor-elders. Most elder meetings we laugh and pray and discuss how best to lead our church. Tonight is no different. But we also wrestled with more church discipline cases than usual. Again, Aslan is on the move—but sometimes his movement makes life messy.
Before I leave the church, I bump into a friend who talks to me about his recent engagement and asks if I would officiate his wedding and oversee his premarital counseling. Delighted he asked, I say yes.
Now I sit at home on the couch eating dairy-free chocolate chip cookies I slathered with chilled Pillsbury vanilla frosting as I talk to my wife about the day—but only after I made a quick round to all my children’s bedrooms to say goodnight. They were already in bed but waiting up for Dad.
My wife and I sit and talk about the day and the pastor-elder meeting. She knew enough of the items on the agenda to know we should talk for a bit. It is too late in the evening, but we start the next episode in our current Netflix series anyway: season 3, episode 4 of The Walking Dead. Then we brush our teeth, and I set my alarm, turn down my ringer volume, and place the phone on the nightstand.
I kiss my wife, and in the last thirty seconds before I fall asleep, I think to myself that pastors do not only work one day a week. We must work at least two.
Before my grandpa died, he wrote me a short letter of apology for when he had mocked pastors, for when he had mocked me. The apology made officiating his funeral easier.
Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing” (The Writing Life, p. 32). If “this hour” and “that one” were less full than they were today and more balanced, that might be more ideal and more sustainable. But I do believe that if we pastors spend our days thus, we spend our lives well.
Cover image by Eric Rothermel.