Never Let Them See You Sweat

In college, I heard of Columbia Baptist, in Falls Church, VA, located just outside of Washington DC. Turns out, they were looking for interns to work with children and youth. Housing, food, and a small stipend were offered. I interviewed and got the position. I spent three summers working for this church. Two as an intern, and one as the interim high school youth minister. The last summer provided more opportunity to program lessons and work with parents and leaders in the church.

If you have ever been provided with the opportunity to work more with parents and leaders in a church, you know it tends to kill the original enthusiasm you had for working with youth and children. The summer was filled with work that was just boring at times and not supported well by more than a few great people in the church. Being who I was, I said little to the parents and leaders of the church about my concerns.

Until the end of the summer. It was a custom of the church to celebrate the summer program with a special evening service where youth and the youth minister spoke about the program. There was  large congregation and a big percentage of them showed up. My direct supervisor even borrowed a suit for me to wear. Being the person I was, I declined to wear it. I invited some of the former interns up from my summers there, and we enjoyed seeing each other before my “talk”.

I said, among other things (the passing of time warrants the paraphrasing), “I left home to come here and work this summer for housing, food, and a small stipend. I helped run a program for the summer without an education to do so, without a single parent volunteer, and while missing my home. My advice is that as soon as it is possible, you hire a full time youth minister to fill the vacant position.”

I felt like a patch when a new tire was needed. I felt like a last minute decision in a scramble to avoid paying a full time minister. I felt, for some reasons, there was little support from those who asked me to return again. In fairness, these were just my twenty year old perceptions, and in fairness, my times at that church, in hindsight were some of the best days of my life. But there I was, standing in front of a large group of congregants, having said what I had said, with nothing to do but return to the pew before me. So, I did.

The pastor rose, situated himself behind the pulpit, looked me square in the eyes, and said, “There’s a saying in Christian ministry. Never let them see you sweat”.

I interrupted what he thought would be a dramatic pause and said with a voice loud enough to reach the same people he had reached with the help of a microphone, “I think it is all part of being honest”.

After some words, he instructed the congregation to hold someone’s hand and pray. He came down and sat next to me, grabbed my hands and prayed what seemed to be more of an instruction to me than a petition to God. He literally grabbed my arm and led me to the back of the church, where it is customary for participants in the service to shake hands with the clergy as they exit. I shook hands with everyone and smiled a sly grin as if to say, “I think I struck a nerve”, or “What just happened?”.

Some years passed and I thought of that Sunday night. Whatever I did, good or bad, I made people think. But I also had unfinished business with that preacher. I tracked him down in a nursing home and called him and apologized for doing things the way I did and checked on him from time to time. We exchanged emails. I have since, again, lost track of him and my guess is that he has passed after caring for those people in the home where he spent his final years.

The meaning for me has nothing to do with honesty or letting people “see you sweat”. It has nothing to do with whether you should have to wear a suit to speak to people about the Divine. And it certainly has nothing to do with righting wrongs before those you have offended pass quietly away in a nursing home. But there is still yet meaning for me in this story.

The passing of time makes me question the importance of the things I felt passionately about earlier in life. My later years leave me missing the good things about my past more so than wanting to complain about what I felt was troublesome. My perspective has changed, not because I am wiser, but because by choosing to be thankful for what was good rather than blame my present condition on the bad (and there have been some tough times), there is created in an intrigue and an instinct to wonder how present events will be later counted as gratitude.

Do we smile because we feel good, or do we feel good because we smile? Do good things happen because we help create them or do good things happen because they are a gift? We know so little about life, and the love and protection we receive every day. I am more hesitant to dismiss a person, or criticize an event these days, and I believe that matters. I suspect that whether we curse the thorns or bless the flower, neither will change the rose, but both will change our lives.


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