I attended an elite, private university. On occasion, my working class friends from home would visit for a weekend. It was always entertaining for those on both sides, for different reasons.
On one occasion my friend Phil, a forklift operator, said, “I’m thinking of getting into underwater demolition.”
“It’s good to have goals,” a classmate sneered. But she was right; it is good to have goals.
At the time her goals were to marry a member of The Jam and get an internship with The Trouser Press.
Fifteen years ago I spotted an odd calendar at a friend’s house. I asked about it. The calendar was the log of my friend’s blood donations. His goal was to donate blood on every day of the calendar. Imagine that! Giving 366 pints of blood over the course of one’s life! A total of over forty-five gallons of blood donated. It would take more than fifty-six years donating an average of 6.5 times each year to reach this goal. And precision is required to have the donations land on a different day each time. This was such a noble, selfless goal that I decided to take it on myself, with a slight variation.
I decided to deliver a sermon on every day of the calendar. And now, twenty years after having delivered my first sermon I have achieved this goal. To quote those eminent theologians, the Grateful Dead, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
When I was ordained, a friend gave me a Pastoral Record Book. Its blank pages had grids in which one could record baptisms, new members, marriages, funerals, sermons, annual salary, churches built, writings published, evangelical meetings at which addresses were delivered, things like that. No one ever said unto me, “Tom, keep good records,” but this book helped me cultivate that habit. As I have aged and gained more experience in ministry, I am very glad that I have kept this log up to date. At the end of each year, I can easily calculate the total honoraria I have received for presiding at weddings and funerals, for example. I can also look back and find when I preached a particular text and see whether my interpretation has changed over the years.
Keeping records in this book also ties me back to my lifelong passion for professional baseball. I use it to tally my pastoral statistics. For example, in 2004 I led the Presbytery in baptisms. I missed election to the All-Star team that year because I got hot after midseason.
As I neared my goal of delivering a sermon on every day of the calendar, on occasion I had to struggle to find a pulpit to fill for a particular day. Once I cold called a Methodist church in a community where my family planned to vacation. The pastor was not interested in having a stranger with a strange goal fill his pulpit, even if it gave him a week off. I talked to a colleague who knew someone in that community, and the friend of my friend agreed to let me preach. So on my first day of vacation, I left our rented lake cabin and drove twenty miles to a UCC church where I preached and schmoozed at coffee hour.
Each time I have sought a pulpit to fill to cross a day off my needed dates list, something serendipitous has happened. At the UCC church, for example, the service ground to a halt. I leaned over and hissed to the lay reader, “Old Testament lesson!” She pointed at the bulletin. At this church the preacher announces the hymns. It was only funny because the hymn I announced was “Open My Eyes, That I May See.”
I had an easier time finding my next pulpit. I was passing through Chicago, where I attended seminary, and contacted the church where I had been an intern almost twenty years earlier. The pastor remembered me, and it was pleasant to catch up with him, to see what had changed in the church and what had not. I arrived early and after stowing my briefcase headed to the Little Presbyterians Room. The toilet was running, just as it had in the late 1980s. I fixed it, again, just as I had in the late 1980s. “They still need me,” I realized.
The summer I was on sabbatical I needed to preach once, so I contacted the church closest to our cabin several months in advance. I extended my offer to preach and my insistence on not expecting an honorarium. At the time I was the moderator of the Committee on Ministry, which carries bishopesque status, sort of. The lay pastor of the church feared she was in trouble, though it seemed odd that the CoM moderator did not plan to visit her congregation for another four months. When I explained what I was up to, she agreed to let me preach there. She also agreed that my request was “psychotic” and used the term when she introduced me to the congregation.
Looking around on Sunday morning, the congregation’s Welsh roots were obvious. I taught the congregation to say, “Mochyn du bob Sais,” Welsh for “The English are black pigs.” I can also say “good morning,” thank you,” and “Merry Christmas” in Welsh, but who can’t?
As a solo pastor I have many, many opportunities to preach and great control of when I will not preach. The final dates that I needed to complete my calendar were ones when I had been away for study, mission trips, vacation or on parental leave.
Once on a mission trip, I found a pulpit to fill at the church a friend served. She did not mention anything about my goal, just that I was passing through town and offered to preach. In my sermon I told a story about spotting a Hasidic man on the street on my first day in Brooklyn. I said to myself, “I didn’t know there were Amish people in Brooklyn.” Then I ad-libbed, “I was just a kid from Peoria, what did I know from Hasidim?” Turns out there was a pastor in the congregation that morning who had started his career in Peoria, at the church where I had grown up. “It’s a small denomination,” he observed.
As my last date, 15 March 2009, neared, I had a problem. I planned to attend a class for my doctor of ministry program and would be five hundred miles from home. A colleague was serving as an interim nearby, but that call ended a few months earlier. I contacted another friend, who understood my goal, called it “Quixotic,” which I much preferred to “psychotic,” and extended an invitation for me to preach on the desired date.
I knew I could count on Jim. And he owed me. A year before he had broken his ankle, and I drove him to a class we were taking together. It was about a block across campus each morning. He was very grateful. Too grateful. When we went out to dinner on our last night together, he paid for my supper, prompting me to pen this ode:
Amazing grace, how sweet
It can’t be called “high tech,”
I’m stunned, amazed,
Jim picked up the check.
Jim also provided me with 2008’s best straight line. After I emailed “porn for women” to him, [This is an email you have probably seen, fully dressed young men, doing things like scrubbing the oven and preparing supper. One picture shows a man holding a bulging plastic bag and proclaiming, “As long as I have legs, you‘ll never take out the garbage!” It’s completely innocent and clean.] he wrote back, “Why did you send me porn for women at church??!!!”
I responded, “The place I usually send your porn said the mailbox was full.”
I arrived at the church and had a cup of coffee and acquainted myself with the sanctuary and worship bulletin. All I had to do was read the gospel lesson and deliver the sermon. Oh, I also had to endure Jim’s introduction. He pointed out that I’m from Wisconsin, so I might talk a little funny. [“Wrong! It’s all you all who talk funny!” I observed to the Bluegrass Presbyterians.] He also mentioned that I have written a humor column for a Lutheran magazine for more than ten years. While Presbyterians find it incongruous that Lutherans have had to outsource their humor, Lutherans never seem surprised by this fact.
After delivering my sermon I sat down while the offering was taken. Then I stood and joined about thirty people around the communion table. I was just beginning to realize that I had achieved this long-standing milestone, when I felt a hand grab my left elbow. I was startled, but found the octogenarian at my side had grabbed my arm to steady himself.
I love celebrating the Lord’s Supper in unfamiliar settings. The only thing I knew about this guy was that he was a Christian, same as me, and had just heard me preach. The only things he knew about me were what his pastor had said in introducing me and what I had revealed about myself in my sermon.
Yet he knew enough that he trusted me to support him while we celebrated the sacrament together. I found it especially moving that he did not ask. He just grabbed onto me. Afterwards he thanked me, twice. But I thanked him.
Later I learned that this guy really was named Guy, that in the 1960s he had owned a grocery store in town. He closed it once. The day he drove to Louisville to march with the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King. Guy is unsteady because he survived polio.
It’s good to have goals.
In stretching to achieve them we are taken to new places, surprised, perplexed touched, instructed and reminded that we are all connected to one another by the stories of faith and faith itself.
It’s really, really good to have goals. Achieving them is nice too.
The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.