Dead Preachers Society: Come and Die

An Address to The Conference on the Ministry at North Park Seminary, March 29, 1990

by Timothy Sporrong

I stand before you this evening as a representative of the Dead Preachers Society. At our best, that is what we are — the Dead Preachers Society and that is no joke.

In the film the Dead Poets Society from which my title is obviously derived, English teacher John Keating — a.k.a. Robin Williams — begins his first class with his new students by leading them into the school's trophy room. The school is Welton Preparatory, an all boys academy.

Allowing them a moment to look around, he finally asks one of the students to read the first verse of a Robert Herrick poem.

The student reads:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old time is still aflying
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

"Thank you," says Mr. Keating. "Now students, the Latin term for the poet's sentiment is carpe diem. Carpe diem. Seize the day. Gather rosebuds while ye may. Now," he continues, "Why these lines to start my class? Why? Because we are food for worms, lads; because, believe it or not, everyone of us in this room is going to stop breathing, turn cold and die. Everyone.

"Take a look in this trophy case. Look at these pictures of classes gone by. Look at the faces. They're just like yours — full of energy, full of hope, full of promise. But the truth is, most of the boys in these pictures are now fertilizing daffodils. Nevertheless, they call out to you. They pass on a legacy to you, Can you hear them?

"Listen close. 'Carpe.. . Carpe. .. Carpe diem! Seize the day, boys, seize the day. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.'"

Hear the Word of God in Mark 8. Jesus said:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and rake up his cross and follow me.

For whoever would save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.

The Apostle Paul writes in II Corinthians 4

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways: we refuse to practice cunning. . . .

For what we preach is nor ourselves, but Jesus Christ [and him crucified] as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship writes these words: "When Christ calls someone, he bids them come and die." Finally, in the words of Jed Clampett: "Howdy! Eee Doggie! It's good to be here!"

And I mean that.

North Park's Conference on the Ministry has great significance for me. It was almost 20 years ago, at this same Conference on the Ministry, that I discerned my own calling. And it was the Keynote Address that was the turning point for me. So it is with fear and trepidation, and with a sense of great responsibility, that I stand before you as the "Keynote Speaker" this evening.

Many of you are wrestling with your own concept of vocation, seeking to discern your calling. Frederick Buechner states that, for Christians, vocation means the work that one is called to by God. Then he says that a good rule for discerning what that might be is this. The kind of work God usually calls one to do is first the work that you need most to do and second the work that the world most needs to have done.

In other words, he says the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's hunger meet. I would say that is a good rule.

Many of you are here this weekend because you are coming to the conclusion or at least considering the possibility that God is calling you to ministry. You are contemplating that perhaps the work you most need to do and the work the world most needs you to do is full-time Christian ministry of some kind. Some of you, in fact, may be right on the edge, ready to take the plunge into pastoral ministry.

To you I have one thing to say. I think you are making a big mistake! Because this job is a killer. I'm not being facetious. Nor do I intend to play with or manipulate you. I mean it in all sincerity. This job is a killer. And if you seek to enter the ministry, you are making a big mistake. Unless — unless — you are willing to die! You thought Dead Preachers Society was a joke. It's no joke! It's simply the best description I can find. Remember Bonhoeffer's words: "When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die."

Hear me now and believe me later. In pastoral ministry, you die a long slow death. Indeed, you die a little bit every day. You die from loneliness and from a pervasive sense of inadequacy. No matter how many solid relationships you have in the church, you are still the pastor, You are different. You are temporary, expendable. You are alone.

My family and I have spent 15 straight Christmases away from the rest of our families. Plus, this year, our sixth in the parish, for the first time we got zero invitations for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. We spent both holidays alone. The fact is, it can be a very lonely job.

Then there is that inadequacy thing. Ten people can express words of praise and affirmation after church on Sunday. "Great sermon, Pastor." (Sometimes they say that even when you didn't preach.) "Powerful Service." And then, just one will drop an unkind word or criticism. "Ah, Preacher, that little joke about Dan Quayle was un-called-for," and all one remembers from that moment forward is that one criticism. Then you get angry at yourself for being oversensitive. And you die a little bit. You die from pride and ambition.

Yes, I like to hear that it was a good sermon and I'd love to preach to one thousand every Sunday. When it bothers you that there were only 98 in church one Sunday and that no one even seemed to notice your sermon, then it bothers you that that bothers you. You die a little bit.

You die from constantly being caught in the middle. And over the dumbest and pettiest things. Church life, church politics can be unbelievable.

This winter I got caught between the deacons and the trustees over who should shovel snow on Sunday mornings. The deacons thought the buildings and grounds sub-committee. The trustees thought the ushers should do it. Guess who ended up shoveling? Yep, yours truly.

Then one Sunday in January after church, an elderly gentleman slipped and fell on the ice at the end of the walk, cracking his head open. The question was raised angrily by a council member, "Why wasn't it shoveled better?"

Meanwhile you know who spent Sunday afternoon in the Emergency Room at Condell Hospital sitting with this poor gentleman and his wife.

You are often caught between two factions and sometimes they just flat out blame you for the whole thing.. . and you die a little bit.

You die from unmet expectations — both your own and those your people have for you. Often you feel that no matter how much you've done it isn't enough. And, I don't mean to contradict my good friend, A. Lincoln, but on occasion I'm not sure you can please any of the people any of the time. I know for a fact that you cannot please both Covenant Women and Covenant Men at the same time.

The father of one of your parishioners dies suddenly and you rally behind the family, only to get in trouble because when the mother of another parishioner's died last summer you didn't respond as quickly. "It's a clear case of favoritism, Pastor." Never mind that you weren't told about that death last summer until it was too late to respond quickly.

And then you hear it because family A was given a much larger baby shower than family B, as if you planned the baby showers. I'm not making any of this up — honest — that's what makes it so bothersome. And you die a little bit.

You die from watching your children grow up in a difficult and cruel world, only to have that compounded by the additional burden of being a "P.K." Believe me, in a relatively small community, everybody knows.

When you see the tears in your 15-year-old daughter's big, beautiful brown eyes because of a nasty rumor spread about her — spread through the whole school and intensified by her being your daughter, you die a little bit.

You die everytime you have to deal with the problem people in the church — the "well-intentioned Dragons" as Marshall Shelley calls them.

In my first church in Washington state, there was an old Norwegian dairyman — I'll call him Ole. He was a special case — the ultimate challenge of love.

I knew I was in trouble with Ole right off the bat. The very first Midweek Service I ever did, Ole stomped out right in the middle. I mean, he just jumped to his feet and shouted, "I can't stay here, the devil is in this room." And he was looking right at me when he said it, I looked around behind me. There was no one else there.

After he'd left, Bob, the Gideon, told me not to take it personally, "Ole's done that to every Pastor that's ever been here, Then he told me that the rumor was that a barn door had fallen off from a hay loft and hit Ole in the head. "He's never been the same since," Bob said.

I probably shouldn't tell this, but I will. Ole had ears that stuck straight out — enormous. Some of the guys in the church nicknamed him "Wingnut," They said the barn door had knocked his wingnuts loose.

Well, for a supposedly crazy man, he was a handful. Not taking it personally was easier said than done, try as I might, Ole loved to write long treatises on the Scriptures and then make appointments to read them to me. He wanted to impress me with self-taught Bible knowledge.

Ole was also the church janitor and he was omnipresent — not to mention omniboring — those papers were agonizing. And the parsonage was right next to the church. It seemed he was always out sweeping the walk, keeping an eye on us.

Now I was young — 25-years-old — when I went on internship. Ole played upon that. He wanted to keep me in my place. He took to calling me Boy! "Nice sermon, Boy!" "How you doing, Boy?" "Don't worry, Boy, when you become a man, I'll let you know."

I tried everything — talking to him reasonably, shrugging it off, avoiding him, confronting him. Nothing worked. Ole was the kind of man you couldn't even agree with without his getting upset.

People in church said, "Ah, you just need a thicker skin." Okay, right. It was hard to avoid him. He was always out sweeping — watching the parsonage. We tried to plan our getaways for when he went inside. If he caught you in conversation, you were stuck good.

Sometimes Oleisms were comical. One Saturday night as we were leaving to go out for dinner, Ole caught us. "Hey, preacher, going out, eh? Yeah, I once knew a preacher that went out on a Saturday night. Never came back! Yep, he got hit by a train!" I could laugh at that one, although I confess I did look both ways before crossing the Burlington Northern tracks that night.

Other times Ole's shenanigans were harder to take. Like the night he stood over and yelled at Florence Williams at Midweek Service for speaking in the place of a man in the church. Or the Maundy Thursday when he tried to take over the Communion Service. We did have major confrontations over these. He'd be gone a month and then come back.

Ole had a jewel of a wife — Margaret. She used to sing country gospel songs at church. She had a wonderful voice. Rich and full with a touch of country twang. Remember the old gospel song from the movie Tender Mercies:

On the wings of a snow white dove
God sends his pure, sweet love
A sign from above,
On the wings of a dove.

Ah, Margaret could sing. The whole congregation lit up when she did so.

Now Margaret was truly a saint. Living with Ole was no picnic, believe you me. Ole's goal in life, he said, was to make Margaret a truly spiritual woman. Let me tell you she had spirit. Through it all, she never complained about Ole.

After my fourth year in the church (I returned after internship), Margaret was diagnosed to have cancer. It's no wonder, I suppose. I sat with Ole for three hours while she was in surgery. That was a rather bizarre experience. We sat in Margaret's room, and Ole sat right in front of the window. The sun was shining through those ears of his. There sat Ole with ears glowing, talking about what Paul really meant to say in Romans. All I could think about was that nickname, Wingnut.

The doctors opened Margaret's body, then closed her right back up. The cancer was all over. She hung on for almost a year. I was there with her through it all, watching her deteriorate, marvelling at her faith, praying with her, crying with her, overwhelmed with the smell of advanced cancer.

For the last two months, it seemed like she could die at any moment. But, she was a fighter. One night in April I had tickets for the Seattle Mariners' opening game. I'd purchased those tickets many weeks in advance. I debated long and hard over whether or not I should go. But Margaret's condition had been the same for two months, so I decided I would go. It was a mistake.

When I got home from the game, I found out that Margaret had died that evening. They had tried to page me, but it didn't get through. I went straight to the house and sat with Ole until two in the morning.

Margaret's funeral was a true celebration. Funerals are one of my better things. It is the completion of the gospel, you know.

Six weeks later, Ole was out sweeping when I happened by. I had had a difficult day. I was in no mood to talk, so when he tried to stop me, I told him I was in a hurry.

As I walked away, Ole exploded. He ran up behind me and hit me in the head with his broom. Then he shouted, "Some Pastor you are. You're always in a hurry. My wife dies and where are you? At a baseball game."

I knew this anger was a part of Ole's misdirected grief work. But my pain was real, for I wished I had been at Margaret's bedside when she died.

Ole, Ole, Ole. . . .

In the end, I simply outlasted the old Norwegian. After we left, I heard that Ole said I was the best pastor he ever had. Looking back, I guess you could say Ole did make a man of me. But not in the way he expected. He taught me the meaning of love. A couple of times I almost found myself liking him. Well, maybe not. And you die a little bit.

It has been over six years now since we buried my father. He was a Covenant Pastor for some 40 years. He served faithfully — model of a true servant pastor.

In the middle years of his ministry my mother became very ill, and our family was forced to move to California for the more moderate climate. My father had to leave active ministry for some eight years in his mid 40s and early 50s. That's when you usually get the "BIG Church." That's when you gain your fame. He never got it.

During those years he took whatever job he could find — like janitorial work and working at a YMCA. Meanwhile, he preached Sundays at a tiny little American Sunday School Union Church in Hayward, California. That church is now a freeway. Yet, he was never bitter. He just served.

And let me tell you, he touched lives at that American Sunday School Union Church of 20 families. In one brief six-month span he did some of the best pastoral grief work I've ever seen. In that time span in that little church, one mother lost both of her sons in Vietnam, a 16-year-old was killed in a gang fight, a three-year-old died in a fire, and the 40-year-old father of two was killed in a train accident.

Now remember, my father was not the pastor of this church. They couldn't afford a pastor. He just preached on Sundays for $15 a week. Besides, the church was 30 miles from our home. Nevertheless, during that six-month period he was with those people almost daily.

Finally, the eight years in the wilderness ended. My mother recovered sufficiently for my father to return to "full-time ministry." He took a small Covenant Church up in the Sierra Nevada foothills and served it for 11 years, And, he did very good work. When he retired, he received a plaque of recognition from the Covenant in the mail. After 40 years, a plaque in the mail.

A year after my father retired, the new pastor of the church accused my father of meddling in it. Now, my father has made some mistakes. It was probably a mistake to have retired to that area even after a year away. But my brother lived there alone, and they really had no place else to go at that point.

In any case, the allegations were untrue. Some had come to him with concerns, but he had turned them away, saying, "I am not your pastor." A church official, when told of the accusations, without doing any research — without even as much as a phone call to my father seeking his side of the story — simply whipped off a harsh letter of reprimand to my father saying, "Al, we expect better than this from you."

My dad was devastated. Because he felt unable to respond and because it seemed unwise for me to get involved, my sister sent a letter of explanation to this official with a copy to then President Milton Engebretson. Milt responded immediately, expressing confidence in and appreciation for our father. This other official never responded.

Two years later, when my father died, the church representative at his funeral was — you guessed it — the same official. My siblings wanted to refuse him a part in the service. In fact, my brother wanted to punch him in the nose. But my mother and I talked them out of both things. My mother said, "Your father gave his life to the Covenant It is going to be represented at his funeral, Besides, we' re bigger than that. We believe in grace. Let's allow him to see who your father really was." And you died a little bit.

You die a little bit every day in this vocation. When your people are hurting and you cannot stop it, when they ask why and you have no answer — you die a little bit.

When you do a funeral for four men — two fathers and two sons killed simultaneously on a hunting trip by a tree that fell over their camper, when you do a funeral for a 15-year-old girl who has committed suicide by shooting herself in the heart with a .45, when you do a funeral for the only two children of your daughter's school teacher — both killed on the highway by a drunken driver, you die a little bit yourself.

Now I could go on and on, but I won't because I know what you're thinking. You' re thinking, "Good God, preacher man, why do you do this if it is so painful? Why do you do this vocation as you call it, if it is such a killer? Why?"

I'll tell you why. Because I would do nothing else. Because I love it. Because when Christ calls us, he bids us come and die. Because our Lord is right, it is in losing our lives for him and the gospel that we find and save them. Because St. Francis is right. It is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Because, though we are afflicted and perplexed, persecuted and struck down, we are not forsaken or destroyed. Because what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Jesus Christ, and him RISEN!

You see, we really are the Dead Preachers Society. For as Paul said, "We carry in the body the death of Jesus." But we do so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested. For death is not the final answer, Christ is Risen! Our labor is not in vain. For the Dead Preachers Society to serve the church, to die for the gospel, to preach Christ's death and resurrection is to seize the day. It is to gather rosebuds along the way.

How can I describe for you the joy and privilege of ministry? How can I describe the wonder of preaching the Gospel that you know is true, that changes people in front of your eyes? How can I describe the joy of living with a text for a week and then the privilege of standing before your people on Sunday morning to proclaim that text, to encounter them with the Word of God? I never enter the pulpit without feeling a sense of awe.

How can I describe the exhilaration of taking a baby in your arms and baptizing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and then looking that child in the eye and pronouncing the Benediction? It is a mystery, a moment of transcendence, a moment of grace, and a chill goes up and down my spine every time.

How can I describe the privilege of praying with someone just before they go in for open-heart or cancer surgery, then sitting with their loved ones as they wait, even if their ears glow, knowing that in that time you represent the presence of Christ?

How can I describe the power of leading a casket out of the sanctuary and pronouncing the Nunc Dimitas?

0 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant
depart in peace, according to thy Word;
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.

Do you realize that, simply because of your office as pastor, you are included in key moments of your people's lives? You share virtually every rite of passage with them, every crisis. That is a privilege.

Being with God's people in life and death is the stuff ministry is made of and it is the heart of the Gospel. For, you see, they're all dying, everyone of them. Everyone is going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old time is still aflying
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

That's the calling of the Dead Preachers Society. Come and die.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may

If you are considering a call to ministry, you're making a big mistake unless you are willing to die. I stand by that statement. I have come to the conclusion that too many of us pastors enter the ministry because, like the elder brother in the parable, we don't want to let go — to die. We're still trying to earn God's favor, trying to prove our spiritual worth, seeking to receive the fatted calf — to be successful pastors. It is an easy mistake to make. But it is a big mistake. Do you see?

It is the elder brother in me that finds the job so painful. It is the part of me that refuses to die that keeps getting killed. It is the dead preacher in me — the part of me that has already died to the Gospel — that discovers the joy and beauty and wonder of ministry.

The call of Christ is a call to come and die, for it is in losing our lives that we find them. Now, if you have received this calling in the fullness of its meaning, if this is the one thing you need to do with your life, if you are ready to come and die, then I'd advise you to take it seriously.

To you, I have one additional final word to say. Actually, it is not my word but the word of the Dead Preachers Society. Imagine that before you on these walls are the pictures of a!I those who have passed through the halls of this placeNyvall Hall. There's Nils Lund and Eric Hawkinson and David Hawkinson. There is Mary Miller and Melanie Tornquist. There is Glenn Anderson and Donald Frisk and Fran Anderson and A.G. Sporrong and Algot Sporrong and even — way back in the corner — Timothy Sporrong — that's me

It is the whole company of the Dead Preachers SocietyNorth Park Branch. The Dead Preachers Society, past and present. Look at the faces. They look just like you do now. Full of promise and wonder. They are calling to you. Listen close.

Carpe. . . Carpe. . . Carpe diem!
Seize the day, friends. Seize the day!
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.
Come and Die!

See all articles by Timothy Sporrong