Friday, April 29, 2011 | By: Zachary Bartels

An Hour Early, A Moment Too Late

I like church. Which I suppose makes sense, being that I’m a pastor and all. When I realized that our Holy Week schedule this year included four services at four different churches in the course of four days, I was jazzed.

It’s no secret that I also love ecumenical worship, and the variety in this year’s Holy Week services was very wide: a somewhat informal communion and hand-washing service at Mt. Hope Presbyterian, a kind of mosaic of different traditions at the Good Friday noon service, Tenebrae at Christ United Methodist, and of course, Easter morning at Judson, where we did what we do best—immersed a believer in the baptistery, shook the sanctuary with choir and instrumental numbers, read a bunch of Scripture, and sat through a half-hour sermon (okay, maybe a tad longer). Oh, and that was all after a potluck full of doughnuts, bacon and sausage; a Baptist-er day I cannot imagine, and it was certainly one the best Holy Weeks I’ve ever experienced.

That’s not to say the week went completely smoothly for me. When planning services with two different groups that include ten congregations from five denominations, wires can get crossed. There were a couple of small miscommunications along the way, but my biggest goof actually turned out to be a blessing.

On Friday morning, I pulled on my favorite watch (a gift from my wife), and was surprised to see that I hadn’t yet “sprung it forward.” So, of course, I took care of that and headed off to church. There, I gave my sermon a couple passes through and was surprised to see that it was already time to head to Christ Community for the pre-service holy huddle with the other pastors.

I was the first pastor to arrive, so I got my mic and did a sound check, then gave myself yet another little tour of the place (those huge old church buildings are especially majestic to those who don’t have to pay to heat them). Then, I noticed that it was quarter to, so I headed to the pastor’s office. I was still the only other pastor to have arrived. A little put out, I said, “The service starts in fifteen minutes. Where is everybody?”

“The service starts in an hour and fifteen minutes, Zach,” was his response.

That will teach me to try and decipher Roman numerals before I’ve had my first cup of coffee. Or maybe I had just confused the little hand with the big hand. Either way, the word sheepish would tidily sum up how I felt. I said I was going to go grab another cup of coffee from Biggby (which I obviously needed) and get out of the pastor’s hair, but he told me to just have a seat and make myself at home. And so I did, and got to spend an hour chatting with a pastor who I’ve grown to greatly respect over the past two or three years.

The chance to absorb some wisdom from older/wiser/more experienced pastors is a treat and a treasure to me. I found out ten years ago that coming right out with, “So, what is the most important piece of advice you can give a young pastor?” just flusters, creates all sorts of pressure and expectations, and usually results in some super-spiritual, somewhat-vague pithyism. Instead, I just like to get people talking about what they’ve done, what they’ve learned, and what they would do if they had it to do again.

And what I heard on Good Friday was that, if this pastor could go back thirty-five yeas and give himself some advice, one thing he would tell his younger self would be to emphasize putting your church in your will. Now, that might sound crass and shallow and less-than-spiritual at first (which is probably why he didn’t do it as a young man), but it’s actually as spiritual as encouraging Bible study, evangelism, or diaconal ministries within the church. In fact, it is encouraging all those things, because all of those things require funds and all of those things require a church to continue existing—to continue doing ministry—even through difficult times.

At my church,, we’ve recently seen the impact it can have when someone chooses to bless her church even after death, while she’s reigning with Christ and awaiting the resurrection. But seriously: what pastor would ever want to bring that up? Luckily, my colleague did and so now I really don’t have to .(I think he’d want me to tell you that everyone, whether 35 or 95, should have a will, and that members remembering their church in their wills can be the difference between a church folding or flourishing through difficult times; wow, I’m glad I didn’t have to say all that.)

There are a number of topics that are similarly awkward or a big downer to bring up, but incredibly important. Many of them have to do with death. Others have to do with what comes after death.

It’s coming up on the time of year when I start preparing for a week as camp pastor up at Lake Louise. I’ve been going up there since I was a squirrely little boy, and I’ve sat at hundreds of campfires there, singing the same songs, looking at the same lake, and hearing the same kind of testimonies. And yet, one of them stands out against all the rest.

When I was maybe fifteen, I remember one of the female counselors (a young lady named Natalie, who had just finished her freshman year at Judson College) breaking down and crying as she told us about her neighbor—let’s call her Judy. She and Judy (who was in her thirties) had been pretty good friends. Judy was an unbeliever, and Natalie had always wanted to share her faith with her, but had never gotten up the nerve, or perhaps the “right” opportunity had never fallen into her lap.

Then, the summer before Natalie headed off to college, Judy began asking her why she was going to that religious school. “After all,” Judy said, “you could have gotten in to State or Michigan or any number of good private schools. Why did you choose that one?” Natalie immediately saw the open door to proclaim the Truth of the Gospel. I’m going there because my faith is so important to me, she wanted to say, because Jesus saved me from hell and I want to become a better disciple even while I’m studying and preparing for a career. Can I tell you about Jesus?

But Natalie didn’t say that. She gave Judy some lame answer about how her aunt had gone there, how they had a good tennis team, and how she’d always wanted to live near Chicago. Judy had kept probing about why Natalie had chosen “that school,” giving her five or six more wide open opportunities to open wide the doors of salvation. But she never did. She’d decided after the first encounter that she needed a year of schooling under her belt—some classes about evangelism, some spiritual maturity, some stories from the halls of the Christian college—before she could grab the bull by the horns.

But Judy died in a car crash that April. And Natalie was begging all of us high school kids not to let those opportunities go by, even if they feel awkward, even if they’re easy to justify putting off. You may not get another chance if you drop this one.

That’s the kind of story I don’t usually tell. Emotional blackmail and manipulation are not my bag, but it might be worth remembering once in a while that—while we occasionally arrive an hour early and have more time than we needed (and that’s a blessing!), more often we hear of people having less time than they had counted on. And whether we’re talking about evangelism, getting that will together, getting that degree, or finally getting back on that Bible reading plan, there’s something to be said for grabbing the opportunity in the only moment you’re guaranteed—this one—and wrestling it to the ground.

So what have you been avoiding? What have you been putting off? Maybe now’s the time to do it. Maybe this is the last opportunity you’ll have. Or maybe it’s not, but either way . . . perhaps some prayer, some wisdom from the Scriptures, and some godly counsel will lead you to do something now that will have effects even beyond your life on this earth.

Soli Deo Gloria,

         Pastor Zach