Catching a Glimpse of God's Spirit
by Jeff Berkheiser
It had been one of those meetings you wished you would have stayed home from. You know, the impression that some people had already decided before the meeting how things should go and really weren't interested in hearing a different opinion. ... The secretary listening silently as she tried to take minutes, wondering how to diplomatically note the main points of a session where frustration sometimes won out over discernment. ... And for me, the recurring thought that has gnawed at my motivation for ministry over the past year or so: "Am I in the wrong place?"
Three years ago, after 10 years of youth ministry, followed by a degree from the University of Lausanne, ordination, and nine years of parish ministry in the countryside of the Gros-de-Vaud, between Lausanne and Yverdon, I was feeling sure of my call to serve the rural population of this French-speaking canton in the western part of Switzerland. Our family had been welcomed with open arms into the village of Dommartin and the other seven villages comprising the parish. We knew virtually everyone, were fully involved in local life, from the volunteer fire brigade to the theatrical "troupe" of the village choir, and were, as many people testified to us, not just appreciated but loved.
A major reorganization of the Reformed Church, the main Protestant denomination here and closely linked to the state, caused us to leave Dommartin in the summer of 2000. We had arrived in Gimel, in the foothills of the Jura Mountains, with high hopes of establishing the same kind of contact and ministry that had given us such satisfaction in the Gros-de-Vaud. My ministry gifts and orientation seemed to be just what people were seeking here. I had, however, terribly underestimated the impact of such a move--and undoubtedly overestimated my own ability to handle the changes. Just because you've handled tough challenges of adaptation well in the past doesn't mean it will be "automatic" in the future! Not to mention the fact that I soon discovered not everyone in my new parish was particularly open to my style and vision of ministry and parish life.
And so, on Tuesday night, January 7, after many months of mediation with my colleague, a lot of work on my own strengths and weaknesses, and the launching of a new parish project for family ministry the beginning of January 2003, I found myself mulling over my mixed sentiments following a meeting of the parish council leadership. Fortunately, two of my primary comforters were available: Shadow, my faithful Labrador, offering his canine affection, and Donna, my wife, providing support and also her own particular light on the subject.
As we sat in the living room talking about all this, just before 11 p.m., the phone rang. Tragic news: Mathieu, a 7th-grader from our parish, had just committed suicide.
As I jumped in the car to drive up the hill to the village where Mathieu's family lived, I uttered a quick prayer for strength, admitting to God as well as to myself my apprehension about dealing with a situation that was totally beyond my capacity to understand or to comfort. Then the thought came to me: "Yes, but it is for times such as these that I became a pastor--to come alongside those in need, to be with them in doubt and in faith, in weakness and in strength. It is that which really counts."
How insignificant the evening's administrative meeting suddenly seemed. How petty the things we had argued about. Here was a family struck by grief, by the desperate act of a teenager one year younger than my own son. And what if it had been me in their place?
As I walked over the frozen ground in front of their house, greeted the police inspectors gathered for the inevitable investigation, and walked into the house to meet with the family, none of us said much at first. It seemed so much more appropriate to offer a hug than any feeble words of "wisdom."
Over the next few days, gradually, simply, I grew close to this family, whom I knew only slightly before Mathieu's death. Not churchgoers, they opened their hearts in a remarkable way, offering me their doubts and their hopes, their thoughts and their emotions, and something that Swiss people usually offer only after taking the time to really get to know you: their friendship.
Monday morning, as I prepared to leave them after gathering the last items they wanted to include in the funeral service, Mathieu's mother gave me a big hug, looked me in the eye and said: "I've heard that you've had doubts of your own, that you've been questioning whether or not you're in the right place. I just want to say one thing to you: Stay."
I still don't know exactly what God has in store for us here. My weaknesses and "rough edges" are still the same, and the people of our parish still have theirs. But these past few days have allowed me to get my focus back on what really matters, to see things in better perspective, to catch a glimpse of God's Spirit acting among us, sometimes where we least expect to find him.
Jeff Berkheiser (M.A., '76) is a Swiss Reformed Church pastor in Gimel, Switzerland. Berkheiser and his wife, Donna, have been ministering in French-speaking Europe since 1976. They have four children.