I needed the day off, although I would have gotten by OK if the church were open. Thankfully, my congregation has for years closed the church office so the staff can have the Monday after Easter off.
Easing around home was all right for a little while, but with my wife at work there really wasn’t anything pressing for me to do at home. I wrote my little column for the local newspaper. That’s a Monday morning deadline. Other than that, I was determined to actually take the day off from work.
At our house, we’d just hosted a book club she’s in. So, it was spic and span. There’s always something one could do at home. But nothing I had to get accomplished. I found a TV channel running old Columbo episodes. That was entertaining for a time.
With lunch approaching, I had this hankering to go hang out at my favorite country store. Besides, why not get them to cook rather than me just having another sandwich in the kitchen? Off to Bubba-Doo’s I went.
A parishioner or two came and went. They offered such kind words about the Easter service. I returned my genuine appreciation for their encouragement.
After a few years, a pastor can sort of become part of the furniture. The new wears off and it’s not that you are necessarily unappreciated. But the compliments and the kindnesses do get a bit further in-between. The things they absolutely fawned over when you were new are now part of the weekly expectations, I guess. Compliments are nice.
“After a few years, a pastor can sort of become part of the furniture.”
“Hey there, Pastor!” Dave called from inside the kitchen. I waved and he said, “I heard such good things about the Easter service already. Sounds like it all went well.”
I grinned and said, “Well, if they’re saying nice things then I guess I can put this one on the books and start thinking about next year soon. I appreciate you passing that along!”
Another minister from the area also was at Bubba-Doo’s. She was finishing up a late breakfast as I came in for lunch. She, too, was off from work today. “How’d it go at your place?” she asked.
“I suppose pretty well. You know, some extra people and lots of color. Big, beautiful hymns and I tried my best to match all that with a big message. How about you?”
She said, “Yep, same. The Lilies and the Hollies came along for a visit and fluffed up the crowd.” Although brutally honest in her terminology, any minister would understand the reference. The Christmas Eve and Easter-only church members and visitors can really make the room look stunning exactly two times a year.
However, the air usually comes out of the bag the very next Sunday. Then, she added “Why am I so tired this year?”
“Some years are like that, I guess. Doesn’t it vary for you? It does for me, at least,” I answered. “Some years, I leave Holy Week and Easter really energized. Some years, though, I pull out of the car wash at the end of the week and I’m just drained. Not really sure why, either.”
“Some years, though, I pull out of the car wash at the end of the week and I’m just drained.”
“That’s me, alright,” she affirmed. “Yeah. The car wash.” With that, she left.
Antonio had come along as I was talking with her and motioned for me to join him at a booth for lunch. We meet up occasionally. Frankly, it had been too long since our last lunch. I was glad to see him.
Antonio is not one of my church members. He attends in another small town. But he is a man of faith. He is one of those people every pastor needs in their life. Someone who understands what you do, but who is safe to talk with because they’re not one of your own church members.
He fits the bill perfectly. Although I’d love to have him in my congregation, goodness knows I also like him not being a member. Both things will have to be true. I sat down with him. He dispensed with the formalities and went straight to today’s question.
“What was that you said to her about a car wash? She sure seemed to get it, whatever that was.”
I grinned a sheepish grin.
You know that awkward moment in the Wizard of Oz when little Toto grabs the curtain in his mouth and pulls it open? There, in all his human plainness is a man playing the part of a wizard. Well, if I answered Antonio’s question it was the ecclesial version of opening the curtain.
I probably stared at the ceiling for a pregnant moment. Finally, I answered. “I’m a little embarrassed that you overheard that, I guess.”
“Why is that? You know you can tell me anything.”
“When I explain the car wash, it’s going to sound terrible.”
“Hey, you’ve proved that over the years. I sure appreciate it. But man, this is so insider. When I explain the car wash, it’s going to sound terrible.”
Antonio offered, “Well, we’re this far already. You may as well grab your receipt and drive on in.”
I grinned at his quick wit. “OK. But I warned you this will sound a little sacrilegious. Maybe a little too honest.” Then, I began. “Holy Week and Easter feels in some ways like a week-long trip through a car wash.”
“OK, I’m picturing the little one over on Butterfield Road where you just sit there and everything passes over you. Is that the deal?” he said.
“No. You need to think a little bigger than that,” I countered. “Think about over at the coast in the bigger cities. If you go to one of those fancy car washes, they have lots of employees who’ll hand-buff your car and add on all the optional services.”
“Oh, yeah. I love those. They make my car look good! You just get out and go wait inside while they do all that stuff and then motion for you to come get your car.” he said.
“Alright, stay with me.” I countered. “That’s the one. But for about $7.50, they’ve all got an option where you can skip those extras. But you just drive your own car into the wash and sit there as it passes through every phase on a big conveyor belt.”
“Yeah?” Antonio asked for more.
“You drive in as the machine pre-washes it. Then, it scrubs the wheels. Then, some mystery spray with all the colors comes out of nowhere. But the conveyor keeps moving. At the next station, the sure-enough washing starts. There’s a rinse a little farther down. On and on down the line until at the very end they power-dry your car.”
“I’ve done that drive-through car wash. Gotcha.”
“Well, on Palm Sunday we pull into the wash. After Easter service a week later, we finally come out the other end. You work your full days. Meetings still happen and other events at night. Hospital visits still have to be made. Crises happen.”
Antonio was starting to get the picture.
“You don’t just recycle your sermons, either, do you?” He remembered.
“Try as I may, that Easter sermon — I always look at it and look at it. Can’t quit tinkering with it.”
“No way. Forty-seven new ones a year. Plus any extra services. Try as I may, that Easter sermon — I always look at it and look at it. Can’t quit tinkering with it.”
“So, you’ve got the Maundy Thursday service and Good Friday that week, too. Yes?” he continued. “Every one of them has to be planned and you have to speak and lead. But Easter is the granddaddy, I’m guessing.”
“It’s a trap I try not to get caught in,” I explained now. “I try my best to not let the crowd get me on edge as I plan for Easter. But we’re all human.”
“So, when you go home at night can you unplug?”
“That’s the insidious part of it all. You try to. But you’re always getting ready for the next service. You’re always wondering about logistics because everything has to be just so.”
He said, “I know you want it all done right. Because you care.”
“I do care.” I echoed. “But it seems like it follows you home that week unlike almost any other time. My wife will think I’m watching our favorite program with her. And I am. But I’m also making a mental note to call Amelia because I forgot I needed to check off with her about who’s in charge of the extra bread plates. Somebody’s also got to get the centerpieces for the big meal that week. I’m wondering if I asked the custodian to put the candelabra in the Chapel.”
“I didn’t think about things like that,” he confessed.
“Then, you close your eyes to go to sleep. That’s when all you should have said in your words at the Maundy Thursday service begins to creep in. Or you hope you’ll remember the way you just put your thoughts together for the Good Friday message. Because that sure would be a good way to say it. Then, you debate getting back out of bed to get that all written down.”
“That would be tiring. So, then what does Easter really do to you?”
“I think I may be entering my third career phase regarding Easter,” I speculated.
“Well, don’t keep me waiting. What are these phases?” he begged.
“Alright, you’re on the backstage tour now for sure,” I said. “At the beginning of my church ministry, I’d walk out there on Easter and see hundreds of people more than usual. The room would be packed. I’m probably the only minister in history who felt this way, but I resented it pretty strongly in those early years.”
“Why was that?!”
“I know, I know. It doesn’t make much sense conventionally. But let me try,” I pleaded.
“Why do you come out on this one day and gawk?”
“It felt like ‘Where have all of you been for all these months? Why do you come out on this one day and gawk?’ Honestly, besides my cynicism about that, there also was this sense in which I felt like they were just there for their feel-good religious fix. If I’m completely transparent, I felt used by them.”
I went on. “It was like they wanted to get all dressed up, settle into their pews and then watch us do something meaningful to make them feel good. Then they were going to take off to the country club or the restaurant and eat a big ol’ meal, only to disappear on us again until Christmas.”
“I can see where you could feel that way. I really can.” Antonio counseled. “Hadn’t thought of it. But that makes sense. You need them year-round, and they’re only showing up twice a year like consumers. So, what was phase two then?”
I painted a little more color into the picture. “I’m happy to say that in just a few years, I moved into phase two. I’ve probably been there for most of my career when I think about Easter and Christmas Eve.”
“This ought to be good. That’s quite a few years now,” he responded.
“So, here we go then. I think eventually I found those couple of days to be a little exciting. I mean, all those extra people really do add an energy and a power to the sanctuary when we gather for these highest and holiest of days. I’ve spent the last few decades now feeding off that.”
“Well, that sounds good to me. Isn’t it?” he wondered.
“It is. But you have to be careful. The trap is that you start to view those days like your own Super Bowls, if you will. Big days where everything needs to go perfectly. Big days where this year needs to somehow be better than last.”
“I get that. But, what adds all the pressure?” he wondered.
“If I were better, they might start attending every Sunday.”
“I’ll tell you what adds to the pressure. And this is the trap: You tell yourself if we just did all this Christmas and Easter stuff right, then these twice-a-year people would show up more often. If I were better, they might start attending every Sunday.”
“Oooof!” Antonio let out a guttural response. “That is a lot of pressure.”
“It gets worse,” I confessed again. “You start trying to offer the perfect words. You start trying to be sure you give one central takeaway point in the message that will be like a hook. Above all else, you make sure it’s not too much. You don’t want them to feel pressured or made to feel guilty. You want to appeal to them.”
“Because if you do everything right, they might come back next Sunday,” Antonio echoed.
“If we get it all right, they just might start coming back. So, I make the gospel small. I make my words as appealing as I can.”
“So, where are you now?” He followed up. “Phase three, you said?”
“Now, I’m in the home stretch of my ministry. I’ve learned that no matter what I say or do, I’m not really likely to affect what they do next week or next year. I’m slow, but I finally cracked that one.” I laughed.
“But you still care.”
“Oh, I care as much as ever.” I emphasized. “I work hard on the craft, best I understand it. I want everything as right as it can be. But I don’t think I feel quite as much pressure now. Because I know what I know.”
He stared at me.
“I know now that it’s not all completely riding on me. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. If God prompts them differently by the Holy Spirit, and they respond, then I’d be ecstatic. That’s between them and God. But the national trends and data don’t make me hold my breath about that.”
“I hear you. Well, so the car wash?” Antonio smiled. “It’s over for this year.”
“Here I am!” I responded. “Still riding.”
“Man, I think I just came to appreciate my own pastor so much better. I’ve never thought about all of this. I thought I understood what you guys did.” he said. “I mean, I’m a deacon and a Sunday school teacher, you know.”
“Yeah, but we ministers don’t have the market cornered on endurance. This is just our little season of testing. We get a lot of good out of it, too. Easter is still holy, still sacred to me after all these years. Christmas, too.”
We both stood up. We hugged.
Antonio summarized: “I’m glad to hear you say that. Phase three, huh? A car wash during Holy Week that comes within the long arc of a much bigger car wash story.”
Now, I was the one caught off guard. He could be right, though.
Sometimes you answer someone’s short question and it turns out to be a whole conversation. Sometimes a friend or family member takes in the long, thoughtful answer and they grasp what you’ve entrusted to them. Sometimes, right at the last they might even help you see things in a fresh way as they respond.
Charles Qualls serves as pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Va. He is the author of eight books.
Articles in the Bubba-Doo’s series: