“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2a)

When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried: ‘Alleluia!’” (Fred Pratt Green, 1972)

Scott Hill is a student at Columbia Theological Seminary, my doctoral alma mater. In a marvelous article in a recent school publication, Mr. Hill, a forest ranger turned pastor, tells about his internship in two rural yoked field churches in South Carolina.

His first Sunday, he stammered and sweated through the liturgy, forgetting a great deal of it. He says he was “painfully bad.”

Besides worrying about how he did in worship, he wondered “what else am I supposed to be doing?” as he worked down the visitation list assigned by the pastor. He came to the important insight that simply being with the folks in the church was “what else he was supposed to be doing.” One church matriarch assured him: “‘Scott, bless your heart, it doesn’t matter if you get all the worship service just right. You just keep loving us. We can forgive a whole host of warts. Just love us’” (“Tools for the Trade,” Vantage, Winter/Spring 2010: 10).

Fortunately, Mr. Hill has learned what matters before he even graduates from seminary. I was too stubborn to be so blessed.

In my first pastorate on my own, I tried to take very seriously the historic role of the Presbyterian minister as teacher of theology. I fancied myself the “theologian in residence.” (Yeah, I know; you’re rolling your eyes.) And where did most people get their theology? I asked. Not from denominational standards, listening to young upstart preachers or even from the Bible. It was from hymns.

Or so I thought. I fought hard to get “good” hymns sung in worship, and regarded accomplishing that task as one of the most important things in ministry. It was something that mattered deeply to me.

After expending considerable emotional resources and finding myself no closer to “victory,” I called off my crusade. I’m thankful that I finally grew up enough to know that my energy can and should be directed to better, more fruitful pursuits. What really matters is not hymns or liturgy. It’s glorifying God with heart and soul and voice, whatever hymn that voice is singing. It’s helping people feel cared for, letting them know it’s safe to be themselves and share what they feel, being there when the inevitable crisis comes and loss and tears are the order of the day. In short, as Mr. Hill was reminded, loving them.

Anthony Siracusa, who founded a bike ministry called “Revolutions” at a UCC church in Memphis, then went on to graduate from Rhodes College with honors, reflects on his experience with the congregation. “‘Growing into my life with this church,’” he observes, “‘I have found a life that matters’” (Elaine Blanchard, “Free-wheel Offering,” The Christian Century, March 9, 2010: 12).

What a gift of God it is when, like that young man, we can find out early on what matters, whether in ministry or in life.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham