My parents, Doris & Henry Shafer, were both high school teachers.  My mother taught typing, shorthand and note hand at Reading High School and my father American history at Wyomissing High School, both in Pennsylvania.  My Dad later became the high school principal and then superintendent of schools.  

Until later in their careers, school teaching salaries were not great and even did not extend over the summer.  However, my parents managed quite well and even were able to save up each year for their favorite type of vacation – a trip to New York City to see Broadway shows.

Now, that may sound extravagant, but for most of my parents’ lives it really was not.  They saved all year and stayed in the cheapest hotel they could find at a time when there still were inexpensive hotels in New York City.  However, their real secret for saving money was purchasing their Broadway show tickets way in advance and always purchasing the last row in the balcony, seats that, in my younger years, cost about $2.50 per ticket.

When my brother, Byron, and I got a little older, they even took us along on these trips.  

The first Broadway show I saw was called “Do, Re, Mi.”  Based on a little research I did recently, I must have been 11 years old when I saw it with my brother and parents.  “Do, Re, Mi” starred Phil Silvers, who I knew from the “Sergeant Bilko” television series.  Silvers was also featured in television commercials at the time for “Black Label” beer and we saw him before the show entering the cast door when he whistled the “Black Label” theme, “label, black label” and was quickly let in the door.

I thought the show was wonderful and still remember the key song, “Make Someone Happy” (Make someone happy, make just one someone happy).

Anyway, the purpose of this long introduction is that in the musical Playbill, the program, there was a photo of Silvers with one of his key lines from the musical printed below it – “You hang around, you learn.”

That phrase became one of my mom’s teaching mantras and from the time of that New York visit until her retirement in the 1980’s, the photo of Silvers with his quote, “You hang around, you learn” was on the bulletin board in her Reading High homeroom.

“You hang around, you learn.”  I think it is also a good mantra for my life and ministry, too.  As I have “hung around” the ordained Lutheran ministry for nearly 46 years I have learned a few things about God, ministry and myself.

My first congregation call was to Holy Trinity Memorial Lutheran Church in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, and old silk and iron town north of Allentown, Pennsylvania.  Catasauqua was a town whose good years were in the past, but the congregation was very kind to my wife, Kris, and me.  

A small congregation, Holy Trinity stood just blocks away from the big Lutheran Church in town, St. Paul’s.  The senior pastor at St. Paul’s when I arrived in 1976 was Pastor Phil Miller.  Before I arrived, Pastor Miller told the Holy Trinity Congregation Council that they needed to be accepting of me because, since this was my first call, their actions would affect my entire life and ministry.  The Council and congregation took these words to heart and my seven plus years as pastor there were wonderful.

Pastor Miller once told me that we pastors are privileged to get to the “second floor” of people’s lives.  By that he meant both literally, we visit people in their homes and sometimes visit shut ins and sick people in their second-floor bedrooms, and figuratively, we are privileged to be part of some very personal, private activities and even secrets in our members’ lives.  I have found that to be quite true – we pastors get to walk with our members in both very good and too often very bad times in their lives.  I have always felt thankful for the times I have been invited in people’s “second floor” lives.

Of course, even the best of us clergy, certainly including myself, have things in our lives and ministries of which we are not proud.  Martin Luther wrote that we are both “saint and sinner.”  I know that I am.

I love the Lutheran church.  I have been nurtured and loved back by my church for most of my life and career.  The Lutheran church is far, very far, from perfect, to be sure.  But it is what we have, our “treasure in earthen vessels,” so to speak. Our Lutheran history has much of which to be proud, and, sadly, so much to mourn.  You can go back to Luther’s writings about the Jews or up to today’s racism and homophobia, just to name three. So much to lament and mourn and work for change.

And I am fairly sure that the Lutheran Church is not alone in its faults and challenges.

We have work to do in the faith communities that we love.  We have work to do in this community we love.

I have been privileged to serve on the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA’s) church wide (national) staff with three Presiding Bishops, two of whom became close personal friends.  I have served congregations large and small, as a bishop’s assistant, as communication director for the ELCA and for a large interfaith communication agency.  I have taught in Madagascar and South Africa and traveled extensively for the church in the USA and the Caribbean, Jerusalem and the West Bank, Africa, Europe, and Central and South America, and met with Popes, Patriarchs and Archbishops.  

However, where I have felt the closest to God was probably high in the mountains of central Honduras where a group of us were working with villagers in an isolated community to build new homes on higher ground, following Hurricane Mitch.  Each evening we would gather as a community and sing and pray, all in front of most of the villagers who were enjoying what they called “gringo television.”  That time, singing and praying with dear friends in front of new friends, it has not ever been better for me in my faith life than those wonderful evenings.

Here are some more thoughts that have come to me as I have “hung around” and tried to learn:

• We are all much more alike than we are different, especially as people of faith.  I learned early in ministry that I had much more in common with my Jewish doctor friend who was active in his faith life, than I had with many of in my own faith tradition who were not active in their faith lives.  More recently my interfaith work has allowed me to get to know and love people of many different faiths and I now cannot imagine a heaven with 2/3 of the world not in it.  If my Krishna friend, Anuttama, or my Jewish rabbi friends, Josh and Neil, are not in heaven with me, I do not want to be there either.

• God is calling us to be brave, to be brave leaders, not to be afraid.  I must admit that this is easier for me to say at 72 years of age than it was at 32, but that is our calling. Luther advised us to “sin boldly.”  Sinful or not, we are called to be bold in our leadership. 

• Over my years as I pastor, I have learned that whenever I respond to something/anything with righteous indignation, I have been wrong.  Every time.

• A faith leader’s role is important in our congregations and communities.  We are the front lines of care for so many.  We sometimes save people’s lives.  Our front-line work for our members and others in need in our communities is an important and not small task, and one we are called to do often, probably more often today than in the past.  And we do it pretty well.  And, when we do not do it well, God still loves us to try another day.

• I believe there is no future for the Christian church or any faith group that is not open to all races and sexual orientations or to any group that does not offer women equality in leadership.  Those congregations and faith groups simply have no future.

• And, fortunately, God loves all of us and God’s love for us never ends.

And, oh, I can tell you from my experience that if you hang around long enough, you will learn.

The Rev. Eric C. Shafer, Senior Pastor at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Santa Monica, will retire on April 30 after more than eight years at Mt. Olive and more than 45 years as an ordained Lutheran pastor.

And, oh, I can tell you from my experience that if you hang around long enough, you will learn.
The Rev. Eric C. Shafer, Senior Pastor at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Santa Monica, will retire on April 30 after more than 8 years at Mt. Olive and more than 45 years as an ordained Lutheran pastor