This is a meditation on a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Anthony J. Godlefski, pastor of Montgomery United Methodist Church in Skillman, New Jersey. I consider him to be world-class as a minister, preacher, organist, choir director, friend and all-around mensch. In other words, a blessedly nice guy.
In his sermon “A Satisfying Job to Do” , Dr. Godlefski quoted Luke 1:76:
And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord, to prepare the way.
From this, he derives a simple yet satisfying job that every Christian, no matter his condition of life or wealth can do: to prepare the way for the Lord. To quote Dr. Godlefski:
We need to take away obstacles and blockages so that people would feel welcome and accepted whenever they come here [to church]. We need to reach out to those who have not been touched by the love of the Lord, because we have this precious gift, and we can do it. Take a moment and close your eyes and think about the people who prepared the way of the Lord for you. Who were they? Who were those wonderful people?
Later, I decided to remember some of the people in my life, who, known or unknown to themselves, had made “the crooked straight and the rough places plain” for me. Here’s what I came up with after only a half-hour’s reflection…
My grandma, Mary, who always said her rosary, and most days sat with it always within reach. She taught us that faithfulness was not a function of whether one was sitting in church on Sunday morning.
My parents, who sent my sister and me to church at St. Matthias, where we learned about the Christian faith, made our First Communions and were confirmed in good time. Our parents had some serious reasons not to go back to church, but they kept them to themselves. They took care not to poison us against it. That is just one more reason to thank God for them.
Father Ed, the adviser to St. Matthias’ youth folk group, a group of junior high school and high school students who provided the singing and guitar music at the Saturday evening Mass. There was no wall, no unbridgeable gap between him and us. The whole group of us teens often went down to the seminar room where he actually did advise us. He even went with us on our excursions to the ice cream parlor at Rutgers Plaza. We were as silly and rowdy as people of that age could be, but he saw fit not to dampen our spirits. He treated us like real persons, and we came to understand that despite his clerical collar, he was a real person, too.
Father Joe, who at first we knew as Deacon Joe, who invited the folk group to sing at his ordination in Long Branch, NJ. He often worked with the folk group, and was part of our lives and we of his as he dedicated that life in eternal service to God and his people. He taught us that such dedication was a possibility even for ourselves.
My parents again, who after a long time away from the Church, became members of St. John the Evangelist in New Brunswick, NJ, showing us that even if you had been away a long time, there was still a pathway back to faith.
Reverend José, pastor at St. John’s, who helped bring them back. He was a Franciscan, which explained why he wore sandals even in the snowy winter. He made sure that the Spanish-speaking people living around the church knew that it was their church home, too. He had a great heart full of love for all people of the world. When a huge earthquake killed thousands of people in Nicaragua, he celebrated a Mass for those who were suffering there, changing what was to be a festive day into a day of mourning in spite of how it incensed the Altar Guild. He taught us that we should be about love and not about punishment or even over-much about formality.
Dr. Bob, who, when I decided to return to the Church, advised me on what church might best suit me. One of the places he directed me to was the United Methodist Church, due to its long tradition of freedom of thought. It was the first one I tried and I felt so at home that I didn’t bother going anywhere else. He called himself a “recovering Evangelical”, and ran the “Heretics Anonymous” discussion group. By that time, he had become a Baptist and was intending to go to school for eventual ordination. He taught me that there was the possibility of finding peace at a new church.
Pastor Kay, who shook my hand at Allerton United Methodist Church when I unknowingly chose Palm Sunday as the day I decided to return to the church. Eventually, she told me about her vision of Jesus she had had while sitting with her sleeping father in his hospital room. He had appeared to literally step out of a strange shimmery area in one corner of the room. From this I learned that even someone who was not any sort of ascetic or mystic or hermit might have a face-to-face encounter with the living God.
Clifford, who occupied the bed next to mine in my hospital room last month. He taught me three things: firstly, he had seen me reading my Gideon Bible and got an idea that perhaps “someone” wanted him in the hospital until he should read the whole New Testament. He told me he had always prayed for guidance in the name of Jesus. He wasn’t a churchgoer, so he often had questions about what he read, so I kept reading ahead of him just in case he had a question I could answer. The first thing I learned was that by just reading a Bible, someone like me could be a witness for Christ;
secondly, he also made me realize just how much of the Bible I know, and how passionate I am about it;
finally, when I was feeling depressed, he tried to make sure that I understood just how many blessings I had had in my life. Now I can count them all the better. Thank you for all these things, my brother.
Janice, who on Thanksgiving day, brought slices of her homemade sweet potato pie and her faith to me and Clifford in our hospital room. When we were hungry she gave us to eat. She was also an excellent apologist, paging backward and forward through her Bible to give proofs of Christ as we understand him.
Abiba, who is a tech at the hospital, and loves Jesus more than anyone I know, confessing her Lord joyfully and unabashedly. Perhaps one reason is because the still, small voice literally saved her life in her homeland. She told me how one of the soldiers, from one side of the war or the other, stuck the business end of a rifle up against her chin. Then she told me that she heard a quiet voice say to her: “Grab the soldiers gun barrel…”, so she did. She struggled with the soldier and managed to keep that business end away from her long enough for the other side’s soldiers forced the vicious soldier to run away, leaving his rifle in her hands. From her, I learned about the importance of listening to that still, small voice. She had quite a few friends who got the “rifle-in-the-neck” treatment. She was the only survivor.
There is a song by Dan Fogelberg, containing the line “his gentle means of sculpting souls took me years to understand”. It made me think of Rev. Godlefski. He is a positively-directed Titan on my list of preparers of the way. I don’t think I will ever be able to recount all the things that he has taught me about our faith and about our Christ. He truly is a mensch.
Finally, that one person who shall remain nameless. Lately I think of a line from a song John Denver wrote, dedicated to his uncle, a person for whom “love was just the way to live and die”. This is the one person who taught me most that love is not an illusion.
It says in Philippians 4:8 that when we see things that are true, noble, right, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy, that we should think about these things. Today I’m thinking about you, my preparers of the way, and I want to thank you. For you and for all the others whom I did not write about, I pray God open the floodgates of blessings in your lives. Amen.
For those unfamiliar with the Yiddish language, the word means “person”, but is said about a person who is, as Leo Rosten defined in his classic book, “The Joys of Yiddish”:
“Someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being ‘a real mensch’ is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.”
Want to read more on how to be a mensch? Just click: