What Michael Stewart Meant to Me

Posted: April 19, 2013 by Todd in Ministry
When a student moves and comes to a new school for the first time, she is naturally filled with anxiety about how she’ll be received.  I think everyone who is new that enters a system where others are not, automatically senses that the voices of self doubt grow in proportion to the uncertainty of the situation.

That’s how I felt when I entered the wild world of Methodist clergy.  It seemed like an exclusive club – a fraternity which I was seeking to enter and my every move would noticed and fair game at some coming tribal council.  That tribal council could be the Board of Ordained Ministry, but more likely it would be the collective grapevine – the word out on the street amongst the preachers of the club about whether I could be counted amongst their ranks.

It seemed that all the other newcomers had pedigreed Methodist connections.  And initially, I knew only the pastors I worked for, who each in their own ways, seemed to be the best connected and pedigreed Methodists since John Wesley.  Making this all the more nerve wracking for me is that I don’t do too well on superficial get-to-know-you-for-the-first-time contacts.  I turn into an autistic automaton.  My people skills don’t activate until at least the first hour of cumulative contact with someone.

But through God’s prevenient Grace, Michael Stewart managed to initiate contact with my robotic self and log over an hour of human contact.  And through Michael being Michael and the workings of divine things, I was finally able to be myself with another Methodist clergy beyond the ones I worked for.  He freely dispensed pastoral wisdom, much of the variety that one wouldn’t share publicly in a RIM workshop.  He got to know me and my story and I got to know him.  We’d sit on the rockers outside the the Retreat Center at Sumatanga and talk.  Not of the deepest things in the world, but deep enough to get me beyond my automaton phase, and getting deeper.  Back in Huntsville, he’d initiate contact with me and take me to lunch, somehow managing to find creative ways to both pay for lunch and go to where I wanted to go.  That doesn’t seem fair.

I am a bit ashamed to admit that my newcomer’s self doubt and deep awareness of my automaton phase of getting to know people, kept me from a full appreciation of Michael’s brilliance and sainthood.  Michael was always generous in sharing pastoral advice, wisdom, and stories.  And truly, everything he said was thoughtful and worthwhile.  But, being an eager beaver and sometimes afraid of the deeper intimacy that I know I’m capable of, towards the end of our lunches, I would try to find an exit strategy.  A tricky thing to do with someone who’s doing all the giving.  I got to thinking that he was sort of long winded.  And combined with my insecurity about myself, I thought, perhaps he needed to eat lunch with me as much as I needed to eat lunch with him.  Why else would he invite me?  I’m at the very bottom of the Methodist chain of being.  He never seemed as needy as some of those seniors who are starved of human contact and just seem to go on and on saying uninteresting things and for which you know that your listening presence is a breath of fresh air.  I told myself, Michael was a little in that direction.  I still truly valued our relationship and thought of Michael as a mentor and seasoned pastor, but thought that I had a taste of his shadow as well.  I didn’t bother me – I sort of thought of it as an opportunity to learn from him and make an ally.  Moreover, I wanted to keep borrowing from his vast collection of Richard Rohr audio programs.

It wasn’t until I heard that he was in the hospital and not expected to live that I thought what I limited story I had told myself about Michael and our relationship.  Even if there were nuggets of truth reflected in my perspective, that perspective was pretty poisonous.  Perhaps there was something in Michael that needed to eat lunch with me.  I had heard from others that he liked make lunch appointments and he had often recommended the book, Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at at Time, to me.  If he did have a neediness within that his lunch invitations were addressing – why didn’t I see more clearly the beauty of someone doing something to meet their own needs and build relationships at the same time?  Perhaps there were stories and wisdom within him that were welling up and that his spirit needed to be heard.  I had a neediness to make some connections and have someone know me below my automaton surface, where I’m more “me.”  A strange combination of arrogance and insecurity kept me from seeing the full beauty of a seasoned pastor with an urge to share some things connecting with an outsider who has trouble being authentic with other homo sapiens upon initial contact.  And so this man with a true pastor’s heart continued to speak from the depth of his experience and I needing to reach deep places with new people found one another.  Tragically, I can see now that there was an urgency to his storytelling.  And I’m glad he felt it and I’m glad he didn’t let any negative voices from within keep him from sharing.  Michael was a pastor being his true self – broken and all, helping me to crack the outer shell of my false self.  And because of Michael, I’m now a little more able to live into who I know God has created me to be.

Because Michael is someone who eats so many lunches and tells so many stories, I know that I’m not the only one.  I know that because Michael was so faithfully Michael that others are now more themselves.  Rest in peace, Michael.  You have been a living witness to the resurrection.

Here’s a link to the clergy death notice for Michael Stewart: http://www.northalabamaumc.org/obituaries/detail/240
  1. Such a touching story, Todd.

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