An article on Saturday's Religion page incorrectly identified the hospital where the Rev. M. Craig Barnes, pastor of National Presbyterian Church, was treated for cancer. It was George Washington University Hospital. (Published 11/22/99)
Nine days after being elected pastor of National Presbyterian Church, the Rev. M. Craig Barnes discovered a lump on his throat. The lump was cancer. The cancer was malignant. And the ambitious young minister faced a hurdle he'd never expected.
"When I accepted this call, I wanted to hit the ground running, and I was terrified the church [now] thought they had a lemon," Barnes recalled this week, apparently free of cancer after six years of treatment and surgery. "I was young. I was 37. And I was coming to a church filled with overachievers."
The church, called National Presbyterian since 1947, was founded more than 200 years ago in downtown Washington and moved in 1969 to its current location on Nebraska Avenue NW. Throughout its history, it has attracted a congregation that included many of the city's prominent lawyers, business executives, doctors and politicians.
With the exception of John F. Kennedy, every president since Herbert Hoover has attended a service at one of the church's locations. Dwight D. Eisenhower was a member during his presidency.
Today, the church roll of 2,400 includes several influential voices on Capitol Hill: Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Rep. George R. Nethercutt (R-Wash.) and former senators Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and John Glenn (D-Ohio) and their families.
Given the congregation's local and national status, Barnes said, it was natural to accept the pastorate believing he would be scrutinized by powerful men and women who would be asking, "What can this guy do?"
To win them over, Barnes said, he knew he would have to prove himself and earn their love by making himself "necessary." And that's when God stepped in--not by giving him cancer, because "God doesn't give anyone cancer"--but by helping the young pastor use the experience to learn abut gratitude and grace and pass that lesson on to his congregation.
Barnes explained what happened this way:
"The people in Washington, D.C.--and our church [is] no different--have as their favorite myth that if you only work hard enough, you can be whatever you want to be," said Barnes, who previously was pastor at a church in Madison, Wis. "The way the myth works, if you just knock yourself out, you can climb right up to the top. But you've really got to hustle to make that happen.
"So in comes the new pastor to this church, which is filled with hustlers--hard-working people who know how to make things happen. And I'm determined to be hard-working and show them they've made a good choice in calling me to be their pastor. And I show up without a thyroid."
His thyroid and most of the lymph nodes in his neck had to be surgically removed, and Barnes takes a synthetic hormone pill daily.
"Now, the thyroid is the gland that regulates your metabolism," Barnes explained. "Basically, it's your hard-work gland, one that allows you to hustle, to help you push to make things happen. And I don't have a hustling gland anymore. My ability to really work hard is really limited.
"If God wanted to bring in a prophetic voice to challenge this myth that you can be whatever you want if you work hard, what better kind of pastor to show up than one who is wounded, one who doesn't have an ability to kid himself that he can work hard to make his dreams come true?"
Barnes said his own redemption came through personal devotion and prayer, and by seeking the counsel of other ministers. "Pastors can pastor other pastors, but they can't really pastor themselves," he said.
What he learned was that nobody is essential. "God, frankly, doesn't need me here," he said. "I'm not necessary, and the sooner I could get that through my head, the sooner I could start to enjoy being pastor [at National Presbyterian]. . . . Only then could I think that the congregation loved me because they chose to, not because they needed me."
Barnes has no illusions that his prayers, or the prayers of his congregation, resulted in his recovery.
"I would love to say that it is because of our prayers that I was healed, but I know better," he wrote in the church bulletin last May after tests revealed no cancer. "Too many wonderful people for whom we also prayed died during these last six years."
One of those people who died, the one whose memory haunts him the most, was David Payne, the son of National Presbyterian's former executive pastor, the Rev. Clarence Payne.
David Payne, at 29, was diagnosed with colon cancer a month after Barnes learned his own cancer had spread. They had the same doctors and both spent time at Georgetown University Hospital.
Barnes improved, but Payne didn't. Two years later, the young pastor was leading funeral services for the young church member and experiencing "survivor's guilt."
"Even as I was doing the funeral, a voice in the back of my mind was screaming out, 'Why? Why? What is the meaning of this? Why are you here?' " Barnes said, trying to hold back tears. "It is one of the empty spots in my life when I don't have answers for a really important question, which is a troubling thing for a pastor."
He deals with the feeling by making David Payne's memory a "call to worship," a time to reflect on God's grace. He said he took that lesson from Payne's father, who gave one of the eulogies at his son's funeral. "It was an incredible thing to do," Barnes said. "In a real soft voice, without breaking up, Clarence said, 'I wanted to thank you all for loving my son.' "
Clarence Payne could have been bitter for the loss of a son, but instead he was thankful for the years he and his family had with him, Barnes said.
"Thanksgiving is a wonderful feeling," the pastor said. "I've noticed that you can't feel thankful and angry. Have you noticed that? You can't even feel thankful and stressed. . . . It's as if the thanksgiving fills up the heart and there's no room left in the heart for worry and anxiety."
Being thankful also means accepting God's grace, the gift of life, family, job, health, "even the breath in your lungs," Barnes said. "What a wonderful message for a bunch of Washingtonians. That life is not what you achieve. It is what God gives you."
CAPTION: The Rev. M. Craig Barnes, pastor of National Presbyterian Church, recently was declared free of the cancer that he has been battling for the past six years.