The United Methodist church tossed me the "pastor's mantel" when I was only 18, a freshman in college. It is an ill-fitting garb for
any mortal, but approaches the ludicrous when draped upon a teenager. Unlike normal attire, a vocational mantel can be scarcely modified to suit its wearer. The alteration must take place in the personality and mind of the one who presumes to wear it.
Such adjustments of one's self are
not do-it-yourself ventures. The self-made pastor will soon flunk out...or eventually become a pest to the society. Only those pastors who are tempered and pruned and distilled
by others are of any use in the long run. So, in this anniversary month of my being a pastor (45 years) I am reflecting on the people who have modified, mitigated, and meliorated me over time. Here are the stories of some of them:
Paul Fox was a choir director in one of my early churches. After he had worked years in a government job, he and his artist wife had high ambitions for their retirement. They built their retirement home on the side of Loudoun Mountain, rising above the Shenandoah River. It featured an art studio for her and a place for him to write poetry and enjoy his music. Their kids lived far away. Thus, they brought all their high expectations to the little church they had just joined...and to their new young pastor...me.
At first, Paul showered me with affirmation and encouragement. He supported and participated in all the projects I wanted to try. But the more he invested in me, the more he grew frustrated with my shortcomings. In particular, he thought I had too many rough edges in my preaching and leadership style. And in that he was right. I have always had a bit of a brash and pompous streak in me, an unpleasantness that frequently seeped into my youthful sermons. And Paul could never figure out how to mellow me.
So, in less than two years, he stopped speaking to me, and then he grew more and more hostile. It was the first time in my life I had ever had to fend off such intense hatred. I ached. His hardheartedness made no rational sense. It was preposterously disproportionate to anything I could have said or done. In the years since, I've had half a dozen night-time dreams: in which Paul and I would suddenly find ourselves trying to solve some problem together, and we would stumble into reconciliation. But then I'd awake from the dream and find that only my buried hurt was real.
Paul would be the first of a couple dozen people...usually older: high on me at first...but then changing their minds...eventually deciding that I was the worst pastor (or person) they'd ever met. The pattern was always the same: we would go from being confidants to them suddenly not speaking to me. And because none of them ever articulated their thought processes, I was left to figure out on my own what was my fault and what was theirs. I have never been able to scrub the grief from those relationships out of my soul. The voices of condemnation and animosity never quite stop accusing, even decades later.
I'll still linger with Paul's verdicts and occasionally sift them to extract the fragments that give life or wisdom. But then I must let the rest go, again. Easier said than done.
I wish the "old" me could have a conversation with the "old" Paul. If he could see how I have spent decades taking him seriously (albeit with a grain of salt), maybe he would not be so disappointed. But for the sake of full disclosure, I would also have to let him know how much he taught me
not to act around younger people who have challenged
my sensibilities. (I still have that brash and pompous streak, thank God.)
Not all old people felt angst about my pastoral efforts. Ruth Koertge was in my first church (and happened to be the grandmother of my college girlfriend.) And she thought I was the greatest young pastor she'd ever known, so much so that she repeatedly told me that I would be just like Billy Graham someday. I didn't dare tell her that I didn't
want to be like Billy Graham, but since she continued to admire me long after her granddaughter dumped me, I never confessed that little bit of rebellion to her.
Ruth was one of these legendary women who believed in taking care of her pastors, which meant: she took her turn inviting the incumbent pastor over to her kitchen for Sunday sacraments: fried chicken and apple pie. Ruth felt so bad when her granddaughter ditched me that she would still invite me over...then fry up an
extra chicken to send home with me.
But Ruth didn't overly worry about whether her granddaughter and I were an item. She was more focused on how I was going to survive the church, since every church she'd ever been in had featured its troublemakers and stinkers. She was worried about my naiveté. Her repeated warnings went something like this: "The devil doesn't molest the average pastor, he goes after the ones who are about to make the world a better place." She assured me that the devil had drawn a target on my back. "You are going to have hard times ahead. I'll pray for you every day that I live." And I suspect she nearly did.
Her voice still affects me. Every time I screw up, say something hurtful, break rules that should be kept, fall down after a gut punch in the rough and tumble of church politics, lick my wounds after being mistreated, make a bad decision, or wallow in sadness, I keep coming around and take
on the devil to heart. If there is a devil, (and you'll not convince me otherwise,) then it is all the more important for me to NOT sit around feeling sorry for myself. There's a world to be changed by the love of God, and I must...must...must...get back in the game, and trust that the prayers of a saint still linger to bless me.
Next week: more characters. --Mike