I became a minister in a world where the successful pastor was captain of the ship (congregation,) a dignitary in the community, the local expert in godly knowledge, and a minor celebrity on a pedestal. Those were the good old days.
Also back then, churches were pillars of the community. Folks would bring their children to the church in order to "expose them to morals." Ah yes, we used to be incubators of moral behavior. And we used to "save souls," meaning that nearly every church boasted some program for snaring and commandeering the unreligious. Churches with less self-respect would go after anybody in town. Churches
self-respect would delegate such soul saving to the youth program...or summer camps for children. And then there were
the church buildings: fortresses, designed to safeguard the saved from the damned.
That was the church that
was, the church I had committed my life to serving.
But I was born too late to be an old-fashioned pastor in the old-timey church. Like an earthquake that registers a 10.0 on the Richter scale, cultural changes would demolish most of the wonderful churches of the 50s and 60s. Unlike an earthquake, it would all be in slow motion and take decades before the collapses would run their course. No pastor would survive in this new world unless he or she was reformed, born again, and regularly upgraded.
I did know I would have to change towns from time to time. After all, I'm a Methodist pastor, and our bishops regularly move us from church to church. But the bishop can only move pastors from place to place. The times themselves were moving the whole church from world to world, eon to eon.
In the old world, a smart and smooth-talking young man was sure to be successful in church work, especially if he was driven by unseen reservoirs of righteousness and ambition. But if I modeled my life on the pastoral giants of the 1950's church, I would become a joke.
Who would save me from becoming a fantastic 1950s pastor when I would need to serve in the 1970s...and five decades beyond? How was I going to learn to be a different kind of pastor for the remnant that would call itself "the church?"
I would need to jettison my sense of pastoral (captain) entitlement, out-grow my ethnocentrism, find new role models beyond the church, master technologies I disdained, rethink the church's mission, and relearn God. In other words, I would have to become a whole new person...be born again, if you will. And since one cannot be reborn by one's own efforts, I would need to be saved from my old self by an act of God, working through the persons who would enter and exit my life.
There was Bob Graves He was a teenager living at home when he decided one day to steal off with his girlfriend (Erma) and get married. They drove across the state line (where the legal age for marriage was lower) and then, instead of a honeymoon, simply returned: he to his house and she to hers. They didn't tell their parents for several months.
As time went on, after they
did tell their parents,
Bob soldiered off to World War II in Europe. Then he returned and Erma had a couple of babies. Bob went to work everyday in a factory and the whole family went to the Methodist Church in Madison, Illinois.
When I was 19, and still single, I became their pastor. They were grandparents by then.
I happened to stop by their house one day when their grandkids were visiting. Bob had just returned from working his shift, and I could tell he was dead tired. But one of the grandkids hooted for him to join a game they were playing. If I were Bob at that moment, I would have given the child some excuse...anything so I could keep my tired bones on the couch. But Bob energetically jumped up and did exactly what the kid wanted. I had never before noticed someone become so animated and energized by the need or request of another
How could I offer others such authentic and happy self-sacrifice?
A few months later, I got the stomach flu...bad. It was about 10 p.m., I was living all alone in the church's large parsonage, and I didn't know what to do. So, I called Bob and Erma for advice. They came over right away. After seeing that I was seriously dehydrated, they hauled me to the emergency room to get a shot. Then, instead of dropping me back off at the parsonage (by this time it was about 2 a.m.) they insisted I spend the night in their home, a small place that only had one bedroom. They sent me to their bed and opened up the rickety sleeper-couch for themselves...for two nights!
Until I met Bob, I could never quite control my own self-centered impulses. In him, however, I was able to see how one went about doing that. And I contracted a lifelong ambition to be like him. If a person could wrench free from the demands of his or her own likes or dislikes, such a person could become incredibly agile...an asset in many situations. I wanted to be generous and kind like Bob. And in watching him, I also discovered the by-products of patience and even-temperament.
Of course, sometimes people walked all over Bob. It wouldn't do for him to be my only mentor. If all I wanted to be was a grandfather, it would be fine. But to be a leader for a church in crisis, I would need to supplement his style with someone who was tougher.
David Lawson's father was a road dick (or railroad bull.) This is the private detective hired by the railroads to find and throw hobos off the trains. David would note how his dad had a personality tough and brutal enough to do that job. And David used to say that he was a lot like his father.
David also happened to be my bishop for four years. He was a man who seemed to never let pain stand in the way of what he thought needed doing: neither his pain nor the pain of others. Bishop David Lawson had high standards for both his churches and his clergy, and he wasn't queasy about throwing someone "off the train" if he thought it meant protecting the church.
I was in my early 40s at the time and decided to try and defend one of the pastors I thought he had treated unfairly. So, I instigated an internal (church) judicial procedure to try and get his decision reversed. Of course, I lost the case. And I didn't just lose: the bishop crushed me! I never stood a chance. And to add injury to insult, I also ended up with several enemies in the church hierarchy.
But Bishop Lawson never saw me as an enemy. After he had pummeled me, he treated me with respect and reached out a hand to help me get up again. I guess he liked it when he saw some spunk in another person.
I may not have appreciated his toughness when I went up against him, but I certainly did when he applied his courage to others. When J. Alfred Ndoricimpa, United Methodist bishop of Rwanda and Burundi, needed to travel home from a visit to the U.S. and straight into the genocidal war raging between the Tutsi and Hutu peoples. This was the late 90s, we were all concerned that he would be assassinated when he landed in his homeland. Many religious leaders in that part of the world lost their lives in those days. So, to increase his colleague's chances for survival, David Lawson offered to accompany him back to Africa and through the fighting zones. The hope was that rebels would be less likely to assassinate Ndoricimpa if he was accompanied by an American dignitary. But it wasn't a sure thing.
David Lawson had something I needed to nurture: courage to keep moving under threat of pain. In biblical times, the protege Elisha asked God for a double portion of his mentor's (Elijah) strength. I've never wanted to have the same courage and toughness of David Lawson, much less a double portion of it! But maybe half would be valuable to have. I'm still more of a chicken than I should be, but I have occasionally been known to rise up and be a goose from time to time, when I've had to be...thanks to David Lawson.
Okay: there are two stories to get us started. I have more to tell.
It took lots of people save me from myself, people who would inspire, appall, nudge, offend, heal, hurt, teach, fight, include, or reject me. I'll keep telling the stories the next couple weeks, stories of people who have been my roadmaps, people who's echoed voices keep coaching me through changing times. Until next week... --Mike