Old Preacher Dudes I have known – Doxology

Upsetting as it might seem to some, I come from a Christian tradition known for ornery-ness. There. I said it. Let the arrows fly.

Required caveat: No, not every preacher or church or member was ornery.

But the tradition as a whole earns a deserved reputation for “talking in the objective mood and walking in the kick-a-tive case.” (Thought I’d throw in a little Greek.) I’ve seen chairs thrown at congregational meetings; one elder pin another elder up against a wall, forearm to the neck, threatening bodily harm; congregations almost split over using a pitch pipe, rather than a tuning fork, because the pitch pipe was a musical instrument and we’re an acapella church; tears shed when the change was made from glass to plastic communion cups, surely an indication of decadence.

I could make a long list of our spectacular peculiarities upon which souls certainly hinged. But what would be the point? When you get sucked into a conversation with a conspiracy theorist you begin to realize reason and proof are processed differently. Like you’re saying, “See Spot run,” and they’re hearing “God is dead.” Hard to find common ground unless you know the code. After a while you just have to laugh and move on.

I did laugh. They did move me on. Yep.

One of ‘em told me, “You’re not really a part of us. You don’t really like us.” Untrue. I was a part of “us”, probably more so than most. I’d invested no small amount of time learning “our” history and culture. I did like “us.” I just didn’t like him. But that’s another story.

I knew an Old Preacher Dude from my tradition. A most godly, gentle, Spirit-filled man. He was a “legacy.” He came from a well known southern family rooted in our denomination. Could trace his pedigree back to first century Christians in Antioch. Okay. That may be stretching it a little. A little. But he could claim connection to first century Christians in Nashville and Abilene.

Close enough.

He made the startling choice in his wandering youth to journey to a far-away land, learn the native culture, embrace the difficult language, confront the indigenous religions. He moved to Boston.

He went to school. He was exposed to “THE-O-LO-GI-CAL” training. Also was confronted with the reality that, perhaps, his tradition equipped him to answer questions no one was asking. He threw himself into the process. He believed God was/is magnificently large beyond comprehension, Christ was/is the source of real life, and the Holy Spirit will not be contained in a book or a system.

Along the way he ministered to periphery people and to those of other races. He came to see God had given him a mind with which to think and a heart desiring rich worship. Also – along the waybecause of his intellect, because of his ministry, because of his approach to worship he became persona-non-grata!

By that I mean, for decades the informal power-brokers of our tradition cast this wonderful man as a pariah. An odd ball. A nut. A radical. Support for his ministry stopped. He was marginalized, for a time, to the point of “Just go away.”

He did not go away. He stayed put. He stayed within our tradition. He grew. He pastored what can only be called an “incubating” church. He supported himself. He threw open the doors. His little church became a weigh station for many who, like himself, had agile minds and broad hearts.

I came to know him after most of his battles had been fought. During this phase his patient cultivation was reaping rich harvests. Many who had joined him during the years of their education went back home dramatically changed. Many found posts in academia. Some of them landed in universities affiliated with our denomination. Some found ways to serve God in global endeavors, connecting at the highest levels. All of them owed a great debt to a great mentor.

I have one dominant image of this lovely man.

For the preachers in our denomination he hosted a monthly meeting in the basement of his church. Each month one of us was assigned to lead the group in a book review. We would spend time sharing church news and, on occasion, church struggles. We would read scripture out loud with each other. We would pray. We would laugh. I loved it. I needed it.

The meeting ended the same way each month. This Old Preacher Dude would rise from his chair, extending his arms to beckon us into a circle. Then he would lead,

“Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!
Praise Him all creatures here below!
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host!
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost!
Amen.”

Though God has greatly blessed my life in so many ways, after all these years (20 +), no gathering of pastoral brothers has ever meant as much to me. But because of this man, I know such fellowship is possible.

 

 

Old preacher dudes I have known

I have known weird preachers. This is not about them. What’s weird to me? Drinking (not gargling: drinking AND swallowing!) a full hot glass, half water/half vinegar, every morning. Why? He said it was ‘medicinal’.

Then there’s the man I met in a church office. Just met him in my office. An old retired preacher. After shaking hands and exchanging names, without so much as, “Nice weather today,” he says to me: “There’s two kinds of men in the world. Them that has prostate trouble and them’s that gonn’a get it.” I didn’t know what to say. Still don’t.

These posts are not about of such preachers. Certainly not about moral failures. No salacious details. No epics of incompetency. Just old preacher dudes I have known. Every item is true. No names are given. Details are scrubbed so that identities are kept obscure. Some of these preacher dudes are still active and, God bless ‘em, ought be left alone to live out God’s claim upon their lives.

Knew a man who knew who he was. Wry smile. Deliberate. This man served God among a sparse population in a rural state. As in, the small church building was the only structure along a road bisecting two large farms. As in, fields as far as the eye could see, broken only by stands of trees planted for soil conservation. As in, attending this preacher dude’s church meant 50 mile round trips.

But this old preacher dude thrived. Built up a consistent, thoughtful and energetic membership. Engaged in the full spectrum: local ministry to the poor (lot of poor people spread out in the county); vibrant children’s ministry; connection with other churches far-flung across the region; mission trips overseas; helpful presence with the local school.

I remember his office. The church building was way cold in the winters. Only ceiling fans in the summer. So this old preacher dude bought and parked a small trailer under a tree on the gravel behind the church building. Saved money for the church and kept comfortable year round. No, it wasn’t his home. It was his office, renovated with bookshelves. Sustained by one designated water hose, one phone line, one electric line and a butane tank. Could’a been the Library of Congress.

From his little trailer office this old preacher dude kept in touch with everybody. Depending on the season there were weeks he would see nary a church soul Sunday to Sunday. Other times of the year he’d put hundreds and hundreds of miles on his pick-up, just being with people.

Think about what I just told you. Think of the hours of alone time, by himself either in the office or on the road. Think of the personal discipline required. How would you stay fresh? How would you challenge yourself to dream? What would motivate you to insert yourself into people’s lives and continue to stay inserted? What of God would you bring them; to their vegetable cannings; when hogs were cut; when hay was baled; when calving sapped their strength; when children went away to college and frail grandmothers never did quite come back from knee surgery?

This old preacher dude knew who he was. Didn’t talk down to them. Saw Friday night football and district basketball games as unique opportunities for connection. Knew when to back off at harvest and throttle up after planting. He connected them to a world beyond their mail boxes and to God’s purposes larger than the weather or keeping up with changes in machinery depreciation.

He knew who he was. Nobody beyond three counties knew who he was but he didn’t much care. Week in, week out. From mornings when fresh tilled earth, heavy scented in the air, little green buds becoming pin stripes on the dark soil, to blue-grey early dusks, snow drifts piling up at snow fences off from the road, brown-black stalks stubbling up from wind-blown whiteness: old preacher dude was fully engaged. He kept his own spiritual tank filled. He was always ready … and yet … none of his people had a real clue how much it took for him to maintain “always ready.”

Would have been easy for him to be less than he was. Who would have known? Show up when expected. Play the parson and eat the chicken dinners. Offer up saltine crackers instead of thoughtful sermons. Pander to prejudices and NEVER color out of the lines. He could have been that way. Nap away the last fifteen years of his life. But he didn’t. Who would have known? He would have known. God would have known.

Last I heard old preacher dude had passed away. He left a gaping hole in their lives, near 30 years in the making. As far as I know he never spoke at a conference, never published a book, never gained any kind of media attention. Never attained prominence as a pulpiteer. Never moved on. From what I remember such vanity held no allure for him. He was the definition of ‘solid.’ In his sermons, his teachings, his pastoral care, his service, his temperament and judgment, his devotions: SOLID. God placed him among those people. He loved them and stayed with them.

He was a shepherd. He was faithful.

I believe he died over 20 years ago. I was 23 when I met him.

Never forgot him. Never will.

Christian Proclamation? Anyone? #5

This series of posts reflects on evangelism and preaching the gospel, comparing the days of George Whitefield (mid 1700’s) to today.

On February 4 I suggested not much that is important has truly changed between the days of Whitefield and my own. Today I’ll suggest that something HAS changed.

 

Something has changed. I feel it in my bones, like feeling certainly the temperature has changed or rain is bound to fall. What is it I feel? This: preachers MUST regain their own trust in the message of the gospel to cause salvation for sinners. We – I count myself among the preachers – must remember what Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. … For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

Preachers, I believe, have grown fearful about their significance. Perhaps we are more attuned to the research telling us how pitifully weak a preacher is in the modern world, how insignificant his impact. Perhaps we fear a culture slouching towards Gomorrah and smell brimstone in the air. Joel Looper addresses the effects of this fear in his piece for Leadership Journal, “Fear From the Pulpit.”

Young people can smell this fear as soon they step into the sanctuary on Sunday morning, especially if it’s coming from the pulpit. They’re disgusted by it and frankly, they should be. They intuitively know that a life lived in fear is far from the abundant, Spirit-led life promised to those who become disciples of Jesus. If we are living in fear, we send a message that we don’t feel secure in the love of the all-powerful God we worship. If congregants panic at the demise of D.O.M.A., is it likely that they could stand faithful in the midst of actual persecution? If pastors are crippled by anxiety when giving declines, how can they expect to respond faithfully if God calls them to voluntary poverty? Young people notice this lack of trust in God. The proof is there for them to see and hear every Sunday morning.

We publicly call people to Christ as Lord and Savior. Do we trust Christ ourselves? Do we believe His promises and tremble at His judgments? We say, in one form or another, “Hear the word of the Lord.” Do we listen? Do we alter, cut and paste to protect our retirement? We warn against the sadness of a life without purpose. Yes, “sad.” Do we warn against hell, a real hell, not just an extended psychological hiccup? We extol the virtue of a productive life, full of fulfilling service and impacting successes. Yes, “good.” Do we hold out the hope of heaven, of seeing God, of His wiping every tear, of ultimate holy justice established, of eternal glory?

Do we believe what we’re asking others to believe? OR do we ask them to believe a lesser, scaled down-version of what we once might have thought we believed? But we let go all that because, well, we needed to be current and validate our place in a changing culture.

I contend such introspective gymnastics are not profitable. We either believe and thus we preach OR we do not believe and had better shut up lest we be exposed a fraud. People will forgive the bold word. They’ll condemn the fraud. And God … Holy God … already knows under which flag we march. There is room for only one fear in preaching, eclipsing all other pretending fears. It is the reverential fear of knowing we stand before God and our ultimate accounts are given over to Him. Jesus closed His Sermon with the word picture of people standing before Him in judgment. “But we preached in your name and did mighty works in your name.” Notice Jesus does not correct their remembrance. He simply, finally, says: “I never knew you. Depart.”

We are not called to convert people. We do not save sinners. We tell the story. We proclaim the gospel. Oh yes, we beg and plead and call and summon and exhort and explain and reason. We weep real tears and burn with desire for the lost souls of men and women. Yes! Yes! Yes! That IS what we do. Let us do it with passion and fidelity.

God works conversion. God saves sinners.

Trust the gospel.

Believe it.