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.
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 way – because 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!
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.