Thursday, October 14, 2010

To All the Pastors I've Loved Before

One of my favorite stories is about Jesus walking along one day when he came upon a man crying and he said, “My friend, what’s wrong?” The man replied, “I’m blind, can you help me?” Jesus healed the man and he went on his way.

Jesus continued along and came upon another man sitting and crying. “Good friend, what’s wrong?” The man answered, “I’m lame and can’t walk, can you help me?” Jesus healed the man and they both went down the road.

As Jesus continued on he came upon a third man crying. Jesus said, “Good friend, what’s wrong?” He answered, “I’m a minister.” And Jesus sat down and wept with him.

You may or may not be aware of this, but October is National Pastor Appreciation Month. I guess somebody decided that if mothers and fathers and grandparents each get a day each year to be appreciated, pastors ought to get a month. Not sure I grasp the logic, but many church people do seem to buy into it and shower their pastors with cards and notes and even a gift or two. It’s nice.

Here’s my problem with it, however: I don’t have a pastor to appreciate. I am a pastor. Oh, I certainly can and do appreciate our staff pastors who coordinate and oversee various ministries within the church. But none of them are my pastor. I feel quite like the atheist who in a weak moment feels overcome with gratitude for the blessings and good fortune of his life and yet has no one to thank for them. What can I do for Pastor Appreciation Month?

How about this? I can use this forum to express appreciation for all the pastors I have had in my life. In God’s providence he has put pastors in my path that have had various levels of influence on my life. Even a bad detective could find the fingerprints of every one of them on my 30 year body of work as a pastor. So here’s to the all the pastors I’ve loved before.

I don’t even remember the name of my first pastor. That church is no longer in existence and both my parents are dead, so I don’t know how I would find his name even if I wanted to. But he was pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was just a little kid when we attended that church. I do remember that he had black hair, a five o’clock shadow, and was not an exceptionally big fellow. I remember the black robe he wore in worship. And I remember he didn’t seem to mind that on my way from Sunday School to the sanctuary I would stop at the church library and check out a Dr. Seuss or some such book to help me get through big church with minimal wiggling and fidgeting. (And I always was a wiggler and fidgeter—still am.) I remember he noticed me at the door and shook my hand too as we were leaving the church. I don't think I was just a face to him; I think he considered me part of his flock too.

I don’t remember the name of my next pastor either. I was in third grade and we were members of the Presbyterian Church in Ozark, Arkansas. It was a small church. I don’t remember much about the pastor or his family except this: when my mother fell out in church and was hospitalized for a couple of weeks, my brothers and I spent a lot of that time in our pastor’s home. It seems like it was most every day after school. If pastors are supposed to be hospitable, this pastor and family fit the bill.

My next pastor was at the Presbyterian Church in Branson, Missouri. His name was Byron Price. He was a God-send to our family. My mom left my dad and took us boys to Branson to live with our grandmother. Pastor Price came alongside and really ministered to our mother and to us. Her new disability kept her from driving, and there were multiple occasions when Pastor Price and his wife drove my mother to Springfield to see her psychologist. Pastor Price was from Texas and he gave me a homemade slingshot with the state of Texas carved into its handle. It was a pretty cool gift for fifth-grade boy. I really liked the Price family—had a secret crush on his daughter Mary Beth who was my age. And I remember being very sad when the Lord called them to a different place.

The pastor who followed Byron Price at our church was Sammy Shrum. He and his wife had a couple of kids younger than I was. I remember him taking my younger brother and I out with him and his son to look at land. I remember playing cowboys with him around the big rocks on the land he was checking out. He was a good speaker according to everyone’s report, though all I remember of his sermons through my teenage years was his use of the phrase: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Honestly, I mostly passed the time in worship up in the balcony avoiding the stare of my mother from the choir and filling in the o’s and p’s and d’s and b’s and q’s in the Sunday bulletin. (Rarely were there any q's, but if they were there, I filled them in too.) I also played a lot of hangman and the dot game to pass the time. Another thing that stands out about Pastor Shrum was his kindness to me when I made a big goof in church. At an end of worship business meeting, when, for some reason, the youth were sitting at the front, the vote came up on the pastor’s annual salary raise. “All in favor, say aye.” I said, “Aye.” "All opposed, no." And horror of horrors, I said, “No”—the only voice in the sanctuary to do so. Honestly, I wasn’t paying attention and was just following orders: "Say aye; say no." My mother and grandmother were mortified and sunk down in their seats in the choir. My youth leader thumped me on the head. And Pastor Shrum smiled a great big smile, looked right at me and said, “I think we’ve had a little slip of the tongue up here.” And that was that. My youth leaders never let me forget it, but Pastor Shrum never said another word. It was like he understood.

My next pastor was a Baptist. I made the move to First Baptist Church in Branson at the end of my senior year in high school. (No, I wasn’t run out of the Presbyterian Church for accidentally voting no.) I made a conscious choice to become a Baptist. That pastor’s name was Gary Fenton. Gary took a real interest in me. He baptized me. He encouraged me. He helped me process my call to ministry. He gave me the opportunity to preach my first sermon and created a position of Summer Campground Minister on the church staff so I could work for the church in the summer after my freshman year in college, preaching in local campgrounds and assisting the staff in the day to day duties of ministry. What a learning opportunity! Gary talked ministry and even commentaries with me. A couple of years later, when Gary had left Branson, he invited me to preach a weekend youth revival at the next church he pastored in Windsor, Missouri. Gary came back to Branson to preach my ordination sermon a bit later as well. When she was a teenager, my wife Dayna babysat his children, so I felt close to Gary. I remember him looking in on my wife and I when we first moved to seminary. Things that stand out to me about Gary is that he is a very good preacher; he is very good with people; and he is a very hard worker. I learned a lot about ministry and preaching and people-skills from Gary. Even though he was only my pastor for year or so, he has had profound influence on me. We still stay in touch. I still learn from him.

The pastor that followed Gary to Branson was a man named Gilbert Spencer. I worked two summers at the Branson church with Gilbert. He also took an interest in me and helped me grow in my ministry. Gilbert wore these crazy-loud sports jackets he got from his father-in-law, a missionary from Singapore. Didn’t care for the jackets, but I sure enjoyed his preaching. It was so full of passion, so straight-forward. I don’t remember hearing a sermon that left me bored or or semi-conscious. He was able to engage me every time. And even if the content wasn’t all that good, his passion was magnetic. You knew he believed to the depths of his core what he was preaching. Gilbert also gave me opportunities to preach at Branson and at the next church he served in Nixa, Missouri. He was a blessing to me on many levels. He was the pastor who tied the knot for Dayna and me.

My college pastors were also an influence on me. My college church was the First Baptist Church of Fayetteville, Arkansas. My first pastor there was Paige Patterson. Paige took a real interest in college students who were going into ministry. He spent time with us. He gave us a list to build a good minister’s library. He gave us copies of a couple of commentaries he wrote. He was dynamic and very sure of himself. I don’t think he was as good a preacher as Gary or Gil, but he was dynamic and used a lot of big words. These days, he’s much too dogmatic for my taste, but for a college freshman, new to a serious faith and new to ministry and theology, I needed a person like him who spoke with such certainty on issues. God used him in my life.

And God used the pastor that followed him too: Nathan Larry Baker. Dr. Baker took me under his wing early on his ministry at Fayetteville. He gave me a little $50 a week job sorting out his files and visiting new residents in the community to invite them to church. When our Youth and University Pastor left to further his education, Dr. Baker gave me that job—my first regular staff position in a church. He was patient with me, coached me, helped me on many levels. I learned a lot from Dr. Baker. He left FBC, Fayetteville, to go teach at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. I had planned to go to Fort Worth, Texas to seminary, but changed my mind and followed Dr. Baker to KC. Even there, he gave me opportunities. I was his grader. I got to spend some time with his family in their home. He helped me get my first ministry job as a seminary student too. I owed a lot to Dr. Baker. Dayna and I were so grateful for the way he helped me get started in ministry, that we named our son Nathan after him. We still stay in touch as well.

The last pastor I had was Bob Meade at First Baptist Church of Lee’s Summit, Missouri. In the summer of ’79 I was hired to be a summer youth minister there. That became a permanent Associate Pastor job when summer was over. Youth ministry was my primary focus but I got to do a lot of hospital work and preach for him occasionally too. He was not a very popular pastor in the church. Folks complained about him a good bit—some didn’t like his preaching, others didn’t like the way he ran things or the way he handled his schedule. Others complained that he played favorites with certain members of the congregation. And eventually, the church basically forced him to resign. That was a painful time for all of us—my first experience with how mean churches and Christians can be. Bob told the other staff member and me that we should resign along with him. We loved him, but we didn’t feel God leading us to do that. I think he understood. But he sure turned bitter over that whole episode. I learned a lot from that experience about church and about ministry. And I got the opportunity to preach every Sunday morning for almost a year during that interim period until I was called to my first pastorate. But here’s what I like to remember most about Bob. He knew I didn’t have much money. He knew I didn’t have a winter coat. He took me to the mall one day and bought me one. He did the same thing on another occasion to get me a sports coat. He was always kind and generous to me. He was always supportive of me. He believed in me. Bob died about five or six years later from a nasty stomach cancer—I think in part from the bitterness over the way things ended at Lee’s Summit. He deserved better.

So there you have it: my tribute to all the pastors I’ve loved before. I know this is long and probably not a very interesting read for most of you. But I guess I didn’t really write this for you; I wrote it for me—as a way to say thanks to God and to these faithful men who were my pastors along the way. I don’t have any gifts to give them. I won’t be sending any cards. But here’s my hope: that if by providence they know something of my ministry across the years, they can take great pleasure in knowing that any fruit I’ve born for the kingdom of God has been greatly influenced by the seeds of love, teaching, encouragement, and example that they sowed into my life. Thank you, pastors. My life and ministry is better on earth because of your life and ministry. And if I gain any rewards on the other side, you each share in those too. “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).

Friday, October 8, 2010

Happy Anniversary, Baby, Got You on My Mind

Thirty-three years ago today, Dayna and I stood before God and a congregation of family and friends and said, "I do." I don't remember a whole lot about the ceremony. I was nervous and rather out of my element. But it was one of the best decisions I've made in my life.

It began one summer Sunday evening in 1972. I was working at Ken's Pizza in Branson, Missouri, when about three or four families came into Ken's around 8:30 or so. Dayna was the teenage daughter of one of those families. I learned it was their ritual: go to Sunday evening church; head to Ken's Pizza afterwards. Even though we lived in a small town, even though Dayna and my little brother were in the same grade, I had never seen her before (or at least I had never noticed her before). But when I saw her, she took my breath away: blonde flowing locks, cute face, pretty smile. Even though it's been 38 years, I can still see her walking outside of Ken's in front of the window after she had eaten and was killing time waiting for her parents to quit visiting and take her home. I think she was walking so I would see her. I felt something for this girl I didn't know. Though no words were exchanged, I think she felt something for me too.

In time, I found out all about her: she would be a freshman when school started, she was a good girl, a Baptist church-going girl from a Baptist church-going family. And I heard her parents were pretty strict: they wouldn't even let her go to a dance. I also heard she was pretty shy. No problem there: so was I—around girls anyway. I would be a junior in high school that September and had never been on an official date.

I finally got up the nerve to talk with her at Ken's. I called her a time or two. But there would be no dating, said her parents, until she was sixteen. Bummer. But we found some other ways to be together in groups. And then I stumbled upon a way to see her that her parents couldn't object to: I started visiting her church. I can honestly say that those visits were more about teenage hormones than Jesus, but I think Jesus was okay with that.

And what do you know? Her parents soon relented and let her date me before she turned 16. Those were good times. We went to movies. We went to the Dairy Queen, ate a little, and listened to music from the juke box. We eventually did a little parking out by the lake (but did nothing out of bounds in the process). I was taken with her—my first real girlfriend. I would sometimes drive by her house in hopes of catching a glimpse of her in the window. Later I gave her my class ring when we officially decided to "go steady." It was nice.

But it didn't last. For the next three years or so we were off again, on again. She knew how to break my heart. One of my friends even called her "ruthless." She wasn't really, but you know how teenagers have a penchant for making melodrama out of everything. To make matters more difficult, I had started attending her church faithfully, got serious about my relationship with God, and began to go there for Jesus instead of Dayna. But I saw her there every time, and that always hurt a little. I dated another girl for a while. Dayna had interest in another guy for awhile too. Teenage stuff, you know.

But after I headed to college and was gone for a year, I guess we realized that we really did love one another and wanted to have a future together. We wrote a lot of letters back and forth. I wrote her some poems and played my guitar and sang love songs for her. Before long, we started talking marriage. And that's where it all gets a little weird. I never officially proposed. I was too afraid to ask her dad for her hand, and I never did. For some reason he let me get away with that. As to the proposal, all I remember is that one night we were sitting on her couch (a couch that once gave way while we were making out after her parents went to bed—but that's a whole other story), and she pulled out a calendar, and the next thing I know we've got a date for a wedding: October 8, 1977. I did have enough wits about me to make sure we set the date on a Saturday the Razorbacks weren't playing. From there it was a whirlwind: get the rings, get the invitations, select the wedding party, make the plans, get some counseling, rent the tuxes, and "get me to the church on time."

I don't remember much about the ceremony. It seems like it was brief. I do remember she looked beautiful as we stood at the altar. We were married in First Baptist Church, Branson (when it was downtown). We had the reception there too. And then it was off to Tulsa for a big weekend honeymoon. Yeah, what can I say? I'm a big spender. Some grooms take their brides to Hawaii or Jamaica or New York City. I took mine to Tulsa. We only had Saturday night and Sunday. I did take Monday off from school but was back at it on Tuesday. We were poor. We did the best we could. I did spring for the Honeymoon Package at the Tulsa Hilton. It was a package deal. We got our choice of a bottle of champagne or a fruit basket. Since neither of us drink and since Dayna wasn't even legal drinking age yet, we opted for the fruit. What a disappointment. It was little more than a couple of overripe bananas and a bruised apple or two. And to make matters worse, our room was full of fleas. Having stayed in a hotel maybe twice when I was growing up, I didn't know to go demand another room, so we endured the fleas. We went to the zoo on Sunday. We ate at Casa Bonita. And before we went home, she left her purse at McDonald's and fifty of our few precious dollars were stolen from it. Good times!

And so began our 33 years together. They've been good years for the most part. Like any couple we've had our ups and downs, our seasons of passion and our wintry seasons too. We've even sought counseling a couple of times along the way. Coming from a broken home, I had nothing to go on as far as being a husband, no models to learn from, so I was kind of winging it. Sometimes I did pretty good, sometimes not so good. Dayna grew up in a hugging family; I didn't. Believe it or not, after 33 years of marriage, I'm still uncomfortable holding hands with my wife in public. Honestly, when the pastor said, "And you may kiss the bride," I'd have been a lot more comfortable if we could have just shaken hands on the deal. Dayna also grew up in a family that took care of one another; I didn't. That's why I have always had a hard time in any close relationship. It's hard for me to invest much beyond the surface. It was easier for me to just be married to my work—a work Dayna has always supported 100%. And like my two brothers, I have always been fiercely independent and therefore, even to this day, have a very hard time letting people in and letting people do for me. I don't like this about myself, and I try to work on it, but I'm still pretty much the same old me.

And yet Dayna has persevered with me through thick and thin. I've wondered over the years if I had made the right choice to marry Dayna. I've wondered if I made the right choice to get married at all. But I can't imagine my life without her. She has loved me unconditionally and with much patience. She could have done a lot better than getting stuck with me, but she would never say it. I guess as much as anything, she has taught me grace. Though I don't talk much, she listens when I need to talk. She gives me good counsel. And she keeps our scattered family connected. She has always been a good mother to our kids, and there is no better grandmother on the face of the earth.

And that's why we're not together on our anniversary. That's why I'm writing this blog instead of celebrating with her in a night on the town. Our daughter just had a baby a few days ago and Dayna is staying with her a little longer. I was down for a couple of days, but had to come back what with Sunday and all. The picture at the top is from our time together yesterday. We've talked a couple of times today, but there will be no celebration for a few more days. Thus the title of this blog. It comes from the opening line of Little River Band's 1970s hit, Happy Anniversary, Baby. I've got you on my mind today, Dayna.

And I want to say thank you for sticking with the one you're stuck with for these 33 years. How you've done it, and how you've done it with such grace is beyond me. When I think of all the marriage sermons you've heard me preach, there were any number of times you could have shouted "Ha!" in the middle of them. And you would have been right too. But you refrained. Thank you for that. And thank you for your faithfulness and support for all these years. You deserve a medal or something. I wish we had the money to buy you a new diamond or a precious stone that you would love and that you deserve. But unfortunately, all you get is more years of me. Some reward, huh? And yet I know what you would say about it. You'd say, "That's enough for me."

The wisdom writer in Proverbs said it well: "Many women do well, but you surpass them all. Charm is deceiving and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." Happy anniversary, baby. I've loved you for more than 33 years, and I will love you till I die.