I can see him standing there. He is 15, awkwardly encased in a blue sports coat and paisley tie, and the wooden pulpit hits him at chest level. The congregation is quiet, waiting with anticipation, wondering what to expect from this first-time preacher. Then he begins.
For the next thirteen minutes he explains with false enthusiasm that at least 80 percent of them are headed to hell. Though he thought they would be shocked by this jarring message, they seem to be taking the bad news well. His sophomore English teacher is smiling at him, though she winces when he pronounces the word chasm with a “ch” instead of a “k”. The school nurse, the one who tended to his asthma attacks in grade school, also has an encouraging look on her face. She apparently is satisfied that she is in the minority that will escape the fires of perdition. He quotes Billy Graham, Billy Sunday, and maybe even Billie Holiday, though it’s hard to remember all these years later. When he finishes he is spent and feels as though he has just undressed in front of his family and friends. He is me.
I admire the courage of that young man who stood up on Youth Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Pecos, Texas to give his first sermon. I cannot condone his spiritual hubris, but his audacity in telling his Sunday school teachers, family members, and closest friends that they were in danger of hell fires was a sign of things to come. I was never good at sticking to safe topics when I preached.
Now, thirty years later, having traveled the road from right-wing fundamentalist to flaming liberal, it is over. Eighteen years as a pastor, over a thousand sermons preached, and I have quit. My soul wore out after years of tending to other people’s souls, so I walked away. There was no scandal. I wasn’t fired or run off. I just quit at the age of 44 with no job waiting for me.
And though it is a relief to walk away from the burdens that come with being a pastor, I cannot walk away from the stories that have been stored up over the years. I feel a strange compulsion to share the secret thoughts and experiences from my years in ministry. Maybe I need to undress one more time before the world so that I can finally be done with it.
The pastor’s job is to make faint the invisible. I wish I could say we make visible the invisible, but that claims more than we can deliver. At best, we are taking the hidden and giving it the hint of form. Pastors take submerged truths and lift them to a place where they can be seen, at an angle, through the fog, for just a moment. We interpret a text that for a fleeting second seems real to someone. We sit with a parishioner burdened by past trauma, convinced that she is worthless, and show her from her own testimony a life that is meaningful. The invisible world the pastor tries to reveal is full of glory, and horror, but it is all true.
The stories in this periodic series are the strange, bitter, humorous, and meaningful tales that made up my life in the church. I have changed enough details to protect the confidentiality of people who entrusted their secrets to me, but the stories are real. Six churches were kind enough to invite me to serve as their pastor. I offer these reflections in gratitude for the trust they placed in me and in hope that my experiences will resonate with others who stand with shaking knees behind wooden pulpits.
- ► 2012 (12)
- ► 2011 (12)