Not long ago, my wife and I drove up the hill to the driveway of the first church I served as pastor. The tires made a low crackle as I turned into the still gravel parking lot. I first drove onto that gravel in 1984. I was twenty-six years old. I remember putting my face against the glass and cupping my hands around my face so that I could block out the light and see into the entryway of the church. I stepped away from the glass after a minute and told my young wife, “There is no way they would want me.”
I was wrong.
They eventually invited me to be their pastor with a unanimous vote. Within a month, they called for my ordination. And I spent three and a half wonderful years as shepherd of that little country church. I preached Sunday morning, taught a pastor’s Sunday School Class, led a Sunday night discipleship class, preached Sunday night, and taught a bible study on Wednesday. We went visiting on Tuesday nights. We had revivals, Vacation Bible School, and January Bible Studies every year.
I conducted my first Baptism, Wedding, Funeral, and hospital visit from that church. Along with moderating monthly business meetings, men’s prayer breakfasts, and boys’ fishing tournaments.
I preached tons of bad sermons, and one or two good ones. I learned how to stay when the church family tried to quarrel with each other—and me. I learned how to sit with someone who was hurting. I learned how to show up week after week after week.
When I left that church in Oklahoma to pastor a church in Colorado, I took the life-long lessons and the residual love of that first church with me. I thought I was moving “up” by moving to a larger church in a metropolitan area. I was not moving up. I was just moving.
All the most valuable lessons of being a pastor I learned in that first church:
- God rarely gets in a hurry about anything
- Never value preaching over pastoring
- Your private life has a proportionate impact on the Kingdom
- Never value vision over presence
- Be content with obscurity. (Jesus was)
- Never value achievement over constancy
- Being present is more important than the “Amen” you might receive for your sermon
- When someone says “several people are upset” that means me and maybe my spouse
- The reasons people say they are leaving are never the real reasons
- Sometimes losing a battle in organizational leadership is winning the war in pastoral care
- Never value knowledge over reflection
The love that church showed my wife and me during those impressionable years acted as a protective coat of grace that they applied layer by layer and has lasted for low these many years.
When we drove onto that gravel parking lot, I’m not going to lie, I got a lump in my throat. Then we saw members from when we were there in the 80s.
Harold is still handing out candy and making everyone laugh—he walks with a cane now. Carolyn told me about a sermon in Nehemiah that I preached in 1987 that helped her get through a difficult time when she was uncertain about leading a choir trip to New York City. She is struggling with kidney failure now. Jim Simms told me, “Pastor Joe, your wife is just as beautiful as she was when you were or pastor. Then Harold said something funny, and Jim began to laugh. I was suddenly and mysteriously transported back in time. That laugh was echoing in my soul for nearly four decades. I began to weep. Lynette began to cry because I was crying. Jim is in a wheelchair now.
We felt a lovely completion to a long journey.
Patina is what is left on the surface of something grown beautiful, especially with age or use. We who have lived several decades may or may not notice this sheen on our souls when we pause to reflect on our lives. But I suspect if we can’t see it on our own souls and lives, I am certain that others can see it.
I found a poem that has grown to mean a great deal to me that I want to share with you here:
by Stanley Kunitz
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
Check back with me in another thirty-five years and we will see how that sheen is deepening. In the meantime, I will just keep showing up.