‘… the road goes on forever and the party never ends…’
– Robert Earl Keen
On November 7, 2010, I placed over my shoulders the white clergy stole given to me on my ordination as a Lutheran pastor in June, 1981. The hand-stitched garment is a visible reminder of my being ‘yoked to Jesus’ and was a gift from Ken and Kay Welch, my youth advisors during my years in Luther League at old St. Paul’s in Youngstown, OH. They were our chaperones to the ALC Youth Gathering in New York City in the summer of 1970, one the highlight mile markers of my teenage years, my initial exposure to what we now call the ‘wider church.’ Two years later I would find myself a freshman at Texas Lutheran, then College, and it is my connection to TLU along with this loving couple, who are now grandparents, that gives rise to writing a story about parish ministry. I am humbled and honored to do so. It was the 30th All Saints Sunday celebration as a parish pastor that I refer to. With each passing year that simple action of placing a hand-sewn fabric around my neck has reminded me of their love and their devotion to Jesus and his Church. Obviously, there are others; but this journey has been filled with joy and surprise and both Jesus and current day prophet, Robert Earl Keen, say that the journey is eternal!
I grew up in church. I love the Church. I’m loved by God and I’ve always considered myself Christian. I was baptized, affirmed my baptism and was ordained at the same altar. I don’t have any personal life stories about being a gang related drug dealer who survived two motorcycle accidents, four gunshot wounds, went to prison after 5 failed marriages and found Jesus in the jail cell. Nor do I have any stories of being a white collar high roller executive who took advantage of tax codes for personal gain to find that same Jesus in the very next jail cell only to write a book about that time of life and end up hosting a syndicated talk show. That’s just not my story but don’t get me wrong…I’ve looked for a way to live other than Christian. I’ve searched for a different way of life that helps me understand my reason for being and how I am to live and so far I find no substitutes or options providing a better way. “Take my yoke and learn from me,” Jesus said. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” He’s right.
But, even though I love the church and am loved by God, I don’t presume to think that my life has been perfect and burden free. As one who fully embraces the reality of being simul justus et peccator, my seemingly simple and safe faith journey has provided ample opportunity be both a saint and a sinner. I am. In fact, I think I’m still growing up in the church and it is the reason I remain Christian and the reason why parish ministry is so important to me and for this generation. Sinners and saints abound. We are everywhere, and despite what appears to be a phenomenon of decline in church attendance and participation within mainline US churches, even in the ELCA, the church in every age must always be relevant as it is always just one generation away from extinction. Therefore, our work is always urgent and requires our full attention.
As I’ve mentioned… I grew up in the church and I’ve always been a Christian…but, I can also say with confidence that during that growing up I never considered being a pastor. In fact, if you ask some members of my family or classmates and friends from high school and college, they will tell you how amazed they remain that not only did I attend seminary but that I have continued to do this work now for 30 years. “Gigee, he’s still a pastor, huh? Wow! What was God thinking?” And that’s why it’s important for me to reiterate, “I’m still growing up in the church.” I must. I am. It’s my response to God’s faithfulness and to acknowledge and point to the joy, wonder, awe and surprise of Gods’ grace at work in someone like me and the hundreds and thousands of people I have crossed paths with in this work. St. Paul wrote to his friends at Ephesus noting,
“some are called to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers…”
and with a purpose…
“to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
It was in January 1973 in the Blumberg Library that Dr. Roy J. Enquist came to me and said, “Brian, have you ever considered going to seminary?” I think I laughed. I had just passed his Theology 101 class for freshman. He went on. “I like how you think; and how you write. The church needs people like you.” The laughter ended and over the next three semesters I pondered and prayed about that invitation. The church needs people like me? They must be desperate. I still listen. God is faithful.
And oh by the way…the lettering on my stole says, “Jesus Lives” “Alleluia”. In English… “Jesus Lives.” “Praise the Lord.” He does. We must. And sometimes, after 30 years I feel like I’m just getting started. Perhaps I am.
Over the years I have seen classmates and colleagues leave full-time parish ministry for other work. Many ask, “why did you leave?” Their answers are legion. Perhaps a better question to ask pastors is, “Why do you stay?” This requires a more concise answer and I ask myself this question a lot. “Why do I stay?” or what is about parish ministry that keeps me doing what I do day after day, church year after church year? I’ve tried to quit… a couple of times. Honest. This is my take.
The Church is alive and the Church is changing. Life is full of change and reminds me that I am alive and that I need to pay attention. The church I live in today is not the church I grew up in. Or at least many people feel this is so. It’s not just because the world is changing. It’s just simply about relevance. Luther understood that and took steps to present a Bible that the people of his day could read…in their language. The same goes for worship. Germans never got Latin. But, when Luther said, “the Lord be with you” and “lift up your hearts” in the local German brogue then everyone knew and everyone did! That wasn’t hard but it was change. More than that it was relevant!
At its core, the church is never a building. It’s always people. I tell others I’m the son of ‘refiners’ and ‘reformers!’ My mother’s German Lutheran great-grandparents came to Americain the 1870’s to build the steel mills that became the heart and soul of the economy in Youngstown, OH. They brought their faith with them, too. In fact, many of the passenger manifests out of Bremen, Germany list the names of people from Mecklenburg who were also members of my home congregation founded in 1881. They were the church back there and remained the church when they came here. They were ‘friends” and stuck together. This reality made the church strong but over time became its weakness. We cannot be the church if we only hang around the people we know. There was a time when people were quick to ask, “What country did your grandparents come from?” It mattered then, but it’s not a question we hear much anymore. Now we ask about states and cities and our identity within the church is about different things. There is a deeper purpose being discovered in the church and being a German Lutheran is not always equal to being a disciple of Jesus. Yet, for the record, I know many disciples of Jesus who also happen to be German Lutherans!
The word for ‘church’ in the New Testament is the term, ‘Εκκλησια.’ Theologians don’t always agree but have narrowed it down to two meanings… the CHURCH is the ‘called out people” of God or the “calling out people” of God and personally I believe that both understandings are necessary to be the church in this generation. When we do not sense our being ‘called out,’ we become irrelevant. Our purpose is ignored. And when we stop ‘calling out’ we have failed Jesus in the one precise word of instruction he gave his disciples to “Go! Preach, teach and baptize” and our purpose is forgotten. Therefore, it is so so important for us to rely on the wind of Holy Spirit to keep the sails of our ships of faith full and forward moving to all people. It may be difficult to be part of a mainline church in this generation, but the path seems clearer when the focus is on following Jesus and being focused on disciple-making!
I am now serving as pastor in a fourth congregation. I have witnessed congregations grow in number and in faith. Many of the people I have served knew little of Martin Luther or the Lutheran Church. I see this as a good sign. Gratitude is a good thing to have as a parish pastor. I am thankful to the good people of St. Paul’s, Columbus, TX and in Taylor, TX where I served a year of internship and the first two years of ordained ministry, respectively. Their love and patience gave me courage to spend a little over five years as the pastor-developer of a mission congregation in Huntsville, TX in the 1980’s. And in the early days of the ELCA I was asked by Bishop Martin Yonts to go to Grace Church in New Orleans and served there for almost a decade. Each setting has been unique and had its own challenges and victories. I think Dr. Enquist was right… but it’s taken me a while to learn that. There is an old saying that goes like this… “over 30 years a good pastor will spend the first 15 years learning how to be a faithful pastor and that last 15 years actually being one.’ So, perhaps the good people in Pearland have had the best of my serving giving credit to my previous ministry sites to strengthen my tools for God’s work. The Rev. Stanley Hauerwas once wrote…“Our seminaries don’t make pastors; congregations do. Seminaries give pastors a box of tools to go out to our churches and practice their craft.” That has been a helpful word now for 20 years…very helpful in a church that is in motion!
After three decades of pastoral ministry I find that there are things that I do now that I did back then. I also find myself doing things that I didn’t know I could do or would do to be a faithful pastor. I still write sermons. I rarely preach from the pulpit. We have a liturgical service. I wear an alb and colorful stoles. At 8:00 AM. I also preach in a Hawaiian shirt, khakis and loafers. At 10:30 AM the House Band plays songs that aren’t in the hymnal. We have the Lord’s Supper every Sunday! I still teach Sunday School, spend time with Confirmands and attend ELCA National Youth Gatherings. I visit the sick in hospitals; but members do that more than me. Our newsletter communicates on paper and via the internet. The church web-site says more about our congregation than any yellow pages ad ever could. Our Church Council meets once a month and we also make decisions about ministry via e-mail. I give special attention to the ‘high faith’ events for all who are preparing for baptism, a wedding and at the time of a funeral. God’s Holy Spirit always clears the path. I blog. I post on other’s blog sites. Church members read my blog. Sometimes I ‘sit in’ with House Band for worship and play my guitar. Back in the day, I only played my guitar at Camp Chrysalis. I still love looking a member or visitor in the eye in worship and saying, “the body of Christ given for you,” valuing their trust and inviting me into some of the most joyful and darkest moments of their lives. My attention to the faith lives of young men is now at the heart of my work. Attending to crises moments remains a priority. Helping people avoid them is the better work a pastor can do. Tending to my own devotional life remains a challenge and yet staying grounded in my baptism I find God’s grace is always enough.
Perhaps the last and most important thing to point to here is Jesus’ simple response to a question he was asked about the greatest commandment. He expanded the oldest words of the Old Testament [Deuteronomy 6:4ff] saying, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength and all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself!” In the midst of a changing world and a changing church, this is what is relevant. Showing others this model of the Godly life and living these words daily is at the heart of our church’s future. With a great commandment and a great commission we hold out to others a new life of prayer, worship, study, encouragement, invitation, giving and serving. This is the easy yoke of Jesus. This is what remains constant and consistent in a world that seems turned in on itself. This is the disciple-making work I cling to. It is what was given to me not with the goal of keeping to myself; but given to be given away. It’s like St. Bernard said, “Jesus is my bee; he comes not to sting, but to bring me honey.” Ahhh!
Last year, on my 55th birthday, I received a card from Ken and Kay Welch. It read:
“If a candle were lit for every sermon you preached…”
“If a candle were lit for every Sunday School lesson you taught…”
“If a candle were lit for every person you ever visited and for
Every kind word you ever spoke…”
“If a candle were lit for all these things…what a brighter world this would be.”
Kind of makes you want to rip into a chorus of “This Little Light of Mine,” huh? The Church is changing. I am, too. Thanks be to God! I love Christ and the church. Christ loves the world! I’m growing up in the church still, with Christ as the head of the body…with his yoke still shrouding me in grace. It’s all I can count on! It’s all I’ve really needed… Brian