Beginnings are tough, no matter where. I had arrived in Banks straight from the revival in San Jacinto and was full of how much I could offer. I was full of myself. This is never a good start for pastoral ministry. A constant refrain for many years there was, “They just don’t get it.” As if I “did get it.” Whatever “it” was! My heart was far from the people, from love, and from humility. I felt I knew more than the folk there, only to discover, they carried a depth of wisdom and grace I needed to learn. It was humbling to learn and important to remember I was not the only teacher.
Alongside believing I had something to offer, the church believed I was the person they had sought. Two years earlier, they had created a list of qualifications for their next pastor and presented this to the District Superintendent. He told them, “There is no one in the Methodist Church who will match this description. You are wanting Jesus.” But then, after meeting me, since I possessed some of their requested qualities, he recommended me for the position. No one can live up to Jesus.
After hoping for Jesus, I was a bit of a disappointment!
I was a solidly puffed-up human, not divine. From my San Jacinto experience, I was full of experiences with angels and demons, which illustrated God’s immensity and power to me, but were lost on the people. One member told me, “We are simple, salt-of-the-earth people, Brian. Walk on the earth with us.” I wrote this down and kept it on my desk. Another wonderful guy, Arne Harrang, who taught us how to chop wood, told me, “When Ramona stood up and told her story in church about accidentally throwing away her insulin meds, praying, and then going back to the spot and finding them, this I could relate to. I just cannot relate to the stories of demons and angels.” Dex pulled me aside as well and asked me to vary my stories! I began to get the message. My preaching needed to connect to their real, daily lives.
Even though, on the one hand, I thought much of myself, I still carried deeply rooted injuries that sabotaged me along the way. I was at “war with preaching.” This was something of which one of my seminary professors had warned me. He had written this in response to my student pastor practicum:
“You are at war with preaching. Unless you resolve this, you will be out of the ministry by the time you are 40.”
He noted this after reading the journals I had submitted as part of our class assignment filled with my conflicted heart. I took this warning seriously but was unclear how to settle my heart. Over the years, I discovered since God is Father, the church is Mother, and in a real sense, all my preaching was a thwarted attempt to communicate with my mom.
It was as if mom was sitting there every week, critical of me. It did not help there were always women out there with strong, critical voices. My mom-relationship was fraught with struggle. In a real sense, I became a little boy in sermon preparation and delivery every week, operating from an unhealed place in my wounded heart.
It took decades to understand this. So, I sought counsel, support, and accountability partners along the way. After arriving in Banks, I began to meet with two guys outside of the Banks congregation named Mark and David. They also sought accountability. Our regular meetings filled with prayer, confession, and accountability became a lifeline to my heart.
I remember one Sunday morning at 8:30 am, I was a little kid inside, desperate and panicked. After many hours of work over the past several days, the sermon lay unraveled on the floor. I phoned Mark. I was so messed up on the phone. He listened and told me, “Take some deep breaths, Brian. Take what God has given you and trust Him with it. It will be okay. It might feel like the end of the world, but God would use you.”
His words brought hope.
He prayed with me before we hung up. When I got up to preach that morning, I looked out at the congregation, and there in the back pew sat Mark. I gasped and looked again. My brain whirled,
“He goes to another church. He came here and missed his worship time? What’s he doing here?” Then, like a thunderbolt, the thought came – “He has come to support me!”
I was moved and astonished. His presence was powerful because of the love it demonstrated. I imagine the sermon went well that morning, even though I bet I thought it went poorly. But, as I was often reminded, the Word had gone forth. The funny thing about such powerful moments is how they dissolve. Although I remember the day, no one else does. I checked today, and Mark doesn’t even remember it! But what I remember about it, is not a failed message, but the fact that Mark had come. Today, more than 25 years later, Mark still regularly shows up in my life bringing gifts.
Dexter Danielson led a weekly Bible Study, was on many of the main leadership teams and was then a police detective. The first couple of years were rocky with this congregation, (remember I was not Jesus), and Dex was amazing at smoothing the waters. He was solid as a boulder. He counseled me on more than one occasion, helping me to channel my enthusiasm in ways that could be received and heard. He offered remarkable leadership.
In those 15 years, Dex and I worked side by side frequently in retreats, projects, and visioning for the church. He received a call into the ministry, returned to school, took ordination as a Deacon in the denomination, and served for years until retirement as a chaplain for local police and fire departments. I’d want Dex next to me in an emergency, for certain. It was Dex with whom I went to a seminar sponsored by another congregation in church growth and discipleship, that turned out to profoundly change my life, as I’ll describe next week.
Dick Mock was this saint of a man with silver hair and a heart the size of the ocean. He was a long-retired engineer, an inventor, and a creative genius, regularly building computers and his own ham radios. He had even designed and built his A-Frame house in the mountains. Brilliant with software, he designed and monitored the church website, recorded and posted our church services before that was done, and was a great communicator. I remember once when a disgruntled man sent this church-wide email filled with anger and blame communicated in all capital letters. In it, he accused me of many things. It was a painful thing to read, even if it was not true. Dick immediately wrote back to everyone who had received the email, gently saying, “We know our pastor. This is not describing him. We can release all that is said and be a praying community for this brother.” It was a remarkable response. That phrase, “We know our pastor,” struck me. Over the years, I had become exactly that.
These great men and so many others there is no space to name alongside them helped to tether and to celebrate my enthusiasm. They never asked me to change but simply to walk more slowly alongside them. They asked me to enter their worlds, stand on their ground, and in doing so, I discovered how Jesus stood alongside them and worked through them. Jesus always precedes us and if we are looking, we will encounter Him in others’ lives.