Points of Pastoral Privilege

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Pentecostal banner   When I was fifteen, my pastor, Glen Sims, introduced me to one of the potentially high and holy moments that ministers get to experience. He took me to visit an elderly woman near death. “If you are thinking about becoming a minister, you must be able to be with people in their most difficult times.” The woman was herself the wife of a minister who had died several years before. She observed my youth, naivete, and shyness with her own years of experience, wisdom, and serenity. “You have a wonderful life ahead of you. I enjoyed almost all of it myself. But I have a wonderful life ahead of me, too.” Such was her faith.
Up to that point, the privilege of being with people at very special and terrifying times was an aspect of ministry that was hidden to me. I had observed the work of worship, even helping to serve communion at the kneeling rail around the altar, as was the Methodist custom of those days. Pastor Sims had invited me on a few occasions to lead a pastoral prayer in front of the congregation, and he loaned me Harry Emerson Fosdick’s Prayers, so I had a model to use. I knew about the activities of meetings and Church School classes, and youth events. I had no idea about being with people who were sick, or dying, or in crisis, or grieving. I could not imagine trying to moderate disputes between angry spouses or alienated family members, or aggrieved church members, or offended community people. The thought of being an advocate for people who were poor or needy or in trouble had not crossed my mind. Eventually he and other mentors introduced me to these challenges of ministry.
These are privileges that the people of the church make possible for their ministers and to some extent for each other. The door opens to the hardest challenges that people face. The embrace is extended. The chair is offered. The mutual tears are shed. The horrible fears are faced together and with the halting words of fervent prayer.
I told my pastor that I didn’t think I had the strength for this. I asked him how he was able to do it. I can still hear him admit that he wasn’t able, not on his own. He talked about a power greater than he was, greater than anyone on their own, that lets people come together in such times and struggle together. God’s Spirit comes and helps people face the hardest trials and get through them.
In thousands of episodes that followed—hospital visits, counseling sessions, emergency calls, and everything else—some moments remained terrifying enough to send me back to some quiet corner where I might enjoy being a gardener, a scholar, a writer, or anything other than a pastor. My own pastor’s words became flesh many times over. There are holy moments when our God of compassion and wisdom comes near enough to be tangible in the air we breathe and the light we see. Blood, sweat, and tears all yield their power and make room for the mysterious presence of the Living God.

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Autumn Kaleidoscope, November 1, 2001, Bella Vista

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IMG_2081.JPG   Here in the last days of autumn I look at the variety of leaves remaining on the trees and marvel at the multiple colors. Hidden within the leaves under vibrant greens thoughout the spring and summer were all of these shades of yellow, orange, red, and brown.
This is a bright sunny day for redheads. First to arrive were the little Downy woodpecker and its mate, with their black and white barred coats. Then the large outrageous Pileated woodpecker came, appearing to be the remnant of an ancient lineage. Next came the regulation Northern woodpecker, its mate wearing a rather plain tan coat except for that fierce black triangular breastplate. All of them work with amazing determination and skill, flying straight down, straight up, perching upside down, beating their heads against the grain, finding all of those tiny moving morsels, ugly to me but appetizing to them. The redheads of course include the cardinals and the tanager, whose mate still wears a luminous green coat, which I thought she would have shed for a less noticeable coat in these woods that are revealing all of her hiding places as the leaves fall.
I wonder what the insect-eaters would do with that red and yellow centipede I found yesterday? A mean-looking creature, five inches long, scurrying with uncountable legs, with biting pinchers and stingers that intimidated me. A too close encounter would send any sensible person to the Emergency Room. Would the birds have digested it, enough for several meals, or would they have left it well enough alone? More friendly encounters occur with the preying mantis and the humble walking sticks, affixed to anything stable, enjoying the last warm autumn hours. They appear to be dead until you tease them, then they will slowly respond. At six to nine inches long, the walking sticks do resemble branches, large enough for the birds to perch.
With all of these decorated creatures hanging around, I am transported to the scene last night, when the curtains of clouds suddenly revealed themselves as no clouds at all in the northern sky. They were lights, Northern Lights, shimmering in that rare dance of sunspot rays that fills the northern sky, first with the white light, that I had mistaken for clouds, then gradually revealing all the colors of the rainbow. They danced in splendor.
In a few weeks we will decorate for Christmas, but with all that we do, and as pretty as we can -make it, how can what we do compare with the extraordinary display that is already in place for all to see? Glory to God! Glory in the Highest! And the lowest.

The Dog Who Drove

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Needels Highway   In our first trip through the Black Hills back in 1976, Jan decided to take the wheel, since it was nerve-wracking for her when I tried to drive through the mountains and sightsee at the same time. I took the passenger seat where I could look to my heart’s content and take all the photographs that I wanted. The evidence shows up in our photo album from that year.
There in that album is the picture that I had taken of a dog happily driving a convertible down a mountain highway. I took it while we passed this car that had no passengers except the dog who was driving. The dog seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself. His paws were on the steering wheel. His mouth was open in a wide grin, his tongue hanging out. His head was swaying in the wind that was also whipping his long hair. All the dog needed was a pair of goggles.
I wanted to stop our cars and ask to see his driver’s license. But he was a large unidentifiable mixed breed, probably weighing as much as I did, and I knew I was no match for him.
Not seen in the picture was the large motor home which preceded the car and to which the car was firmly attached. I wondered how the drivers of the motor home had discovered how much their dog enjoyed the experience of driving the car. Perhaps the car was pushing the RV instead of the other way around? The dog did look like he knew what he was doing. As we passed the RV, I wasn’t so sure about the person in the driver’s seat of that vehicle. I could not actually see anyone there.
It is a matter of faith I suppose. There are a lot of unseen connections, a lot more unseen controls than we are aware of as we travel along. There are more actors that are not obvious to our eyes, and our eyes are often tricked or misled by the way things appear. There is intelligence and compassion in charge, even beyond what we contain in our canine skins, isn’t there? Isn’t there? We just about have to assume so and believe so if we are going to enjoy the ride.

Maintaining the Bridges

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old iron bridge 1   The Middlefork of the Vermilion River bisected the 320 acres that my father farmed during most of my childhood. It was originally a natural river, lined with old growth forest, meandering through highland marshes a few miles downstream from its source, until it was dredged to drain those wetlands and provide rich tillable soil. Many trees were chopped away to clear that land. The outlines of indigenous people’s lodges and hogans still showed near some of the springs that lined the river.
The river would have been a barrier to travel from one high riverbank to the other, but a fifty feet long bridge with steel girders and a wooden deck had been built soon after the dredging. The bridge made crossing the river possible with our farm equipment.
The river flooded regularly in the spring, filling the old floodplain and carrying off many of the boards from the bridge deck each time. We carefully replaced the deck and kept the bridge painted and in good repair. We drove the truck, tractors, implements, and heavy wagon-loads of hay, straw, and grain across that bridge. It had just one lane, but that was all that was needed. The cattle used it. We often walked to it to observe the Great Blue Herons and the small river mammals from a distance. As a small child I watched my brother and our next-door neighbor swing from its girders like monkeys, until I was old enough to test my own courage and strength.
We learned to drive tractors and trucks early in those days, and one of the most important lessons was learning how to drive across the bridge. Emphatically we learned to drive across it slowly and carefully. Not to catch a protruding iron harrow tooth or disk on the iron railing. Not to shake or damage the bridge.
Leaving that farm when I was sixteen was leaving my childhood behind. The man who took over the lease was known as a go-getter, a fast mover and shaker. True to his reputation, a couple of months after he took over the property, rushing across the bridge with his tractor and plow, the bridge collapsed with him and his tractor on it. He narrowly escaped serious injury. From then on he had to take the long route around the county road to get from one side of the farm to the other.
We have to be respectful of our bridges. They have the capacity to carry us where we need to go, to provide a route that is direct and useful. They require care and maintenance and some consideration of their appropriate use. They make possible a short-cut through the shared experiences of many generations.

The Deafening Silence

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Nathan, Sullivan and Tulip May 2017 (2)   Midsummer, Jan and I were at the farm with Nathan’s two Golden Retrievers, Sullivan and Tulip, while Nathan was attending a reading conference. This was their first visit to the farm, and the open space and new surroundings obviously stimulated their already super-energized spirits. Sullivan at two and a half years has just begun to settle down into his young adulthood; Tulip at one year is nowhere close to settling down. Jan regards her as a classic case of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

They seemed to enjoy their first experience of the farm. At home in Burlington they have a good-sized yard to romp in, and are surrounded by the noises of the neighborhood, the street traffic of busy Agency Street and the nearby HyVee grocery and shopping areas. They rarely see such wide-open spaces.

I tried to keep their routines as typical as possible. In Nathan’s absence I knew that they were missing him, and this was the first time that they had spent a significant length of time with me. Knowing that they usually stayed the night with Nathan in his bedroom, I brought them into our bedroom, instead of shutting them in their kennels. No surprise then that in the middle of the night I was awakened by Tulip actively nuzzling me, whining, and wanting to go outside for her usual duties.

I put her and Sully on their long leashes and headed them downstairs and outside through the south porch, out onto the lawn, expecting them to act as usual, randomly running and tugging in all directions. At first they did as I expected. Then they both slowed down and came back to my side, sidling close to my legs, still as can be, and looking up past me toward the sky, where the stars were shining on a clear moonless night.

This was the time of night, or very early morning, when the crickets, katydids, and locusts are silent, no toads are croaking, and the birds have not yet begun to herald the dawn. Perhaps the dogs could hear something. I could not. I listened for the sound of coyotes or racoons or the smaller creatures of the night, but I could not hear any rustling of any kind. Ordinarily the wind makes noises in the trees on that rise on which the house sits, but on this night the wind was still.

I cannot read the canine mind, and should leave that to our granddaughter Symphony, who seems to have the knack. But, to all appearances, both Sully and Tulip were in awe of the silence and the sky, and not a little afraid of this new and unfamiliar world that is so deeply silent, so unfathomably infinite. Smart dogs.

 

One of the Seven Sisters

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the Pleiades    I was a little boy when I met my Great Aunt Junia from San Antonio at Uncle Lon’s house. She was past ninety. Her angular features and voice of ancient authority made a lasting impression. She spoke to me about her love of creation, especially the beauty and mystery of the heavens, so that, whenever I read Psalm 8, I think of her.

She knew the constellations and their legends, and in that early winter evening when she was visiting from her home far away, she spun stories about Orion the Hunter, the Great Dog, Sagittarius the Archer, and the Seven Sisters. When we stepped outside the house she pointed to them in their positions in the heavens, and she told me to remember them. I was sure that she was one of those Seven Sisters incarnate, and when I learned of her death a few years later, I imagined that she simply ascended to reclaim her rightful place among them.

On many evenings since then, in every season, I have looked at the stars and studied their patterns and thought of her and her wisdom and her stories. How can one chance meeting make such an impact? Matching an impressionable child with a nonagenarian brings part of the answer. The rest lies in the mystery of meeting and the amazing possibilities of the moment.

Sometimes we are discouraged that our hours of worship, or study, or work together seem to mean so little. A year of confirmation classes can leave some young adults seemingly unaffected. Then again, one brief moment can bring to life an insight and a relationship that will make all the difference between faith and despair. Treasure the moment and its possibilities.

  

Tone Deaf

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psspectacledowl1In early years we sat behind Rev. John Killip, a retired minister who was sometimes called to pray in the service, and who, I was certain, could easily pray aloud for many hours straight. Such a tall, wonderful white-haired gentleman he was, and he taught me to do a proper “Methodist hand-shake.” Later his seat was usually filled by Dr. Wilbur Sauer, an optometrist and minister’s son, who filled those roles and many other serving roles admirably.
My father, who regularly worked sixteen-hour days on the farm, would succumb to the warm, quiet, restful atmosphere of worship, and I would have to be alert to nudge him before “The Snore” began. I do not recall ever wanting to be anywhere else on those Sunday mornings.
After I turned fifty, and had those rare occasions of the privilege of sitting next to my father in worship, I was amazed to hear how much his singing had improved, how beautifully tonal it was, and how alert he was. He was always very smart, so I wasn’t surprised by how smart he had become after I left home, but I was moved by how his potential for embarrassing conduct in worship had diminished to zero.
God blessed me also with children who were not only independent thinkers, who sometimes resented the pressures of other people’s expectations, but who also respected their parents’ wishes that they take part in worship, even though they often had to sit by themselves, that is, with friends and older friends while their parents were involved in leading the services. They have shown me that they have some sense of the Ineffable One in their lives, the same One who was there for the Dunkards, the Methodists, the Reformed Swiss, the Lutherans, the Catholics, and the Jews who were our ancestors.
Parents learn most of their parenting skills from their parents, for better or worse. Teachers learn most of their teaching skills from their teachers. Where do preachers learn? I learned in an environment that now seems much different from the prevailing values, so much different that a sense of lost opportunities has descended like a fog. Why was I not able to contribute more to an environment of growth for worshipping families that was as fulfilling as my own? Some parents and children enjoy the opportunity to worship together, even though they are a minority in most communities. They will still find a center for their lives that will hold.
I realize I am not alone in this sense of missing too many opportunities to nurture young people in the life of faith and worship. There is no comfort in commiseration. There is only comfort in the hope and prospect of churches doing better, and the awareness that some are.

Like Catnip

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catnip-plant  Catnip is one of those weeds that I enjoy having around. I planted some in the herb garden that I established in my yard. When I lived in Minonk and on the farm catnip grew abundantly all over the place. Once before when I lived at Tilton, I started an herb garden and tried to grow catnip. The same thing happened.
It got a good start and was growing beautifully. Then one morning I looked out and the catnip had totally disappeared. In its place was a well-satisfied tabby, new to the neighborhood. She had eaten every particle of the catnip.
Some things are just too good to pass up. Some things attract would-be connoisseurs from quite a distance. Sometimes I dreamed about being the kind of preacher and leading the kind of congregation that would be one of those things. Some characteristic would simply attract without people having to reach out and do the work of listening to other people and interpreting the living power of the Gospel. Like catnip.
The fact is that we must sow seeds with such abandon that there will be plenty of love shared and plenty of the knowledge of God available to people. We cannot hope to grow it in one small space and have it flourish.
I could grow catnip if I fenced it in, protected it, and really tried to preserve it from the cats who seem to need it. I have decided that catnip does better as a weed growing all over the place than as a protected herb, confined to one small garden spot. Even so, the Christian way of life.

My Friend Philip

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3 Owls  Was it an accident or part of a larger plan that gave me Philip as my first “college roommate?” The college was Local Preacher’s Licensing School at Illinois Wesleyan University in the summer of 1963. At the ripe old age of 29, Philip was among the older students. I was the youngest, perhaps in the history of the program, at age 16.
Philip was a musician, an organist, who had completed a fine arts degree at Illinois Wesleyan nine years earlier. As a prodigy he had played the organ for his hometown skating rink and theater from the age of 8, and his home church soon after that. After years of playing for other people’s worship services, he had the justified impression that he could lead worship as well or better than many of those whom he had served.
I had read all of the recommended texts for the school, which gave me an advantage over some of the students who hadn’t yet cracked a book. Philip had probably devoured the whole reading list in a couple of hours. He could have been arrogant and condescending. In reality he was encouraging and solicitous. He read my assignment papers and offered good advice, respecting my motives and ambitions at face value, and seeming to value my participation in the school as the equal of the older and more experienced men (There were no women in the clergy licensing schools in those years.).
One of the professors, Dr. Richard Stegner, recommended my theological position paper to the class, saying it was the best of the lot, but I knew that it was the product of many of the conversations between Philip and me, and his helpful editing. We talked at length during those days and began a correspondence that lasted for several years.
While I went on to college, Philip began to serve congregations as both pastor and musician. I visited his parishes at Humboldt and Greenup during the five years that followed the Local Preacher’s School. I admired his skill in leading congregations, in youth programs, adult studies, choirs, counseling, pastoral visiting, and administrative boards.
In the many hours that we spent alone together, sharing personal experiences and private thoughts, I never had a feeling of jeopardy or improper approach from him. He had many opportunities to take advantage of my innocence and vulnerability. It never crossed my mind to question his status as an unmarried man who seemed to take no romantic interest in the opposite sex.
I was not prepared for his reaction when I used the word ‘perverse’ to describe the homosexuality of another friend of mine. He said that I was wrong to judge a loving homosexual relationship with such a word, as if the love that people shared was false or their attraction to each other was not real. I realized that he was personally offended. We shared a deep friendship and caring for each other, although it was not sexual in any overt way, and I had demeaned a part of his identity with my disparagement of another person, just because of their sexual orientation.
As I examined my own words and feelings I found that I had uncritically accepted common prejudices. My own affection and respect for both Phillip and the other friend were violated by my careless language about perversity.
Philip was not able to accept my request to play at Jan’s and my wedding a few years later, just before I went on to graduate school. We lost track of each other in the busy years that followed. I often thought of him though and wondered how he was doing, hoping someday to find him again.

July 13, 2017, Tornado Warning!

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funnel cloud photo
Two previous storms did significant damage to our Chapman farm near Paxton. The first came from the southwest, around 2000, and ripped a roof off a lean-to shed on the west side of the corn crib, and laid that roof on the ground next to the then-new machine shed. That wind also toppled half of the concrete block south wall of the three-car garage. Brother David and I spent a week dismantling the rest of that lean-to, learning how our father had built it with heavy timbers and 7-inch nails, and making ourselves more tired than we could remember. We hired the repair of the garage.
The second storm, five years later, brought a straight-line wind from the north, that blew a window out of the master bedroom, irreparably damaged the vinyl siding on the north side of the house, blew down the large hackberry tree between the house and the old shed, which our father had built out of full-dimension lumber from the original 1860 farmhouse. That shed stood undamaged, but the power lines supplying it came down with the tree. The wind also toppled half of the north wall of the three-car garage. I cut up the tree, except for the massive four-foot diameter trunk. For the rest of the work I hired the Sutton brothers.
Since last October Jan and I have worked regularly to clean, fix, rehabilitate, and refurnish the 1915 foursquare house. It’s been a lot of work, and much remains to be done before we call it finished. This July we looked across the broad river valley west of the house and saw a dark wall cloud coming ten miles away that the weather radio warned us about—a tornado was coming, located between Elliot and Melvin, headed our way. We saw it at a distance as it formed a perfect funnel and began to raise a debris cloud from the ground. The next twenty minutes passed like lava, as the storm clouds seemed to stand still. Jan and I headed for the basement, taking our warning radio and cell phones with us. While Jan took a seat in a camp chair in the inside corner of one basement room, I watched the storm approach through a ground-level window in another basement room. I watched the tornado coming and a second funnel forming alongside the first.
Of course I prayed, thanking God for the relative safety of a full basement with thick brick walls that had withstood storms on this “hilltop” for a hundred and two years. If the rest of the house would be removed, and Jan and I could survive, then I would be even more thankful! In the face of that tornado, we could willingly say goodbye to the house even with the precious memories it contained. There was nothing between us and the two funnels, as they appeared to be missing our neighbor’s farmstead by a few hundred yards, still heading straight toward us.
Wall clouds and funnels are extremely interesting to watch, as well as terrifying. My heart was pounding and my excitement level jumping as I watched the bases of the two funnels dance, away from each other and toward each other, in a powerful tango. When they were about a quarter mile away, still coming slowly, and I was ready to abandon my post by the window for the safety of the other room with Jan, I saw the two tornado funnels move into each other and lift off the ground. As if one funnel canceled the other, within seconds they lifted from the ground and disappeared into the black cloud above. The house was peppered with dime-sized hail, small branches, dirt, and light field debris.
A few minutes later, as the rain continued but the winds began to subside, we moved upstairs and watched the darkest clouds move farther to the east. The tornado warning continued over the radio, but, to my knowledge, no significant damage was done. We looked around the house and the yard, and there was still work to be done, but it was not the work of picking up the pieces.