It was dark the way the desert gets dark at night. The sky was starless, abysmal, heavy and cold. The ambient heat radiating up off the cement basketball court couldn’t even push it away. And I stood there, shivering, in front of a crowd of fruit pickers. Migrant workers bussed in from Southern Mexico. I trembled from cold and from fear. “Preach,” my friend said. “Go ahead and speak to them.” “I don’t know what to say,” I said. “God will give you the words,” he said. “I can’t preach in Spanish,” I said. “Don’t worry, I’ll translate for you,” he said.
I looked at the men, then looked down at my boots, then looked over the men’s heads into the lights. I mumbled something into the microphone. I don’t remember what I said. I do remember that the sound of the gas generator powering the speakers and lights was louder than my voice.
Afterwards, in the van, as we drove back to the mission he said, “You did alright. You’ve got a long way to go, but you did alright.” “Alright,” I said, “That was horrible!” “You did good,” he said. “Someday you’re going to be a great preacher.” “I’m never doing that again,” I said. And for the next ten years I didn’t.
Pastors said I needed to be a pastor. Professors urged me to re-think my decision to drop out of seminary. Friends weren’t sure what to say to me. They were puzzled by my obstinacy. “I’m not made for a pulpit,” I said. “I’m not pastor material. There’s no way I’m ever going to be a pastor. Never.” Maybe they didn’t see it, but I did. There was too much of the anarchist to me. Not enough quietness of mind. I could be loud, arrogant, and hard-headed. I wasn’t a good listener. I talked too much. I thought out loud. I had an absurdist sense of humor. I cussed a lot. And besides that, all the Lutheran theology I’d read told me I had nothing of any importance to say to good Christian people come Sunday? “I don’t know how to talk to normal people who grew up in the church,” I said.
Then, after all the excuses were taken away – relationships, jobs, and money – and I was forced into a corner I couldn’t wiggle out of, I accepted a call to serve a dead church. Dead, I was told, because they were out of time, money, resources, and there were almost no people left. Even then I was their second choice. But, the other guy wanted too much money, so I got the phone call. And that’s when God sent a man with no more excuses to serve a church that was out of options.
Once I got to know people, and learned some about the congregation, I tried to get out. For the next three years I’d pray, make phone calls, harass other pastors, and rave to friends that I didn’t belong here. There’d been a mistake made. I wasn’t the right guy for the job. I was just making things worse. God, it seemed, had sent me to kill off what was left of the congregation, lock the doors, and send the remainder away to go look for a new church.
Then something marvelous happened. Babies were born and baptized in the church’s font. And it was my hands God used to pour the water. It was my mouth He used to speak His words: “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” People showed up, who I’d never spoken to before. Some stayed, but too many walked away. Too many because of me, anyway. But the ones who stayed and the ones who left God used. He put them to work teaching me how to be a pastor; their pastor. Weekly communion. Congregational hymns. Law-Gospel sermons. Lutheran pastoral care in the way of Bible, catechism, and hymnal. And over, and under, and through the reforms made to me and the congregation, Christians have fallen asleep in Christ. Some, I can’t remember their middle name. Those were the old-timers who died when I first got here. Others, who’ve died since, I mourn still. Those are the ones whom God in His grace allowed me to love. God used them to make me their pastor.
Now, I’m not a good pastor. Not when I take my measure. In my way of seeing it, for as much as I’ve learned, as much as I’ve matured, I’m not worthy of the pastoral office. I still talk too much. I still think out loud, but most people can tell when I’m talking to them or at them. The kids have helped me not cuss so much. The weight of patience has been laid down on me at peoples’ deathbed. But ask anyone at church and they’ll tell you – usually while I’m standing there – that I can make a mess of the simplest stuff. But we’re here, together. We’ve fallen in and out of love so many times, I don’t keep track anymore. Love is messy stuff anyway. Ongoing hostility punctuated by moments of tenderness.
That’s how it happened, how I was goaded into a pulpit. God took from me everything I imagined I couldn’t live without. Instead He put me with all these Lutherans. These people, His chosen people, whom I can’t imagine giving up. I’m not a pastor anymore, I’m their pastor. I’m someone’s pastor. I stay for them. I serve them. I suffer them. That is enough. I’m their pastor in spite of myself, trusting that, as Martin Luther wrote to the clergy in the city of Luebeck: “Christ himself, our only Preserver, will be with you and will teach and accomplish through you what will contribute to his honor and the salvation of men. Amen.”