What Preachers Tell Us, Part 2… Brother Joe

The first pastor I remember was named Joe! Imagine that.

He was a young seminary graduate from Texas who served our family’s American Baptist Church in Norwich, KS. I remember my dad enjoying his thoughtful sermons and sincere approach to talking about the Christian faith.

He ministered at the church at about the time my dad wanted us to consider being baptized. My older brother Matt was baptized at the church. I wasn’t ready to be baptized, though. I was young at the time, so some of the details are a bit fuzzy, but I remember Pastor Joe not pressing the issue. Which I have come to find to be unique for a Baptist (no slight, there… because you Baptists know that you can be a bit aggressive on yearly baptism counts).

He taught me something with his patience: the life of faith has a schedule of its own, that God governs and directs. We can’t make God turn up. Wonky and weird things happen when we try to do so.

There is a tension in the Christian life. On the one hand, we are told to never lack in spiritual zeal. (Romans 12:11) We should be eager to make the most of every opportunity. (Ephesians 5:16) On the other hand, anything that happens in the Christian life is inspired by God’s Spirit, for we cannot even call Jesus “Lord” without the Spirit’s enabling. (1 Cor. 12:3)

Pastor Joe showed me the first example of what it means to be “led by the Spirit,” even if it meant suggesting that it wasn’t my moment for baptism. It was a risky response by Brother Joe: what if it made me feel guilty about “not being ready” for God, leading me to resent faith leaders for their heavy-handed decisions?

One of the hardest things to do as a leader is to say “no” when it is easy to say “yes” in order to placate or to please. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned that being a pastor gives me a chance to give people permission to seek healing, hope, change, and transformation. At times, it’s also important to say “no.”

I heard a quotation by Chris Liddell, about what it takes to be a CFO,

Essentially, you need to be miserable, you need to be the sort of person who takes drinks away from people at the end of a party.

To lead, to be a pastor, takes some guts and to have a bit of grace-shaped “misery,” if you will. It’s to learn how to say “no” like an affectionate parent, at times.

That’s what Pastor Joe taught me.

What Preachers Tell Us… Intro

On Podcast episode 660 of NPR’s This American Life, author Shalom Auslander shared a true story called “The Blessing Bee.” As Auslander mentioned peculiar points of reference concerning his rabbinical training, he repeated a refrain that went something like this,

“Rabbi _______ told us,

That the Sages tell us,

That the Torah tells us…”

Auslander repeated this refrain effortlessly each time he retrieved a piece of information from his religious knowledge bank. It was like a stand-in disclaimer to any claim that he sought to make. And I thought it was compelling because it illustrated how a Rabbi is responsible for a vast ecosystem of religious thought and practice. Not only are they asked to be familiar with the Scripture text (Torah), but also with a panorama of thought and commentary about that text (Sages). This is a hyperawareness of religious thought and conversation. And it amazed me to consider it.

Perhaps my infatuation with Auslander’s story is shaped by my own. I’m a minister at a Christian church and am given the task to preach weekly sermons from the Scripture text and I often retrieve ideas from the Sages who have taught on it before me. I’ve been amazed, over the years, at the response from my sermons. I have Auslander’s story in mind when I am called someone’s “preacher.” Sometimes, I get to hear a response to my sermons and find that, on occasion, some folks thank me for some piece of information “in the sermon” that I did not say. I’ve also had people sleep through my sermons and tell me how much they loved it on the way out the door. Whereas Auslander’s rabbinical training required hyperawareness, it seems that the sermon can engender a type of hyperunawareness.

Having been a Christian for 20 years now and a minister for 15 years, I guess I am having one of those moments when I ask, “What is it all worth?” For there will be occasions when a church member of mine will be in a religious discussion, and they might say,

“My Preacher told us,

That the Sages tell us,

That the Bible tells us…”

I guess I’m eager to be more clear on what I’d want my people to say in those moments.

So, for a few blog posts, I want to talk about what each preacher from my life has taught me and then do a series of posts about what I’d like to be clear about for those who might call me their “preacher.”

Especially for Avery and Ezra who will have to juggle twin ideas about me for the rest of their lives: “dad” and “my preacher.”