Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Monday, September 15, 2008

Taking Nursery Rhymes Seriously: Part 2 (per request of Jen)

It all comes down to respect. That's why I had to do it.

I first met Grace at the annual Gourd Festival. It's the biggest party this side of the Calabash river. Everyone in Welborn County and even the surrounding areas would show up for the whiz-bang extravaganza that was Gourd-Fest '63.

The band was playing somethin' fierce. Not a lot of people know that a dried, hollowed out gourd makes a great resonator. Why, you can make it into a drum, a stringed thingy, even something you can blow in like a big fat flute if you want to. I was having the time of my life...

Then she walked in.

I will never forget the moment I first saw her. In a room full of multi-colored patchwork dresses, she glided across the hay in a pure white sundress. I suppose some might have thought that it was a little late in the year to wear it; of course, that's assuming that a body might be able to assemble any thoughts at all while gazing at her dazzling beauty. Me, I couldn't think at all. I could only stare. The kind of stare that only children can manage without the accompanying embarrassment that comes with maturity. But I wasn't embarrassed... just mesmerized.

She was new to the county and I would find out later that she had opened up a dress shop downtown. None of that mattered to me. I just wanted to dance; to be close to the only truly beautiful thing I had ever known besides the intoxicating smell of a freshly baked pumpkin pie. I awkwardly asked for the priviledge of a jig and as soon as we stepped out the band switched to a slow romantic-like song. Having never danced with real life lady before (My cousin and I had practiced a little in the loft of my family's barn but it was not pleasant. I bumped my head and his beard scratched my face.) I didn't rightly know where to place my hands. Thankfully, seeing my hesitation, she helped me out.

We danced every dance. We laughed and talked and, that night, while walking her to her door, she reached for my hand. I wasn't offended. I just took it. I thought, "I think I'm gonna marry this girl."

And I did.

Well, you know, after a couple years of bein' married, things started to change a little. For one thing, she insisted on keeping the dress shop when it was clear that her main responsibility was to keep our house. For another thing, she kept nagging me about finding a job and how pumpkin pie eating contest winnings weren't going to pay the bills forever and how she thinks I may be packing on the pounds. But, I was willing to put up with it. I really was. Sure, her pies weren't as good as Mom's. But, after I had Mom come and live with us to show her how to do it... she did improve... a little. So, things were o.k.

Then she started coming home late.

It only happened like once or twice a week at first. Then I started noticing that Grace was out late almost every night. "You don't understand how stressful running a dress shop can be," she lied. But, I knew the truth. Heck, everybody in the county knew the truth. Oh, she denied it. Up until the end she denied it. And with every blow of that shovel I grew to respect her more. I only wish she could have respected me.

Well, the clean up after a scene like that is awkward. Luckily I had once again grown the largest pumpkin in Welborn County and it was almost time for Gourd-Fest '66. Now, one of the traditions of Gourd-Fest was the closing bon-fire built around the huge prize winning pumpkin. Well, I stuffed the bits and pieces of the dress-shop adultress into the hollowed out shell of my prize winner. And, standing there with all of the folks from the county, I watched my not-so-hollow shell go up in smoke.

"Where is your sweet Grace," some asked.

"I'm sure she'll show up soon," I replied.

She never did.


I will never forget my first Sunday at my new church. I was dressed up in khaki pants, white button down oxford, red tie and a blue blazer (the uniform of the late 80's). I was over the whole "uh... I just came to put a face to the name" debacle of the previous week. I was pumped to partner with this local body of believers to change the world.

And then he stepped up to the pulpit.

He was a nice guy. In fact, that is one of the things that makes me crazy. This guy, when I met him, must have been 79 or 80 years old and the first thing he did was bend over and touch the ground with both of his palms... without bending his knees. Then he looked up, smiled and said, "Can you do that?" Uh... I couldn't. He was a deacon. He loved his family... and, he loved jokes. His job, before the service began, was to give the Sunday School Report. This was a chance for everybody to hear how many of their friends and neighbors had been to Bible Study that day. So, he gave the report. I'm sure the number must have been somewhere between 100-125.

Then it happened.

In what I'm sure was a long standing tradition, He told a joke. I really wish he hadn't.

Q. "How do you keep a black man poor?" A. "Put his welfare check in his workboots."

The joke is offensive enough... but he didn't say "black man".

My throat burned. My chest tightened. I even think I got a little dizzy. I really was stunned. And, to my bitter dismay the congregation was howling. They loved it. I decided within 15 minutes of my first church service to resign and move back home.

I called my former youth pastor, Dick Stagner, and told him what happened. He, thank God, shared my dismay but gave me an important piece of advice. "Stay there a year," he told me.

I did.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Welcome to First Baptist Oil City!

The whole process of "calling" new ministers in the Baptist church has always mystified me. But, I was never more baffled than when I was exposed to the process for the first time as a naive and idealistic twenty year old prospective youth director. It was a process that, I was soon to learn, varied greatly from church to church. Some churches, reeling from a "bad experience" with the last guy, would draw out the job interview for as long as possible. Others were slightly more desperate.

I was twenty years old, working as a iron worker (we put up steel frames for buildings), and trying to move on with my life after having flunked out of college. I knew that God had called me into student ministry (I realize that calling is an ambiguous term... but, I just knew that I was supposed to invest my life reaching out to teenagers). I was dating an uber hot chick named Amy (get over yourselves all of you who resent the word chick... it is a complete compliment which is comparable to hunk... or, to translate for any teenagers who happen to be reading this: hottie).

I really don't recommend this to anyone starting out in the ministry; but, I was interviewing with multiple churches in hopes that I would catch on with one of them. It had come down to two finalists. Emmanuel Baptist in Pittsburg, Texas and First Baptist Church of Oil City, Louisiana. I had a really great rapport with the pastor at Emmanuel; but, things were moving very slowly. I would go and run a hayride for them... and wait. I would be invited to sing and give my testimony... and wait. Their pastor was always encouraging me to hang on. He would tell me that they were on the verge of making a decision.

And I wanted to wait. I was growing to love their church, the students, and the pastor the more I spent time with them. But, since it was taking so long, I was open to talking to Oil City as well, even if it was located Louisiana. I was interviewed by phone by the chairman of their search committee and things seemed to go well. The guy called me on a Wednesday night and asked me to come to a business meeting that they were having so that people could "put a face to the name". They were going to be talking about me and I thought it would be rude if I refused to be there. Plus, all activity with Emmanuel had gone dormant. So I went.

One problem, I had never driven from Longview, TX (my hometown) to Oil City, LA so I underestimated the amount of time that it would take to get there. When I finally arrived they were coming to the close of the meeting and the search committee chairman was standing at the front of the church. When he saw me he broke into a wide toothy smile and called me to the front of the room. I awkwardly walked to the front of the room... there were about 25-35 church members there. When I arrived at the front, he stuck out his hand. I took it.

As I look back on it... perhaps that is where I went wrong.

"Welcome to First Baptist Oil City!" he exclaimed. The room filled with as much applause as 30-something bored people could muster. I was struggling to comprehend what had happened. Remember, I had been in the room for less than a minute.

So, I accepted my first church ministry by shaking hands with a guy with whom I had had one phone conversation. I didn't know how much I was going to be paid ($87 dollars a week), where I was going to live (a room with no air-conditioning off of the gym), or anything about the pastor (hmmmm, how to describe?).

And that's when things got interesting...

People get ready

Amy, my beautiful and intelligent wife has challenged me to write out the most memorable moments from twenty years of student ministry. So, get ready to walk down to Pastville with me and relive the high and lowlights of my ministry years so far. Some are hilarious... some are heartbreaking. All are from my perspective and therefore, skewed in my favor. I think I am going to try to go in chronological order. That's the order in which the events happened, Clay.

So... I should be blogging a lot more now. This should be fun.