Touched by Grace
Developing a good neighbor policy: no strings attached.
Question 4, What are some church based experiences that motivate you to want to give of yourself to others?
Since I first started attending churches there have been a lot of changes. Minnesota, where I was born and raised is/was a Lutheran state. At the time of their immigration my ancestors came from Lutheran dominated countries.
One day when we were young my brother snuck off and attended a vacation Bible school program at the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. He came home and said you have got to go with me. For each kid he brought with him he got a prize. It was an introduction to the free-market mentality of evangelicalism. Everyone is fair game.
This goes back many years and brings back many memories. Perhaps your religious experience is similar. It is important to rehearse the positive memories as well.
At this time I choose to make a list of a handful of stories about experiences, church experiences that became defining moments, turning points in my life.
1. My baptism.
2. The altar call.
3. The mission call.
4. The call to preach.
5. The handshake.
6. The vision.
7. Thank you.
1. I was baptized at our Redeemer Lutheran Church in St. Paul Minnesota. I was the third child of my mother’s second marriage. My older sister, my twin brother, me, and our baby sister were all brought to the church, midday for a private baptism service. The circumstances around that event are enough for a whole other story. We walked into the church. I remember tapping my hand on the side of each pew as we walked forward. There was a man standing way up front wearing a robe. As we approached him I became very nervous. God, was not much of a subject in our home. Somehow, instinctively I knew this was about God. A voice inside of me, my own voice said, “I guess this means you want something.” We continued our walk to the front. I don’t remember the rest. My baptism became a defining moment in my life. I have never forgotten it or the sense of God being present.
2. I have already mentioned my brother enticing me to vacation Bible school. When VBS was over there was a Friday evening gospel service. Pastor Clarence Matthews stood in the pulpit and preached his sermon. I remember him standing in the pulpit talking. I don’t remember what he said. I do remember I liked him. When he was done preaching he thanked all the kids for coming to VBS. He then said he wanted to lead us in this favorite hymn, “Just as I am.” When we finished singing what seemed like the first hundred verses he said I think God is talking to someone, then all of a sudden someone got up and walked to the front of the church, knelt down, and started to talk real softly. A member of the church was there to listen. Then we started singing the next hundred verses. It happened all over again. Pastor Matthews said I think God is talking to someone. Just like before a person got up and walked to the front of the church, knelt down, and started talking. Another member of the church was there to listen. Now this whole process got my attention. I said to myself, “self” this is scary stuff. What if God wanted to talk to me? I decided not to listen. Then all of a sudden it happened all over again, and again, and again. I closed my eyes so as not to “hear” what was going on. Then pastor Matthews said it was time to stop. As the song was coming to an end pastor said “I know I said I was going to stop” but, in my heart I believe God is saying there’s one more person God is talking to. I don’t believe he finished the sentence before I ran to the front of the church, slid to my knees and said “ sorry God, it was just scary thinking you wanted to talk to me.” That night I prayed, Jesus, forgive me and come into my life. I have never forgotten that incident.
3. One evening there were a group of people at the church who wanted to go to a missionary meeting at St. Paul Bible college. I think I was about 11 years old. They asked me if I wanted to go with them. I said, sure. So off we went. When we got to the college I was all inspired by the character of the building we were walking into. The wooden stairs creaked, the railings were smooth to the touch. The double doors were massive and had clouded glass. Once inside the building I was stunned, I just stood there. Everyone I was with kept walking and all of a sudden I realized I was alone. I heard what sounded like someone calling my name. The voice was a whisper. Carl. I looked all over to see who was calling me. No one was there. I then ran down the hall in the direction my friends had gone. I went in through a set of double doors, found a chair and sat down. I listened to the missionaries and all they had to say. Their stories were fascinating. And then just as soon as everything started it was over. I just sat there in amazement. Before I realized it everyone had left the room. As I got up to leave the room I heard my name, Carl. I ran very fast. I ran through the double doors. I ran down the hall and out through the big doors and down the stairs. There in the distance were the people I came with. They were waiting by the car. One of them looked at me and said, we were afraid we’d lost you, we were about to go back in to see if we could find you. In the car all the way home I never said a word. I only wondered about all that transpired that evening. Once again, it was a moment I have never forgotten.
4. St. Paul Bible college was to play an important part in my life. Years had gone by and I found myself being a student studying missions. During that time the assistant Dean at the college got a letter from a church asking if there was a student who would be available to go out and preach in North Dakota. The Dean called me into his office and told me the story about this church. I was excited, I said I would be very happy to go there. I also told the Dean that I would not be attending school next semester because I didn’t have the money to pay for it. Please ask the people if they would mind if I came early. He called them, they said I could come as soon as I wanted. I finished the semester I was in and drove out to Western North Dakota. I preached my first sermon on Easter Sunday morning. I think one person stayed awake. I had written my sermon out so as not to make a mistake. I went back to where I was staying after the morning message, sat in my chair, closed my eyes, and began to pray. Lord, I am sorry, I blew it. Then tears came to my eyes. I do not know how long I sat in the chair. During my time in North Dakota I fell in love with these people. One lady said she believed their churches call was to help young preachers get started. When the summer was drawing to a close this congregation and the neighboring congregation got together and asked me if I would be willing to stay. They said I could continue my schooling at the nearby University. They said all my expenses will be covered. They said they really wanted me to stay. With tears in my eyes I told them that I believed that I needed to finish my school at the Bible college. My call, as I understood it had been confirmed. Those months in North Dakota stay with me, and continue to encourage me throughout my ministry.
5. It was a sunny day and people were filling the sanctuary. As people came into the church I greeted them, smiled and proceeded to do what was necessary before worship began. That morning was much like other Sunday mornings. As the worship service was coming to an end I gave the benediction, walked down the center aisle and waited at the back of the church to shake hands with people as I normally did. Then, as people greeted me and older lady stopped. She reached forward with her right hand, then, she placed her left hand so that both her hands covered my right-hand. She looked at me, smiled and said “pastor, when you started to talk about… I knew God was speaking to me.” She went on to talk a moment about the stress she was facing during the week. Again she smiled, said, thank you for being God’s servant. After the service I went home. At the dinner table I talked with my wife about what had happened. I told her that I was learning that the sermon wasn’t always what I thought was it was. I had come to believe that the morning worship service was an event, an environment of worship. Each element of the service was a part of the whole and not the focus of worship. I had been learning that as I walked into the sanctuary I was walking to the presence of God. God was speaking in the silence, in the song, in the prayer, in the greetings of one person to another, in all facets of the worship. This lady had heard God speak to her. It was my job to see that the worship time in the sanctuary was free of barriers and obstacles. It was to be a place where God could be heard. The handshake was merely an affirmation of what God was doing.
6. Christ Community Hospital in Oak Lawn Illinois was sponsoring a clinical pastoral education program. During that time a number of conferences were also held in the hospital auditorium. One of these conferences was headlined by NBC. They had a wonderful idea to sponsor walk-in clinics in neighborhoods across the United States. At this meeting they presented the idea. I just happened to be in that meeting and asked them if they would like to use our church. At first our church board was quite skeptical but after a long meeting one of the elders started to laugh. He concluded that this would be a wonderful opportunity for our church to reach into our community in a caring way. Now, those of you who know the inside working and politics of small churches know there was a lot more to it than that. The board was concerned that if we did this no one would show up. Why should we waste our time? The question echoed through the first few meetings. Then the elder who laughed said, think about it. If no one shows up we will have gotten all that free advertising. The community, whether they come or not, will understand that we are trying to be there in a special way. This elder won the day. One of the members of our church who shared in some of the other frustration around the skepticism and small church politics stepped forward and said I would like to help set this up. In the short time we had, many questions arose. She handled these questions like a trooper. Each day she was involved you could begin to see a smile form on her face. Each day her frustration began to change. The day of the event she was a transformed person. It was wonderful to see her, was wonderful to work with her and wonderful to hear the joy she translated to all the visitors. The date of the event the people began to line up outside the front door. By the time the day was over almost 900 people came to have their blood pressure checked, blood work done, and other basic tests run at no cost to them. It was a wonderful day, an almost unbelievable experience. Each time I tell the story my eyes begin to water. I am moved to say a simple thank you to those who participated, for those who helped make it a successful event, to NBC for their vision and to God for such a wonderful opportunity.
7. Thank you. The apostle Paul found himself thanking people who had opened doors for him during his ministry. For almost 20 years the Presbyterian Churches in Calgary, Alberta Canada played a very special role in my life, in my family’s lives, in my work, and in my ministry. I want to tell a story. It is the closing story used in my last sermon preached in Calgary. I had used the text where the apostle Paul was thanking those who had supported his ministry in a special way. On this my final sermon in Calgary I preached through the sermon and came to the conclusion by sharing a simple story. It must be noted that in Calgary Presbyterians often get teased for being so reserved. The story is as follows:
A man died and went to heaven. He met St. Peter at the pearly gates. Peter confirmed his reservation. Peter then took him inside the gates. Peter asked the man if there was something he would like to do. The man said I would like to spend some time in worship. Peter then said follow me. He took him down a long hall. At the first door he said these are the salvationists. You remember the holiness churches and others. They often have drums and horns and other instruments. The man said, “show me more.” Peter continued his journey. The next group he said like to say amen, and speak out during the sermon. The man said I would like to continue the journey. There were many doors in what seemed like an unending hallway. Then as Peter and this man came to the end of the hall way, Peter said you must be very quiet. These are the Presbyterians. Their worship is very liturgical and mostly very reserved. Then Peter said please do not mistake this process for lack of enthusiasm. On the contrary these are a group of people who have come to understand what it is to stand in the “awe” of God. That is a quieting experience.
So often throughout the week my life had been pulled in so many directions by social and political issues. As we walked into the worship service we were often met by the traditional singing of Holy Holy Holy. This rendition of the opening hymn grabbed my attention and caused me to focus on God. God is the starting point of all ministry. The work of God is the mandate of the ministry. The ministry needed to be kept in focus. The Presbyterians helped me do that. Thank you.