Thursday, November 23, 2006
Barbers make excellent psychologists
Bennie Howell, my barber, who like all good practitioners of his craft is an excellent psychologist as well as gifted in the tonsorial arts, recently remarked that when he began to cut my hair, it contained almost no gray. I told him that when I arrived here there was no gray in my hair at all! We then reflected on the passing of time and how many of my gray hairs may have come from members of my congregation. No doubt I have given them a good share of their gray hair as well!
Several have been kind enough to remark on the fact that I am now beginning my twentieth year of service in this place. Thanksgiving week seems a good time to reflect upon this milestone, for I consider it an honor to be here and to be able to write these words today.
I did not come to Holly Springs expecting to be here twenty years. No minister, I think, enters upon a pastorate with the expectation of such duration. Back then it was so hard to think of a sermon for the next Sunday, that it would have been impossible to contemplate the 1,000 or so that I have delivered since my entry upon that responsibility. At roughly 30 minutes per sermon, by my arithmetic, that means also that the dedicated listeners in my flock have logged about 500 hours of “bench time” absorbing the things I have felt led to say.
Some of them have told me that those church pews are hard, and that I would not say so much if I had to sit in them on Sundays myself. I have offered to trade places, but nobody has been willing to accept the challenge.
By any way of reckoning, I am now in the category of a long pastorate. Mine is certainly not the longest pastorate among Presbyterians in this state. One need look no further than Byhalia, to think of my good friend Don Wilson who has served his flocks there and at Hudsonville since 1965. That amounts to 41 years. But Don’s is no record for Presbyterian service in this state — in fact no new “records” are likely to be set — the Board of Pensions sees to that. Consider Dr. Tyrone Thomas Williams, who was minister at Tunica from 1918 to 1964 (46 years), Dr. Joseph B. Stratton at Natchez, who served from 1843 to 1894 (51 years) or Dr. C. W. Grafton, who was at Union Church, Miss., from 1873 to 1934 (61 years).
There are advantages and disadvantages to long pastorates. Here is an advantage. In a small parish with the passing of time, you really do get to know people, and they also get to know you. My first charge was as an assistant minister in a very large city congregation. Relationships with people were extremely artificial. You saw them only on Sunday mornings, and that is the only time they ever saw you.
In a small town, the minister is “the minister” 24/7. But what good is a gospel that is not able to reach down to the everyday? So being a minister is not just when we see each other in our Sunday best, but when we are together at the ballfield, or when you see me at the Big Star, or mowing my lawn, or washing my automobile. Most of my “counseling” occurs incidentally — not in the formality of the office at the church, but when we bump into each other on the square and have a chat about the various problems of life. I think it was that way when Jesus walked the roads of Galilee.
But there are also disadvantages. One is making sermons. I had a friend in seminary whose father was a minister. My friend had lived in 20 different places over the course of his first 22 years of life. He said his father found it easier to move the family every year than to write new sermons. (Knowing this friend and his family, I suspect now there was a little more to the story than that!)
But keeping fresh is a challenge. People ask me if I re-preach old sermons. Well, I may re-emphasize some things that needs to be taught to each rising generation, but I do not simply pull out a yellowed old sermon and preach it as if it had never been delivered before. I always come away from a Sunday thinking I could do better next time, so I long ago quit saving sermons. It is easier to make a fresh one than to rehearse an old one. But yes, key ideas do reappear from time to time.
The other thing is that each minister has certain gifts and weaknesses. You have to play the cards you’re dealt. So while I may not be the one to encourage my congregation to embrace “contemporary worship,” or to lead them in building a modernistic new house of worship, I hope that something I have contributed supplied a need that was lacking. By the same token, I doubt my successor will be as interested in history and historic preservation as I have been. As I tell my flock, when your new pastor comes someday, she’s probably going to make some changes!
One thing about being a pastor in a place like Holly Springs, you at least have time to think a bit about what you are doing. There are not the resources to do everything a big church could attempt, but there is the freedom to try and do a few things well. In today’s world of “push-push,” I think that is why a great many people are attracted to our beautiful small town.
Something I would say to anyone who will listen is, “Do not be afraid of the future.” I say this because the future is where God dwells. The past is over and done, and while we can learn from it, God dwells in the land of the living. The present is upon us, and often we regret things we have done.
But the future is a place of hopefulness, and God beckons us forward. The direction of the Christian faith is forward, ahead of time, always ahead of where we are at the moment, and always into new and uncharted territory. Christians possess the future because it is where God intends to meet us again.
I am thankful at this time because the Thanksgiving season is a time for family, and you in Holly Springs have become my family. It has been a privilege to serve here, and like all of you, I hope to leave this place a little bit better than I found it when I arrived 20 years ago. I think we would all like to have that said about us. God grant that we may have opportunity in the months and days ahead to express our gratitude in active thanksgiving.
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