Thursday, April 18, 2013
The Preacher’s Corner
God is bigger than our quarrels and loves us all the same
Little girls dream of getting married from at least the age of three. The entire wedding is planned by the age of nine — what the bridesmaids will wear, the color of the flowers, the décor of the church. The only thing left to chance is the identity of the groom. Grooms are relatively unimportant personages at weddings, and for that reason, when I conduct weddings, I always try to be pastoral toward the groom and his men, and make them feel important and useful.
Preachers have their ordination services well planned, too. It should be in a great cathedral, with thundering organ and angelic choir, and lots of people to hear your first sermon. Idlewild Church on Union Avenue in Memphis would serve quite nicely.
My beginning was considerably more humble. It took place at Camp Hopewell, near Oxford. The presbytery (the district governing council of Presbyterians) was meeting there. The presbytery enjoyed having its meetings at the church camp. It was centrally located and inexpensive to arrange the meeting. The food was adequate, and there is plenty of room. The brochure says it is “rustic.” Many Holly Springs children go there for a week in the summer. They learn to appreciate the comforts of home.
On the day-in-question, I was to be “taken under care” as a candidate for the ministry. That was a minor matter to the presbytery, if not a major occasion for me. But other business had to be transacted. First, a report was given from the General Assembly (our national governing body). Mississippi Presbyterians take inordinate pleasure in protesting the actions of the General Assembly, and the gentleman giving the report stated that he had vowed that if he ever got to go to the General Assembly, he would vote against everything it tried to do, and this, he reported, he had done!
The main event, however, was a disputation between two groups in the presbytery, who might loosely have been termed the Fundamentalists and the Liberals, although an observer from anywhere else might have found it hard to distinguish the two. The controversy was enervated because it involved a distribution of money.
The first item of business was the admission of a minister judged by some to be rather lax in his views on theology. Someone rose, and pointed to the camp dog who was wagging her way up and down the center aisle of the outdoor pavilion where we were meeting, and charged that if the presbytery were to lower its standards to such a point as to enroll this person, then, “You might as well let the camp dog have a vote.”
At this moment the dog made her presence known. She was an old yellow dog, like the kind you used to see all the time before all the pure-bred Labrador and golden retrievers became so popular. She’d had many litters of puppies and was friendly to all parties, ever hopeful for a handout. Every time the moderator called for a vote, our canine friend would strut up and down the center aisle barking. I noted she usually voted with the progressives.
When the time came for my examination, a fierce argument over the aforementioned financial matter was being continued at the edge of the pavilion —the liberals being unsatisfied with the outcome of this crucial vote. The preacher appointed to charge me to uphold higher things was involved in this dispute. The minister from the largest church in our presbytery, and the most outspoken of our progressive ministers, was also involved. They and several others were outside the pavilion and were arguing very loudly. Everybody could see and hear the fracas, and nobody was interested in the prayers over yours truly.
I started feeling sorry for myself. Very sorry. Then, as if God had sent her, I noticed the camp dog. She was sitting in the center aisle scratching a flea. It was as if she were telling me that all this controversy wasn’t the least bit important in the big scheme of things, if only we would do the things that God had given us to do. I bowed my head once more and began to smile.
I learned that day that you either have to laugh with some of the things that happen in life or else you will always be crying. Church squabbles are a terrible thing and they have exacted a fearful toll among the Presbyterians of Mississippi. I confess that I cannot abide them and have tried to carry out my ministry as much as possible apart from them.
But surely God is amused. God is bigger than our little quarrels and loves us all just the same. Years later I learned a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Strong Son of God, Immortal Love,” that expresses the thought more eloquently. A stanza goes like this:
Our little systems have their day;
Whenever I get frustrated with Holy Mother Church, I think of the old camp dog at Hopewell. She keeps me humble. Maybe they should have let her vote after all!
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