Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Thursday, March 13, 2014


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a place of winter For the Years of Winter…

There is probably no one else left alive who remembers my night of shame in Mineral City, IN, but I still turn red and hang my head whenever I hear “Pass me not, O gentle savior…”

It was 1958, and I was riding the Solsberry [1] Methodist Circuit while a student at IU {Indiana University}. I was riding a green 1951 Chevy instead of a horse, like the original circuit riders, but the circuit was spread out far enough, 16 to 35 miles from Bloomington, that I could get to only two churches on Sunday morning. I preached at the third one in the evening.

Of course, none of the three wanted only early or evening services, so the first Sunday of the month I went to Koleen and Mineral in the morning and Solsberry in the evening. The second Sunday I managed Mineral and Solsberry in the morning and Koleen at evening. Third Sunday was Solsberry and Koleen and then Mineral. Fourth Sunday was… oh, I don’t know. How could anybody know? The people didn’t know the schedule, either, but all three churches had Sunday School, so everyone came for that, and if the preacher showed up, some would stay for worship, too. Twice in the three years I rode that circuit I went to the wrong church. The schedule was so confusing that we didn’t even try to have services on a fifth Sunday. It is only partially true that I proposed by saying, “A fifth Sunday is coming up so why don’t we get married?”

Evening services were not well attended, since most folks couldn’t remember which Sunday they had 7:00 pm worship, and Mineral was the worst. [2] In the morning 50 or 60 folk would turn out, but we rarely had more than 20 for an evening service.

So I did what stupid young preachers do. I dared them. I vowed if they ever got 50 or more folks to come to an evening service, I’d sing a solo. Now why in the world I thought getting to hear me sing a solo would motivate anyone to evangelism I have no idea; that’s the “stupid” in “stupid young” above. I wasn’t worried, though. There was no way they’d ever get 50 for an evening service.

But because I was their pastor, young and stupid and skinny though I be, they assumed it was something they ought to do. I counted twice to be sure. Not just 50, but 51, not even including babies.

I had a decent enough bass voice, but a very limited range, like two and ½ notes. I did not know that, because my roommate then, a friend already from back home in Oakland City, was Jim Barrett, an IU music major. When he was available, Jim went along to services with me to play piano. When we sang, he just transposed the music to go wherever my voice went.

I chose “Pass me not” that night. I sounded so good on that song with Jim on the piano bench. I didn’t know he was transposing; I just thought I was getting better. But Jim wasn’t on the bench that night. Instead it was the 90-year-old lady with the good heart but trembling hands. She knew nothing about transposing.

I tried every key, including Q and Z. I switched octaves, almost note by note. I switched clefs. I turned the book upside down. I turned myself upside down. Nothing worked. It was a disaster. If you went to that church today, I suspect that page 145 has been ripped from all the hymnals.

The people were kind, though. They concentrated on how nice it was to have so many at worship, instead of how pathetic the preacher was. They always did that. They were uncommonly generous. I thought I was supposed to be perfect, but they knew I was just young and stupid, and they made allowances accordingly. They knew I was doing the best I could, within my limited range. As I think about those kind hearts and gentle people, I sing a little solo: “I could have loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind. You know that was the last thing on my mind.” [3]

Yes, they did know that, even then.


1] I thought Solsberry was just a misspelling of Salisbury. It was forty years later, when I pastored the church at Arcola, IL and met Jim Cummings, that I learned that the town was named for his grandfather, Sol, and the wild berry patches on his land on those Hoosier hills.

2] It was officially Mineral City, but a church and three houses don’t really constitute a city, so we always just said Mineral.

3] Words and music by the great Tom Paxton, but I always hear the voice of Joe Frazier of The Chad Mitchell Trio doing that song, even when I sing it. Joe doesn’t need Paul Prestipino and Ron Greenberg and Bob Hefferan to transpose.

The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where life is defined by winter even in the summer!

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