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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…

The Academy of Parish Clergy starts its annual meeting today. Yesterday I wrote of Granger Westberg and the founding of APC. I was supposed to be in Racine, WI today to give the opening remarks, reflecting on the fifty years of APC’s existence, but it became impossible for me to attend in person. So, here is what I was going to say. It’s about four times longer than my usual columns, so you might want to refill your coffee…


John Robert McFarland, FAPC

[Not every member of APC is Christian, and certainly not Methodist, but the only language I have to tell this story is Christian and Methodist. I do not mean to exclude anyone, just tell the story as it was and is.]


Almost fifty years ago, James Glasse spoke at an APC conference. Glasse was a distinguished pastor and educator of pastors, the dean of Lancaster Theological Seminary, and his father was a well-known, respected, even revered pastor in their denomination.
Jim’s new book was out, and he asked his father what he thought of it. But his father had not read it.
 “They tell me it’s a pretty good book, if you like that kind of book, but Son, I don’t like that kind of book.”
The elder Glasse had not read the book, because he didn’t need to, to know he didn’t like that kind of book. Its title was, Profession: Minister.
Those of us who are old enough can sympathize with Glasse’s father. For him, the ministry was not a profession. You didn’t choose it just for the high status and big bucks and low hours. The ministry was a vocation, a calling, not a profession. You didn’t choose it, it chose you. You were called--by God, no less. As my bishop told me, “Don’t go into the ministry if you can do anything else.”
That was one of the ways you knew you were called to the ministry--you didn’t want to do it. That was one of the reasons I thought I was called.


          When I was fourteen my older sister became mysteriously and desperately ill. Her heart and kidneys and lungs were all failing. The doctors said there was nothing they could do and that she had only three hours to three days to live. I knew from Sunday School that if you want to get something from God you had to give something to God. The only thing I had to give for my sister’s life was my own life, and the only thing I could imagine God might want from me was my life as a preacher. So I made the deal. Immediately, at the very time I told God I would make the trade, my sister got well, as mysteriously and completely as she had gotten ill. The doctors, of all people, actually used the M word: “It was a miracle,” they said. And only I knew why. [1]
          But was that a call? It was a deal, a trade, and as an honest as well as promising young man, I was obligated to keep it. Or was I? You had to be called to be a minister. Was a deal like that really a call? That was my out. I wasn’t really called. Unless I really was…


          I had to start thinking theologically, a fourteen year old hairy legged farm boy. Did God make my sister sick to get me into the ministry? Would God have let her die if I had not made the deal? Will God come back and kill her if I don’t keep the deal? Is a God like that worth serving? I decided to give it 50 years and if I couldn’t get answers by then I’d try something else.
          I received my first appointment as a Methodist preacher when I was nineteen. Three points—Solsberry, Koleen, and Mineral, about 200 folks all told. I was ready. After all, I had been thinking about God since I was fourteen. And ever since.
          Then I hit a birthday that ended with a zero. Not a double zero as some have suggested, but significant, nonetheless.
          All those years before, from nineteen on, every book I read, every story I heard, every incident I saw, I put it into my ministry. It went into my preacher brain, which was a shoe box full of 4x6 cards. My brain got very big through the years and became several shoe boxes full of 4x6 cards. I never read a word or had a thought or said a prayer that wasn’t directed at helping my people grow in faith.
I’m considerably sorry to say that in addition to helping my people grow in faith, every word I read and thought I had and prayer I said was also directed to helping me to get ahead. I especially wanted to impress my colleagues with how good I was at our shared profession. My life was lived to help others and maximize my status. Nothing about it was designed to help me personally be a real honest-to-God regular Christian. I lived with only one question about everything, Will it preach?
          There is always some spillover, of course, if you’re thinking about God and talking about God and helping others be open to God. You can’t help but get some of it on yourself.


          That, however, was beside the point. I was 80 and I had never been a real Christian. I knew I needed to fast. I needed a professional Christian fast—no professional thinking and acting at all, only Christian thinking and acting. So I did the Lenten study on Jonah at our church the way I was asked to do, as my last hurrah. The rest of Lent I would fast from the profession of ministry.
Lent is very long when you’re a professional Xn but very short when you’re just a regular Christian, and when it was over, I knew it wasn’t long enough to do me any good. I extended the fast for a year. I told our pastors that I would do nothing professional for a year—no pastoral prayers or serving communion, no study group leadership, no weddings or funerals, no hospital calls. They were willing to honor my fast. In fact, they seemed unduly happy about it. That year, that professional fast, ended on a day celebrated both as Easter and April Fool’s Day.
It was a total failure. 
          After all my years as a professional Xn, I was a complete bust as a real Christian. Oh, I did real Christian stuff. Our old colleague, Father Joe Dooley, always said that the responsibility of lay persons is to “pray, pay, and obey.” I tried. I prayed. I paid. I obeyed, mostly.
I worked food repack nights at the Food Bank. I took the Backpack Buddies food from the church building to the Community Kitchen. I invited people to come to church. I greeted newcomers and sent them notes. I bought prizes for Jail Bingo. I criticized the preachers and the hymns. All the things real Christians are supposed to do. [2]
Mentally, though, I put every one of those things on a 4x6 card and stuck it in a shoe box in the back of my brain.


1968 was the year that ministry went from calling to profession. Yes, it was the year Abingdon published James Glasse’s Profession: Minister. It was also the year Granger Westberg proposed The APC in the pages of The Christian Century.
          Westberg had been talking about an academy for parish clergy before 1968, however. I heard him do so when he came to Bloomington, IL to speak at the Lutheran church where he had pastored years before. He made an academy for professionalizing the ministry sound so exciting—continuing education requirements, a code of ethics, a journal for sharing the practice of the profession. I wanted to join, even though it didn’t exist yet. But I was bereft. I would not be allowed to join. It was for parish pastors only, and I was a campus minister.
          I wasn’t ever going to get to join APC, because I wasn’t ever going to be a parish pastor again. I was going to honor my deal with God but not exactly. I would get a doctorate in communication theory and become a seminary professor of homiletics. You don’t have to be called to be a preacher to teach others to preach.
          By the time I finished doctoral work, though, all the homiletics positions were filled, or at least that’s what they told me, and like so many other would-be parish escapees before me, I took a congregation because I needed a job.
By that time, APC had moved from a gleam in Granger Westberg’s eye to a Lilly-funded reality. It had not existed very long, but it was there, and the first thing I did following the Methodist annual conference when I was appointed to Orion, IL was to join the APC.
What with campus ministry and graduate work, I had not been pastor of a congregation for ten years. I knew I needed the help of experts to make the transition, and who could be more expert at pastoring a congregation than other pastors, pastors who weren’t just flying off the seat of their pants, living off an incident of calling from years before, but real professionals who would share their knowledge, share their practice, with me?
For twenty-two years of fulltime ministry and twenty-two more of part-time interims and occasional ministry forays, every word I read and every thought I had and every prayer I said was enhanced by sharing that practice with my APC colleagues.


When I was twenty, I went to my first clergy continuing education conference. It was called the School of the Prophets, for all the Methodist ministers in Indiana, at Depauw University. I had been preaching at Solsberry and Koleen and Mineral for a year already, with no education for the job except Speech 101.
This was my first opportunity for education as a minister. I was enthralled. There was a Cokesbury display, with all the books and Jesus junk any preacher could ever possibly use, or misuse. I heard sermons by Bishop Richard Raines and Ralph Sockman of Christ Church in NYC. I got enough sermon illustrations to last a month, the only reason preachers go to these things anyway.
Most importantly, I was in a preaching workshop led by Webb Garrison. His teaching was practical. We were to put sermon “illustrations” [3] on 4x6 cards, because they fit into a shoe box. We were to use rubber cement to affix clippings to the cards because it did not dry out the way Scotch Tape did.
At lunch I went downtown. To buy 4x6 cards and rubber cement. I also bought a pair of shoes I could not afford, but I really wanted the box. By the time I got done, I was running late for the afternoon session. I was in a hurry. I didn’t want to miss a single minute of that conference. In the distance, from the auditorium in Old Main, I heard the after-lunch singing start. What a sound. 100 tenors. 100 baritones. 100 basses. One soprano, Clara Mae Ripple, the only woman clergy in Indiana Methodism.
As I rushed along, ahead of me I saw an old man, bald and with a white beard, standing on the curb. He was wearing a black suit, shiny at the knees and elbows, with a yellowed white shirt buttoned up at the collar, but no tie. I was dressed like the cool university student I was, Kingston Trio style vertical stripe shirt, Ivy League chinos, argyle sox, tan buck shoes. The old man looked at me, hurrying toward the sound of the prophets, my shoe box under my arm, and as I got to him he said, “Are you a preacher?”
That was the question, for sure. But it was too complicated to explain, so I just said yes.
“I used to be a preacher.” He looked toward Old Main. “Is that the preachers singing?” he asked. I assured him it was.
I thought he would come with me, to the School of the Prophets, but he didn’t. He only stood there, gazing toward Old Main, his ear cocked toward the singing. He seemed content just to be close to “the goodly fellowship of the prophets.”
Now I am the old man standing on the curb. In the distance, I hear the voices raised in song, such much richer harmony now, with all those sopranos and altos.
In that harmony I hear the voices of Perry Biddle, Thor Bogren, Earl and Martha Davis, Joe Dooley, Ed Friedman, Kim Egolf-Fox, John and Dottie Freed, Roger Imhoff, Granger Westberg, and so many others.
I hear the singing of the prophets, and I know where I belong: I am called, and I am professional.

John Robert McFarland, FAPC

1] I tell this story more fully in The Strange Calling, published by Smyth&Helwys.

2] I was like one of the football players on a team I heard their coach describe. He said, “They are good at running around the field, doing football-like activities, but they don’t really play football.” I was okay at doing real-Christian-like activities, but I wasn’t a regular Christian.

3] I resist calling the stories we tell in sermons as “illustrations” because I think the experiences we tell about are the points. The things we say about those stories are the illustrations.

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