I’ve been thinking about lessons that God has allowed into my life, and I realized that sometimes these lessons came in some rather odd wrapping. In fact, many times I hadn’t even realized they were lessons until some time had passed. I actually believe that somewhere in every experience is a life lesson. Romans 8:28 says that God has the amazing ability to somehow blend together everything that happens to us to form a blessing. At least in part, I think that means there are always lessons for us to learn. Here’s another thought – if we don’t learn the lesson the first time, God will repeat it, but each repetition will probably be a little more difficult so my advice to myself is learn the first time. Next time may not be as easy or as pleasant.
I was safely installed as pastor at the Fort Saskatchewan Church of the Nazarene and the first lesson came down the hallway of the school God was constructing for me. I met and got to know the pastor of the Church of the Nazarene in Sherwood Park, a community about 20 minutes south of the Fort. We started meeting on Wednesday afternoons. I would drive to Sherwood Park and there we would chat about what had been transpiring in our lives then we would pray for each other and our churches. After that was over, we would go to a racquetball court where we spent an hour sweating and exercising. I loved being in an enclosed space like that court because I could scream, and the sound would bounce back at me from every direction and I could release my frustrations. I remember one time I had read an article in The Herald of Holiness, the official magazine of the Church of the Nazarene. One of our General Superintendents had written an article that I had found particularly offensive. I sat down at my typewriter (yes typewriter, computers weren’t in my future for many years) and pounded out a letter correcting him, as only a rookie pastor can do. My friend, Ken Fach, read the letter and agreed that I had done a good job of stating my case. Then in a gentle voice he suggested I take the letter back to my office and destroy it. Writing the letter was a little like screaming in the racquetball court. I had vented my frustration and mailing the letter probably wouldn’t accomplish anything.
Here was the lesson that was wrapped up in this package – every pastor needs a mentor. Not only did Ken listen to me and give me good advice, but he also listened to my opinions and treated me as though I had something worthwhile to contribute to his life. When we left the Fort, I sort of forgot that lesson as I began to think that I was pretty hot stuff and could navigate the pastoral waters on my own. Only recently have I realized the fallacy in that thinking. There is never a time that I don’t need coaching and mentoring. For the past few years, I go walking on Wednesday afternoons with a dear friend whom I respect and trust. Some days we only lament the fortunes of the Montréal Canadiens (lots to lament there), but at others he makes me question why I am making some of the decisions I have made. I need his influence in my life.
Shortly after arriving at the Fort, one of the men in our congregation asked if I would baptize him. He outweighed me by at least 50 pounds, and I had never baptized anyone in my life. What would I do? On top of that our church didn’t have a baptismal tank. I was told that in the past we would go to Edmonton and use the baptismal tank at First Church of the Nazarene. The pastor was the veteran of over 20 years of pastoral ministry and when I asked if we could use his church on a Sunday evening, he was more than willing to help me. I explained that I’d never conducted a baptism before, and he walked me through how he conducted baptisms. His name was Bernie Archer and his eye for detail was amazing. The baptismal tank was recessed into the back wall of the platform. There was a blank wall on each side of the tank. He and his wife had recently travelled to Israel, and he’d brought back a small container of water from the Jordan River. He placed a small amount of that water in the tank and my first baptism was literally in water from the Jordan River, where Jesus had also been baptized. He had two slide projectors and on each side of the tank, he projected images of the Jordan River, further enhancing the illusion that the baptism was taking place in that river. He showed me how to baptize a man much larger than myself without risking his life or mine. Finally, he told me to ask the baptismal candidate to bring a face cloth with him to the baptism and to give it to me. I placed it on a ledge to keep it dry. I told Derrick, the man I was going to baptize, not to wipe his face when he came out of the water but to allow me to take the dry facecloth and to wipe it for him. Bernie explained that there was symbolism in that act. By wiping Derrick’s face, I was performing an act of service and it showed that as a pastor, I was a servant to the people under my care. This is a lesson that has stuck with me for over forty years. There has not been a baptism where I didn’t wipe the candidate’s face and then explain to them and the congregation the symbolism of what they were seeing. I have also tried to always remember that I was in the church to serve my people not to have them serve me.
A challenge – what are some lessons God has taught you? Did you learn them the first time or did it take a little longer for the lessons to sink in? Remember that God is patient and will repeat His lessons as many times as we need Him to, and in the meantime also remember to Keep the Son in Your Eyes.