Church Characters #8: Bill

During a series entitled “Church Characters,” I’m recalling some memorable people from decades of ministry.

This week’s blog culminates my articles on church characters. Each played a role in shaping my soul and informing my ministry. I decided to conclude the series by focusing on the biggest church character of all: ME!

I graduated seminary in May 1982. A month later the bishop appointed me as pastor-in-charge of Mount Carmel and Emory Chapel United Methodist Churches. The congregations outside Newnan, Georgia formed a two-point circuit in order to support a full-time minister.

I preached at Emory Chapel, the smaller of the two congregations, at 9:45 a.m. Then I sped to Mount Carmel for the 11:00 a.m. service. The larger church also held a weekly Sunday night service, which meant preparing two sermons weekly—and weakly!

The Mount Carmel members built a parsonage next door to the church. The 3/2 home served the needs of a single pastor. The congregation dismissed central heat and air as extravagant luxuries. A wood heater warmed the front part of the house. An attic fan sucked air down the hall during the summer.

I moved to town with all of my worldly possessions in the back of a friend’s pickup truck and my Honda Civic. A 19-inch TV with rabbit ears provided 3 channels of static-filled entertainment. I bought a microwave my first Christmas and felt like royalty.

Four suits composed my entire ensemble, and I wore one per Sunday on a monthly basis. I possessed two pairs of dress shoes and various colors of dress shirts. As a bachelor with no fashion sense, I owned an iron but no ironing board.

Reminiscing on those first years of ministry, I wince at my inexperience and callowness. However, the two congregations adopted me as their own. They treasured their role in raising “boy preachers” to maturity. The members assured me that I would serve great churches in the future. I assured them that I already served great churches in the present.   

I am who I am today because of the people who mentored me in the past. Thanks be to God for church characters. Amen.

Church Characters #7: Sam

During a series entitled “Church Characters,” I’m recalling some memorable people from decades of ministry.

The bishop appointed me to First United Methodist Church of Summerville in June 1991. We arrived on Moving Day to discover my predecessor still in the process of moving. Tracy and I walked to the church next door to wait on the moving van.

We met a man in his 70s trimming the shrubs. Sweat-stained and red-faced, he looked like a prime candidate for a myocardial infarction. He switched off the hedge trimmer and extended a wet palm for a handshake.

In a loud voice of the hearing impaired, the man declared, “You must be the new preacher. My name is Samuel T. Hell-buck. Every church needs a hell-buck, and I’m yours!”

The brother did not lie; well, except for his name. I later discovered his last name was ironically “Bible.” However, the man lived up to his self-proclaimed title.

After four decades of pastoral ministry, Sam ranks number one among ornery church members I have encountered. He made my life a living hell, constantly criticizing and complaining. He verbally assaulted me during an Administrative Board, cussing me out because I did not visit his wife in a Chattanooga hospital. The fact that he did not inform anyone about her hospitalization did not matter—I should have known!

Preachers’ stories typically resolve conflicts with happy endings. I would love to describe how Sam and I settled our differences as brothers in Christ; but this never occurred. He could not even agree to disagree with me, and we didn’t exchange Christmas cards after I moved.

Most pastors aspire to please people and avoid conflict. I learned in Summerville that I cannot please everyone and sometimes conflict is unavoidable.

Samuel T. Hell-buck taught me these lessons.

And by the way, every church does NOT need one.

Church Characters #6: Annette

During a series entitled “Church Characters,” I’m recalling some memorable people from decades of ministry.

During my first years of pastoral ministry in small churches, I visited homebound members on a monthly basis. I regularly saw Annette who lived in a single-wide trailer with her daughter and cats.

Note that I wrote “cats” in the plural.

Annette suffered from progressive dementia. She possessed a sunny disposition but comprehended only the simplest conversations. In addition to watching daytime TV, she loved the company of her cats.     

Note that I wrote “cats” in the plural.

I never tabulated an accurate census of the feline population, which milled around in perpetual motion. It probably totaled over 30 but under 100! After sitting on the sofa, I appeared to be wearing a fur coat while scratching at imaginary fleas.

The olfactory experience of summer visits in the single-wide without air conditioning exceeds my descriptive powers. The heat, humidity, and malodor produced asthma-like symptoms. I welcomed the dog day heat outside after enduring the cat stay smell inside.

Annette’s daughter impressed me throughout my tenure at the church. Lou Ellen cared for her mother without complaint, accepting the living conditions with equanimity. Whenever I inquired about her personal wellbeing, she talked about her devotion to her mother who had cared for her.  

People typically assume that the Fifth Commandment instructs young children to respect their parents. Annette’s life testified that honoring our fathers and mothers encompasses a lifetime; and sometimes it includes cats.

Note that I wrote “cats” in the plural.

However, Annette proved to be the heroine of the story.  

Church Characters #5: Tommy

During a series entitled “Church Characters,” I’m recalling some memorable people from decades of ministry.

Tommy attended Mount Carmel Church, and his wife played the piano for worship. The devoted family faithfully fulfilled their vows to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, and service.

Tommy was the kinda guy who would do anything FOR you and anything TO you. In the latter category, he loved harmless, practical jokes.

A shrub died in front of the parsonage. Tommy served on the Trustees. Rather than replace the plant, he spray-painted the brown branches a bright green.

The United Methodist Men took a mission trip to Louisiana. One evening we went to New Orleans for dinner before strolling through the French Quarter. Tommy delighted in pointing out every clothing optional establishment to his young pastor.

Tracy and I married in May 1986. While away on our honeymoon, Tommy sowed the parsonage lawn with fescue and rye before applying a liberal amount of fertilizer. I cut the grass every 3 days that summer. The churchman explained that he was concerned I might have nothing else to do as a newlywed.

Tommy was the type of guy who would do anything FOR you and anything TO you. In the former catalog, he supported his pastor with love and compassion.

The country church introduced me to deer hunting. After I harvested my first buck, Tommy showed me how to field dress and butcher the deer.

A wood heater warmed the parsonage. I purchased a chainsaw, and Tommy taught me how to cut firewood. I attribute my current possession of ten digits to his past instruction.

Most of all, Tommy offered wise counsel to a pastor fresh out of seminary. He helped me understand how to minister to the congregation and community. I remain grateful for his friendship and support during my first five years of ministry.

May all of us be the kinda person who will do anything for others.

Church Characters #4: Wilmer

During a series entitled “Church Characters,” I’m recalling some memorable people from decades of ministry.

The bishop appointed me to a two-point circuit after graduating from seminary. Founded in 1840, Mount Carmel was the larger of the two churches. The white clapboard sanctuary still stood, but rotten wood sills made it uninhabitable.

A new building stood next door. With the sanctuary completed, the congregation began work on the education space. The Sunday School area took another year to finish.

A church member and builder named Wilmer oversaw the project. The general contractor invested countless hours into his church home. In addition to regular churchwide work days, Wilmer often worked alone on nights and weekends.

Wilmer and I came from radically different worlds. Wilmer grew up in Coweta County and possessed a high school degree. He took a conservative view of the world. I grew up in Decatur before our family moved to Woodstock. I attended college and then seminary. I must have appeared to be a flaming liberal in his eyes.

However, we both loved the church in general and Mount Carmel Church in particular. Even when we couldn’t agree to disagree, neither of us ever questioned the other’s faith and devotion.

One fall day I received a frantic call from a family member. While framing a house, Wilmer lost his grip on a pneumatic nail gun. It landed atop his head, driving a nail through his skull and into the brain.

I waited long hours with the family in the Emergency Room. The doctor later told us he literally used a claw hammer to remove the nail! Despite bleak warnings about brain damage, infection, and long-term effects, Wilmer recovered completely.

I don’t believe the Lord dispenses miracles based on merit. Wilmer’s selfless work on behalf of the church PROBABLY didn’t affect his medical results. However, I cannot help but suspect that Jesus intervened in a special way for a fellow carpenter.

Church Characters #3: Glenn & Lizzie

During a series entitled “Church Characters,” I’m recalling some memorable people from decades of ministry.

Glenn and Lizzie belonged to the first church I served after seminary. They lived in a gray-weathered, clapboard house near the parsonage. The living room featured a wood heater stoked yearlong. On frigid winter days, I exited the home soaked in sweat.

An ancient chimney vented the smoke. One memorable day Glenn decided to burn off the soot and creosote by firing up the heater to a cherry red. I followed the fire engine sirens to the house. The tinder-box home miraculously escaped burning to the ground.

Despite age and health, Glenn continued to work the old family farm. The octogenarian wore a brace that supported his entire back, causing him to lean forward 45 degrees. One summer I helped him carry corn to a mill where the ramshackle, rumbling contraption converted the ears into meal.

Lizzie suffered every illness known to medicine. She kept the kitchen cabinets stocked with prescription bottles that avalanched to the counters below. The matriarch moaned about imminent death throughout the five years I served the church.

Glenn and Lizzie married in their twenties and celebrated 65 years of marriage during my tenure. Although they bickered and disagreed, they honored their vows with love and respect. The couple sat in matching recliners, passing the time together.

Hallmark would never make a movie about their lives, but I am grateful for older couples who model marital fidelity. In this world and the next, Glenn and Lizzie made quite the pair.  

Church Characters #2: Uncle Bud

Uncle Bud belonged to a congregation I served fresh out of seminary. Southern social conventions allow older persons to be called “uncle” or “aunt” even when no biological connection exists. The gentleman in question served as a surrogate grandfather in my life.

Bud resembled an older Samuel Clements with gray hair and drooping mustache. His wife died years previously, and he still grieved her loss. However, the octogenarian did not lack for female attention. Women flocked around him, including a group of 30-somethings who regularly dropped by for lunch.

I was a single pastor in his twenties serving two country churches in the middle of nowhere. I envied Bud’s way with the ladies. He tried to help, introducing me to women as “my single preacher who could really use a date!” I do not recommend this method for anyone seeking a mate.

The church’s patriarch attended worship every Sunday.  I learned to seek his counsel over a myriad of topics. Bud’s words and actions shaped my early ministry.  I appreciated his life and grieved his death.  

Bud’s life illustrated the adage, “There may be snow on the roof, but there’s fire in the furnace!” Psalm 92:14 puts the same sentiment more theologically, “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green.”

May God grant each of us the blessing to grow old with grace.   

Church Characters #1: Frances

Dixie Carter played Julia Sugarbaker on the series “Designing Women” She declared in one scene, “I’m saying this is the south. And we’re proud of our crazy people. We don’t hide them in the attic. We bring ‘em right down to the living room and show ‘em off!”

I recall many characters from country churches who personified Ms. Carter’s statement. During a series entitled “Church Characters,” I’m recalling some memorable people from decades of ministry.

Frances belonged to Emory Chapel Methodist near Newnan, Georgia. In her youth, she played the piano at the local theater for silent movies. The elderly matriarch still played at the church on occasion, but the notes oozed like cold molasses in wintertime. A single hymn could last one-third of the service.

I often visited Frances at home with her husband, John. The vain man never wore his hearing aids, so I shouted over the TV. My hostess served sweet tea in dirty glasses while an oscillating fan stirred the musty air.

The couple owned an ornery Chihuahua named Peanut. The mutt took an instant disliking to me. During one pastoral visit, the canine terrorist hiked his leg and baptized my ankle.

Both Frances and John died during my five years at Emory Chapel. Peanut sadly survived.

I sat beside Frances’ hospital bed days before her death. She squeezed my hand tightly and said, “When I die, you tell them at the funeral that I’ve gone on to my glory!”

She did, and I did. Glory hallelujah. Amen.   

Hamilton versus Worship

My wife and I recently saw “Hamilton” at the Fox Theater. The historical musical entertained and enthralled the audience. The pastor-in-me noticed some intriguing attributes about the “congregation.” They:

  • Paid large sums for premium tickets.
  • Saved the date and prioritized their attendance.
  • Arrived an hour before the play started.
  • Parked blocks away and walked to the entrance.
  • Waited in long lines to enter the building.
  • Took their seats before the opening number.  
  • Wore masks inside the building without complaint.  
  • Remained silent and attentive throughout the performance.
  • Sat in uncomfortable seats for over three hours.
  • Envied those who sat closest to the stage.
  • Took selfies to share on social media.
  • Bought merch to proudly advertise their presence.
  • Talked to family and friends about the experience.

May all of God’s people gather for worship this Sunday “in the room where it happens!”

Night Terrors

The parsonage’s security system alarm awoke me from a sound sleep. The digital display indicated a glass breakage alert. I silenced the alarm while talking to the security company.

I cautiously checked the first-floor perimeter but found nothing. Descending the stairs, I forgot about the basement motion detector. I rushed upstairs to silence the alarm again. Meanwhile, strobing blue lights announced the police’s arrival.

I walked outside with empty hands carefully displayed while identifying myself. The officer entered the house and checked the windows and doors.

Then I spied pieces of red latex beside the dining room’s exterior door. The previous night our family celebrated our granddaughter’s third birthday, complete with presents, cake, and balloons.

I suddenly realized what occurred. An overinflated balloon next to a heat vent burst in the middle of the night. The loud noise activated the glass breakage sensor. The officer listened dubiously to the explanation before nodding in agreement.

We all went back to bed, but sleep eluded me the rest of the night. I thought about what might have been and what could be. I recalled Paul’s words in Philippians 4:6, Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Many of our worries never occur. Most of our night terrors amount to nothing more than scraps of a red latex balloon.

You will not fear the terror of night,

nor the arrow that flies by day,

nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,

nor the plague that destroys at midday.

(Psalm 95)