Sunday, February 28, 2010
Today I had lunch with Dr. Forrest Robinson, a longtime UM pastor in Kansas. His wife is in a nursing facility, suffering with Alzheimer’s disease and he asked me to join him because he doesn’t like to eat alone. We went to a local restaurant, where everyone who works there knows his name. Likewise for the after church crowd who also eat there. Forrest, a well-known figure in Kansas as much for his presentations on World War II, a war in which he served, as for his ministry in various places around the Annual Conference, is a master storyteller. We shared lunch, him over his standard chicken fried steak, me with a Fattouch Salad, and both of us with Cokes. Tomorrow I will go before the Board of Ordained Ministry in the Kansas West Conference, so the idea of committing one’s life to ministry was not far from my mind through our conversation. I was struck by the irony in our lunch date—him having served for many years as an elder in the UMC, and me just beginning, having served three years as a commissioned candidate for deacon. Forrest shared a story that captured my attention.
He and his wife were in their mid-30’s when he got a call to serve in ministry. After a series of events, he found himself enrolling at Drew University for seminary. His pregnant wife had to fly to their new home and he drove himself, all their earthly belongings, and their dog to the Catskills in New York, where he would soon assume pastoral leadership of three small churches. He said that as he drove the long drive by himself, preaching as he drove, even the dog was tired of hearing him preach. He had plenty of time to get nervous as he realized that he had never really preached a “real” sermon, and he soon would be responsible for three per Sunday. He woke up early the Friday before he would have to preach on Sunday, and decided “to pull a John Wesley,” and open up the Bible, asking God to show him a passage of Scripture. His fingers flipped open to 1 Corinthians 2 and he read, “And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:1-5). He recited these words, verbatim, revealing to me of their permanence in his mind and heart. He identified that while he had been feeling insecure about his role as a preacher, he certainly could preach about Christ. He said that he vowed right then that this passage would be the text of his first sermon at the churches, his last sermon at those three churches, and he hoped that it would be the text of the last sermon that he preaches. The power of this Scripture slowly began to sink in to me as I sat in the booth of the restaurant thinking about the task that lies ahead for me. Despite the fine seminary education that I received and the decade of ministry experience, I find myself in weakness, with great fear and trembling. In fact, I’ve noticed, that the more that I have “learned,” the more fearful I become. Not in the respect of being scared to act, but in the sense of recognizing my own inability to communicate the Gospel, except through the power of the Holy Spirit. As I sit before the Board of Ordained Ministry tomorrow, I think that this is a good thing. I don’t want to have wise and persuasive words in my own strength. I seek to know Christ, and him, crucified. I’ve seen that as Forrest’s ministry, and I desire that for my own.
What a gift my lunch with Forrest was! He’s the example of a minister who served churches in cities and in rural areas, in the church-related college, and even for a while, in state government. He’s a presence now of a Christian life that though he has endured difficulty, he’s still preaching Christ. Forrest, I don’t know what the text of your last sermon will be, but the text of your life is indeed 1 Corinthians 2. And this Christian is so grateful.