Many pastors grew up knowing that that was exactly what they would be. Some were sons and daughters of pastors. Most were brought up in the church and the progression was a natural one. Then there were the ones like me who grew up on the wild side—far from church and its morals and tenets of faith. But like many others (the prodigal son comes to mind), at some point I realized I was going in the wrong direction and made a u-turn in my life. It wasn’t a rapid thing. It was more like having a sore leg that hurt every time you stood on it. Little by little, the pain went away until one day without knowing exactly when or why it happened, there was no more pain in that leg.
I became what was known as a “second career” pastor, someone who had lived and worked and damn near drowned in the ocean of the secular world for decades and then swam up out of it onto the beach of faith. I was still wet and my clothes were soaked, but again, little by little, the sun burned off the water and I got new clothes. I was still carrying years of bad habits and one by one shed those extra weights on my soul. I remember being very proud of having an “Rev.” in front of my name and began wearing a clerical collar which was unusual for rural Arkansas. However, if you played for the Yankees all your life and suddenly discovered you were playing in Fenway Park as a member of the Red Sox, you needed to wear your new uniform all the time to remind you that you had new teammates and a new coach. This bothered many of my pastoral colleagues as I was only a local pastor and had not attended seminary (I would later spend four years in seminary amassing 140 graduate hours in theology, philosophy, and ethics before graduating). So, I showed up at my first district ministers meeting in a gray shirt with a clerical collar and wearing a cross round my neck. One of the old timers and old school whose name was (and I am not making this up) Reverend Doom walked up to me, stared at me for a bit, and then said very slowly with emphasis on every word, “Who - in - the - world - are - you?” I smiled and answered, “I am still finding that out, aren’t you?” He stomped away, angry. This was the beginning of many years of not fitting in, not being what the others were, and not looking or acting as they did. Thanks be to God that I was who I was and didn’t try to be like them.
When I was ordained, no one from my family was able to come, and as a newcomer to Arkansas and the church, I didn’t know many people. After the ceremony was over we each stood in an reception hall under a spotlight with our name hanging over us. All of the others were surrounded by family and friends and I was alone in my little circle of light. The famous theologian that had come to be the ordination preacher, was Will Willimon, the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University and a famous author. He came over to me and noticing my aloneness, said, “I hear you are a bit of a maverick, and no one seems to want to be seen with you.” I replied, “Guilty as charged.” He leaned close, dropped his voice, and said, “Don’t ever stop being a maverick, my son. Without mavericks, the church will die and won’t change or grow as Christ would have it.” With a hearty handshake and a smile, he walked away. No one else ever came to shake my hand and welcome me into the ranks of the ordained pastors. Didn’t bother me, I was there because Christ had called me. This was no vocational choice, no legacy of following relatives, this was real and I had no idea where it would take me. It took me to small rural churches, large urban churches, Indian villages along the Amazon, the slums of Curitiba, Brazil, and ultimately to the small town of Bunda, Tanzania. The road was bumpy and I fell more than once, but I always got back up and continued on the narrow path that Christ had laid out for me.
As it turned out, it was not My Way but rather Thy Way that I was following. I don’t regret centering my focus on Christ and not what others wanted of me. People said some very ugly things about me, and some of my ministerial colleagues did what they could to sink my career (long since forgiven by me), but here I am, still doing what Christ called me to do. Others spent decades serving the church the only way they knew and have now retired to their lake houses to spend their years fishing and watching TV. The bishop of Arkansas quite illegally stripped me of my clergy credentials and kicked me out of the denomination without ever contacting me or returning a single email or registered letter. Still, that says a whole lot more about what kind of a man he is than the kind of man I am. Me, I still battle malaria and miss my wife every moment of every day as well as missing my family and friends that are so many thousands of miles away, yet I continue to struggle and serve Christ who called me. I am content with who I am, where I am, and what I am. To paraphrase an American President, the world will little note nor long remember what I have done here, but it is not the world I am trying to please. I just want to be obedient and available to the Lord of Life, the Prince of Peace, because my Redeemer Liveth, and because He does, I do, too.