An Unlikely Way
A pastor’s obituary in my hometown paper told a remarkable fact about him. He had come from a long line of ministers running from father to son – never missing a generation – that could be traced back to the mid 1600’s. Incredible! Likewise, some of the finest pastors in our church today grew up in families where Dad, an uncle, grandfather, or some other relative had served in the ministry. Numerous preachers who have worked in our church were believable enough that the Lord used their positive example to put it into the hearts of someone in a younger generation to follow in their footsteps.
My story couldn’t be more different. I grew up in a home only nominally Christian at best, though I thank the Lord that He drew my parents to Christ later on. We didn’t attend worship. My father and mother did not arrange for me to be baptized until I was nearly six years old. Nothing much was done to build on that foundation through my young childhood. All four of us kids, however, were sent to confirmation classes; this was what people did in those days. For reasons I cannot explain, my involvement in those classes was meaningful enough that I kept going to church on Sundays, even after I was confirmed. At that time I was the only one from my family to go. Again, for reasons I cannot recall, I decided already in the fall of my Grade 9 year to study for the ministry. I remember an older relative lamenting that choice to my mother. She asked bluntly, “Why would he want to do that when he could be successful?”
Looking back on it now, it was especially strange, because I had no clue in those days what it means to have a Redeemer. I enrolled in a liberal Lutheran undergraduate college, though I wouldn’t have understood going in what “liberal” meant. I only know that, before long, I was faced with theological teachers devoted to a destructively critical approach to the Bible and the historic Christian faith. We were repeatedly told what we could not be sure of, how miraculous things recorded in Scripture never happened the way they are taught in Sunday School, and – in one extreme case – how you couldn’t pin your faith to a “so-called historical event” like Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
It touched off a real faith crisis for me. I lay awake and agonized over what church and faith were all about. In His love the Lord nudged me precisely during those troubling days across the path of a faithful Lutheran pastor. He unpacked for me the wonder of the Gospel: how God, Who didn’t owe us a dime, let His Son die and take the rap for us, the real crooks and thieves. I thought this was the most wonderful message I’d ever heard, that from Jesus I have forgiveness, a slate wiped clean! Nearly forty years have passed since the saving Good News of Christ became everything to me. I still feel as I did in the late winter of 1974: It’s the most wonderful message I’ve ever heard.
It also pumped real direction into my hope of becoming a pastor. I came to realize that my life’s mission wasn’t to preserve the church as an organization, but to tell – strongly, clearly, without let-up! – that Christ died for the sins of the world, to bring people back to God again, and to press into their hands a pardon-letter covering absolutely everything.
As a young adult in those days, I could never have pictured the places where the Lord would later have me live and work, all the marvelous encounters with people He would send my way. I realize now that He made good use of my unlikely background, too, growing up as I did in a blue-collar family and one unchurched at that! He shaped me to talk to people in understandable words; kept me from holding people in contempt, even if they were far from Christ and the church; gave me eyes to see that He knows how to use the situations of life to teach so many precious things, even if those situations at first blush don’t seem like they could do any good at all.
Approaching the end of his life, an old English preacher told his son, “If I had a thousand lives, I would give them all, all to the ministry.” I know that feeling. God has permitted me to spend my working energies doing some of the most vital things a person could ever do: To hold out Christ, the Saviour of the world, to people who need Him, just as I do. As I write these lines, I can only hope He will put it into the hearts of many others to spend their lives this way as pastors and deacons. And perhaps you who read this little true story would do well to pray to Him to open your own heart very wide … in case this is what He’s also trying to do with you.
Pastor Robert Bugbee, President