Arriving at seminary was akin to viewing that shining city on a hill. Some called it cemetery. There was a little exclusivism present in the church because we were transitioning from the “corn-field preacher” mentality to high class philosophy. It was a place of solemnity, or was supposed to be; a place where the “brothers” were to study about theology, the Bible, and how to be a cleric. We didn’t wear our collars backwards though. Architecturally, it appeared to be a cathedral and classrooms all in one great, big, holy mass of heaven on earth. It wasn’t, but I was mesmerized. The church part was indeed a sanctuary, stained glass windows and everything; pulpit, altar, the whole works. The classrooms were classrooms. The coffee shop/lounge was a sanctuary in itself. Most of the brothers worked at outside jobs and came to class worn out and with little sleep. Therefore, the lounge became a place to sit down and take a power nap. I learned to sleep for 10 minutes and wake up as though I had been asleep for 2 hours.
Within walking distance a few bigshots owned rental properties that they rented to seminary students. They weren’t slumlords. The slumlords rented down on Troost or farther toward downtown on The Paseo. Nevertheless, big cheeses competed for the rental income of seminary students. Get it while you can. That must have been OK. I had other fish to fry.
We arrived as pore [poor] as Job’s turkey. A large, single family home owned by a church executive was to be vacated due to his move to a very large church on the west coast. It was not only offered to us, but we were welcomed with open arms. He and his wife really wanted us to rent their house and at a reduced price. That was not to be. Newly married, I soon learned that nothing was not to be and I went along allowing other people to make choices for me. I couldn’t understand why, but we rented an apartment in the slums paying more for rent than we would have paid for the mansion. Praise God!
I’m telling you, I had a vision of learning stuff and pastoring a church. I was hell-bent on keeping people out of hell. As in the first grade, I should have been held back. Here again, with my maturity level, someone should have told me the truth and the truth was that I had no business getting married, no business entering a graduate program and no business leading others down the path to Christian living when I hadn’t been there with any degree of understanding. I loved Jesus, as much as possible, but how can a guide lead someone on a journey when he had never been there? It’s like the blind leading the blind! “Hold your horses” is what I wish someone had told me. All I knew at the time was singing and focusing on the ministry.
Married the previous summer didn’t help. I had no idea what marriage should be other than everything would be hunkydorey. All aspiring preachers were supposed to get married, preferably to a woman who could play the piano. It was not to be, that is, the piano part.
The winter was harsh as were a few other things in my life. Ice, snow, freezing rain. Scraping 2 inches of ice and snow off my 1961 Ford Falcon at 7 o’clock in the morning and rushing to class on icy roads for class at 7:30am was not a pretty picture especially after arriving home at my slum area apartment at 12:00am and studying until 2:00am. I was in good physical shape due to years of training in high school for boxing and having plenty of exercise in college with the quartet guys playing tennis and lifting weights. It was a good thing because my schedule was brutal.
All of this lack of sleep and relentless schedule didn’t matter. I had a vision and “where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) [I had a scripture for everything.] I didn’t always know what some of those verses meant, but I made out like they were promises, although they may have been out of context.
I had grown up, it seems, with everything “out there” somewhere. Perhaps it was a protective device. The parsonage was never ours; it was out there somewhere because it belonged to the church. Our place of abode, the city in which we lived and the schools I attended were never permanent; some other exciting place was out there somewhere. We were always going to move before long. My hurts were never to be acknowledged because that would require me to ask for help. My inadequacies could never be admitted because that would feed on my feelings of inferiority. No. I’m eating mana and pushing on to the Promised Land!
Furthermore, I swallowed hook, line and sinker a ministerial philosophy of discreet distance, that is, keep everyone at a distance. It was taught that if one becomes too close to a church member it may show partiality, they said. What those who espoused this idea didn’t realize is that everyone, including pastors, should have at least one meaningful conversation every day and if you can’t have it with your spouse a cankerous, toxic, umbrageous shadow creeps over all relationships.
As it was in college, I was lifted into the heavenlies by the seminary experience. Going to chapel every day was an uplifting adventure needed by most of us. However, being tired and worn out has a tendency to take its toll.
Most conversations in daily life are mundane; not so in seminary classrooms. Discussing the intricacies of hermeneutics, church doctrine and the differences between Wesleyan and Calvinistic theology was inspiritive. These were trippy days studying Greek, writing sermons and sitting at the feet of great intellects, men of faith. This sure wasn’t Cisco or Carlsbad. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the job of professors to teach me how to mature. On the other hand, those days at seminary provided me the opportunity to grow up a little and gain badly needed confidence.
Associating with the professors, attending church listening to the massive pipe organ, meeting and talking to the biggest names in the international Church – man, can you believe this? For the first time in my life an expansive joy filled my heart. Yes, I was so tired, but it didn’t matter. God was there and He helped me to mature, learn and experience spiritual vistas of hope and joy never known before. I was asked to be the special speaker for evangelistic services, to sing and to fill in for pastors who were on vacation. The Showers of Blessing international radio program director asked me to join their sixteen voice choir and sing in their quartet. Then I became the bass singer for a local quartet that along with the seminary choir made a record sold from place to place throughout the church community.
This may not seem so great to others, but to me I was an active participant in what is written in Hebrews 11:1 – “What is faith? It is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us, even though we cannot see it up ahead.”(LB)
Think about it. My activities not only included many preaching and singing privileges, but classes lasted from 7:30am through 3:00pm, then off to a movie production studio where I printed 6mm movies for a large company making $1.50 per hour (about $11.00 in today’s dollars) from 3:30pm to 11:30pm and on to a 30 minute drive home where I studied until 2:00am and up again at 7:00am for class. It didn’t matter that I went sound asleep sitting at a signal light while people were honking their horns and screaming for me to get out of the way.
On weekends I studied or travelled somewhere to preach or sing. Many times I took off work at the production company for five or six nights to preach or sing. Fortunately the company had no problem with this flexibility. Sometimes they required me to come in on Saturdays or holidays to make up the time. Toward the end of my seminary education I was asked to pastor a small, but nice, nondenominational country church 75 miles north. They paid a wonderful salary, far more than I made at the movie production company and I only had to drive up there on Sundays. I had finally made it. All of this was going on while my wife was pregnant and subsequently gave birth to the brightest, smartest, and best looking son a father could ever have. I had it all!
One Saturday I had to make up time at the production company. Some of the seminary brothers and I took a quick lunch at Dixon’s Chili Café. It was President Harry Truman’s favorite place. There he was! He was eating. I didn’t want to bother him. Amazing!
Seminary was a place to research and explore the outer limits of a great theological education designed to lead a church into the depths of spiritual understanding. I remember hearing the president of United Artists, a large movie production company, talking to us at the movie company about what a movie should do, and by extension a sermon. He said, “A movie must make people laugh, cry or sit on the edge of their seat.” From that point on I determined to never preach in such a way as to afford people the opportunity to go to sleep. There were a few times I hit the nail on the head. Yes, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what they are itching to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (II Timothy 4:2-4 NIV) Further, from the git-go I started to write my sermons out in full, preaching from a manuscript without reading word for word. This kept me from preaching about women’s hair or lipstick or wandering off on a tangent. [You’re supposed to laugh at this.]
There were a few instances that were of concern, however. One time, a couple of “brothers” asked me to meet them at a nearby restaurant. They were from Chicago. They asked if I would join their closely held group of guys who felt the church needed a strong group of future leaders who would eventually influence the direction of the international church. They wanted to have guys who would stick together come thick or thin and promote each other to positions of power. I declined. They were shocked and disappointed. From afar I watched as they indeed promoted each other (there were about 10-15 of them) gaining exposure internationally through conferences, assemblies and campmeetings becoming administrators, general superintendents (2), district superintendents, national evangelists and pastors of the largest denominational churches in the nation. Deep down, I didn’t care. I had too many problems of my own. I wasn’t on their level.
Another question involved one of the lower level brothers who lived with his wife in the projects of the city. He was part-time pastor of a small church south of the city. He asked me to conduct a series of services from Wednesday through Sunday. I did my best preaching to about 30 people per service. He had four children plus his wife. They were very, very poor. He had been a CPA and was called to preach. He had an outside job and his wife worked outside the home. Times were tough. I learned that to pay for the expenses of the revival, he and his family prepared rice with one pound of hamburger meat to be eaten over three weeks. I cried. I took nothing.
About a month later the district conference opened their annual session. Pastors were required to pay a percentage of the gross income of the church to the district and general churches. He had no money to pay anybody anything and none for his family. When it came time for him to stand before the brethren to report, he was unable to confirm budgets paid to the district and general churches. The big cheese in charge humiliated him in front of the five or six hundred attendees. I cried.
Another disconcerting memory involved the way money paid to foreign missions was handled. Special money raised by local churches for the Thanksgiving and Easter offerings was to be given, as advertised, to foreign missions. Through a closed decision, some of this money was used to pay for headquarters expenses. I understand the need and the decision to do so. The problem occurred at the point of complete openness and honesty by calling the monies raised foreign missions. One of the major, upper leaders became so upset by this deception, he led a group of pastors to resign and start their own church denomination. This brought the leaders to eventually call all funds contributed not foreign, but the euphemistic “world evangelism.”
Oh well. “What difference, at this point, does it make?” [Have you heard this before?]
A multiyear schedule of less than 4 hours of sleep per night, travelling here and there, trying to make enough money to support wife and new son, not taking care of my health, not eating properly, studying, preparing sermons, and singing began to take its toll. As mentioned earlier, I fell asleep in my car sitting in heavy traffic at a signal light. One day I passed out walking down stairs at the seminary. Another time while trying to change the oil in my car, I didn’t have the strength to unscrew the bolt. My right shoulder was in excruciating pain. It was time to seek help. I didn’t have insurance. It didn’t matter. I needed help … and fast!
The doctor made his thorough examination and said my body was eating itself and continued to talk over my head. I just wanted to get going again. It was not to be. He said quit or die. Rather than quit, I made a two week trip to my parents and hid in a darkened room primarily in a fetal position, despondent and broken. Mother brought soup to the room and of course pinto beans with fresh onions, cornbread and cold sweet milk. I got well. But I had to leave seminary. I grew up in a hurry. The Showers of Blessing choir gave me a wonderful going-away party with gifts and the brothers gathered around in support.
My colleagues including the seminary and headquarters staffs seemed genuinely sympathetic at our leaving.