On occasion, the staff at College Park Baptist Church will ask members for stories about our lives. At the beginning of Advent, they did it again, this time asking stories about times we might have been visited by angels. Being that CPBC is a rather progressive church, these stories are about people who have come into our lives and shown us the love of God. I’ve submitted a couple of pieces like this and, yesterday, I presented mine at both services. Here it is:
When Michael first asked for people to share stories of those who have shown us the light of God’s grace and love, I thought “Hey, I can do that. I know how to write and everything!” Deciding to write the piece was easy enough, deciding who to write about? Not so much. As some of you know, I write a blog and, on a good day, choosing a topic can be difficult. Most days, the trouble is a lack of subject matter. But, once in a while, there are more good topics than I can shake a stick at. And, that was the case here. While my life has been no walk in the park, I have been blessed with an embarrassment of riches when comes to people who lift me up. There are my parents, who taught me the meaning of love. There’s Craig Hodges, the supervisor who believed in me when everyone else thought I was a lost cause. And, there’s the people here at College Park, who embraced Parker and I from the moment we walked in the door and made us feel like family. Every one of those would make a great story, but I didn’t choose them. Instead, I decided to tell you about Jenny Wilson.
About 10 years ago, I was in a bad place. Things weren’t going well at work, I was lonely and isolated. My relationship with my ex-wife was at its lowest ebb and, in turn, was affecting my relationship with my children. Saying I was depressed would be like saying Custer had a bad hair day at the Little Big Horn. In the midst of this, Rachel (my oldest, who was about 13 at the time) sent me a letter because she was concerned about me. Actually, being the good evangelical that she is, she was worried about my soul. You see, I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a church goer back then and she was afraid that when we died, we wouldn’t see each other in heaven. If you’re thinking that’s kind of screwed up, you’re right. But, I have to be honest, that letter got to me. It didn’t help that I read it right after listening to Dolly Parton and Sonya Isaacs sing The Angels Rejoiced, an old country song about a man who also wasn’t a church-goer fulfilling a deathbed promise to his wife “to raise her children right”. Now, at the time (due in part to that “no walk in the park” thing mentioned earlier), I hadn’t been to church in about 25 years; aside from the odd wedding, funeral or special occasion, that is. But, I decided to give it a shot, if only so I could tell my daughter, “Hey, I tried, but church just isn’t for me”.
Years before, I had been a good Methodist (who am I kidding, I was never a “good” Methodist) and that seemed like a logical place to start. So, the next Sunday, I showed up at the local Methodist church, slid into what Matt Cravey has referred to as “the scoundrel section” and prepared for…, I didn’t really know what. Like I said, it had been a long time since I had darkened a church door. Luckily, change occurs at a glacial pace in the UMC and things were pretty familiar; comfortable, even. One thing was different, however: the pastor was a woman. That wasn’t a big deal to me, though; I’ve never thought a person’s plumbing had much to do with their abilities. I still remember the sermon she preached that day: Love God, love your neighbor. Yep. The first sermon I heard in 25 years was the heart of the Gospel. I’d like to say I felt my heart strangely warmed, a la John Wesley, but it wasn’t. That doesn’t mean the sermon had no effect. While it might not have been warmed, my heart was certainly unsettled.
After the sermon, right before they passed the plate, I did something that changed the trajectory of my life: I filled out the visitor card and checked the box that asked if I’d like a call/visit from the pastor. A few days later, I got a phone call from Jenny and we chatted. I told her about my not-so-happy past experiences with religion and she told me about the UMC. Somewhere in there, she said something that struck a chord with me: that she never asked anyone to check their brain at the church door. That’s when I knew I was in the right place.
In the years that followed, Jenny became a friend, a confidante, a mentor and a counselor. She answered my questions and offered gentle correction whenever I needed it. She was a model of Christian grace and love. I only saw her get mad once and, even then, she was nicer than I am on my best day. It’s no stretch to say that I would not be standing here in front of you if not for her. Not that I’d be dead or anything. I just wouldn’t be standing up here talking to you folks like this.
I realize I’m not exactly thinking outside the box, picking a pastor for this and everything. But, I used to think that pastors who are actually pastoral were a rare commodity. In the past 10 years, it’s been my pleasure to know quite a few who are. And, Jenny Wilson was the first.