SHRINKING AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY.
My wife and I travel around Texas as the Empty Nesters, taking pictures and writing stories of things that move us. One of my favorite spots is “The Rock Church” of St. Olaf’s in Cranfills Gap, depicted below. Its simplicity moves me; its history of centering a Norwegian community (my predominant ancestry) in the new world resonates in me. I am not a devout person and can list a million things wrong with organized religion. Something about that church resonates with me, though. Three pastors led me to that emotion.
The last Pew Research study on American Christianity found that only 65% of Americans identify as Christians. That number represents a 12% decline over the last decade. While it is a bit startling to see 9% of Americans describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. The most interesting statistic I saw in the report was that 17% of our countrymen name their religious view as “nothing in particular.” That number suggests that too many of us are rudderless, looking for a bearing, but not finding one. Which got me to thinking about Pastor Jonas Nightengale, played by the genius Steve Martin, in the underappreciated 1992 film, Leap of Faith.
Jonas is a conman preacher savant, preying on a drought-stricken Kansas town. In the course of separating the townspeople from their last dollars, Jonas deals with an unexpected moral crisis. Without ruining the movie, the story reminds us that no matter how dazzling the show, the real lessons come from the relationships between pastors and their flocks. I wonder if the decline in our church membership means we are missing what Jonas learned? It does not have to be that way.
NEVER BET TO AN INSIDE STRAIGHT.
The Reverend Bob Grimes was once my mother’s boss at Coker U.M.C. in San Antonio, Texas. He was the pastor and she was the business manager; they made a formidable team. After Bob’s promotion to district superintendent, he moved out of town. When back in San Antonio on business, Bob sometimes stayed with us, likely pocketing the per diem. One night Bob asked if he could sit in on a poker game with me and my buddies. A pastor trying to play poker? Well, pull up a seat.
My poker career started early. We began as a group of paperboys who stayed up late on Saturday nights playing Tripoli before throwing the Sunday editions. Smart kids, good at math and playing quite a bit, we developed into pretty fair players. The first rule of poker is “if you cannot spot the sucker at the table, you’re it,” so we were happy to welcome poor Pastor Grimes to our circle.
It turns out that it was “poor Pastor Grimes” who saw a group of suckers. He cleaned us out. When we tried to bluff him, he smelled us out. We never knew if he was bluffing us because he discarded his cards face down when we folded. Pastor Bob the poker player never over extended himself, denying the temptation of trying to fill inside straights. The only salve to the nightmare was Bob’s gentle explanations for why he was winning and we were losing.
My overprotective mom reacted predictably. To my horror she demanded that Bob return the money to the “poor boys.” Bob demurred, which he should have. I never heard a better sermon on the dangers of arrogance or the virtues of humility.
THE SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIOR.
When M’Lissa and I moved to Dallas we picked Lovers Lane United U.M.C. as our church home. The Reverend Owen Ross, a young and energetic pastor on staff, involved himself in a variety of interesting things. I think his official title was “Young and Energetic Pastor in Charge of a Variety of Interesting Things,” but I may not remember that exactly right.
Lover’s Lane U.M.C. is an affluent church at the very heart of an affluent city. No one needed to preach the prosperity gospel on Sundays as the congregation was already prosperous. There must be a tremendous temptation for pastors to tailor their message to their audiences, but Owen never hid who he was or what he believed. He saw too much oppression in the world and challenged the beneficiaries of the system to change it.
Whatever the nature of Owen’s official duties, he also served as the travel ambassador for missions around the world. Owen volunteered in the Peace Corps before beginning his ministry and spent several years in Central America. Beyond language, Owen’s years in, and passion for, the region made him “culturally fluent” in Central American life.
I learned this on my first trip with Owen. At the time, I viewed myself as a rising commercial trial lawyer with an astonishing command of how the world worked best. Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras in 1998; Owen connected with Shelly and Ron Jones, full-time missionaries who were helping one small group of storm refugees rebuild their lives. Truthfully, when Owen talked M’Lissa and me into spending some time in Honduras that summer, I saw it as sort of a check-the-box experience, more obligation than opportunity. But I would do what I could to spread a little bit of my American knowledge on how the world worked.
IF I HAD A HAMMER.
When we arrived in Magote, a slum above Tegucigalpa, I first noticed that Pastor Owen knew the best place to buy and sell currency; he was also sensible enough to travel with Marco, our protector. More surprising was that Owen had a civil engineering background from Texas A & M. Somehow, I envisioned Owen at a small, liberal arts college studying Greek. Most surprising was Owen’s rock-star status in a barren, rocky hilltop village 2,000 miles from his home base.
A week of watching Owen in action revealed the connections between his skills and his popularity. The man could accomplish anything. Sourcing materials; finding good medical care for a slightly injured member of our group; translating constantly; playing rag-tag soccer with the kids; framing buildings; and designing water catchment systems were all easily within his reach. My ability to file a crisply written Motion to Dismiss did not seem like such a big deal on Magote.
Before we went to Honduras, my view of liberation theology tended to the condescending. Church was a place of refuge or celebration; the economy moved the world forward. A young pastor who could swing a mean hammer taught me otherwise.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.
Eventually, we moved to Far North Dallas and transferred our membership to First United Methodist of Richardson, Texas, under the leadership of Reverend Clayton Oliphint. Clayton lead another large church in another prosperous community.
As luck would have it, the Oliphints lived nearby with a daughter the same age as one of our own. A good public high school brings people together, often around sports and band. We found ourselves spending fall Friday nights with the Oliphints and other friends, cheering the team and the Mighty Mustang band.
Large church pastors live under a microscope, so it was always amusing to watch Clayton contain his emotions when the referees inflicted obvious injustices against the Mustangs. I should mention that Clayton knew quite a bit on the subject. He starred as wide receiver in high school and college; he was in training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs when he decided ministry would be his life after football. That “life after” started pretty quickly, but no one else in the cheap seats had caught passes at that level.
Clayton loved those Friday nights; he did not have to say it, it showed on his face. We put our pastors and religious leaders on pedestals, which can be a recipe for disaster. When they fall, the fall harder. Those spectacular falls cause us to lose faith. There was something reassuring about seeing a pastor enjoy the simplest of things. Clayton builds the faith by being among us everyday; it makes Sunday ideals seem more reachable.
PASTORS AND RELATIONSHIPS.
As a youngster, the common emotion pastors invoked in me was fear. Useful maybe, however, fear does not qualify as a good building block for life. For the most part, and thankfully, we have moved on from fear as a model. Instead, we get entertainment, Jonas Nightengale style. Preachers, rather than pastors, attract the crowds. A light show in a converted basketball arena holds the answers to life’s question. If it does for you, I am happy for you.
For me, and I think for most of my Empty Nester friends, I am more comfortable learning humility at a poker table; justice on a construction site and community in the football stands. Thank you Pastors Bob, Owen and Clayton for being the genuine article. I would love to hear each of you preach in the Old Rock Church.