13 March 2013

Music and the Making of a Pastor

Our local ministerium is doing a series of Lenten Luncheons this year, touring area churches and inviting one another to tell how we became pastors.  Today was my turn.  Here's the story:

There is a text of Paul’s that comes to mind when I think of my faith story.  Philippians 3.5-6:  “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:  circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”  In many ways you could tell my faith story in this way:  “If anyone has reason to be confident in midwestern European Lutheranism, I have more:  a member of the people of Sweden, and also of a tribe of Missouri Synod Germans, a Johnson born of Johnsons; as to the farm, a native son; as to zeal for all things Cornhusker, a fanatic within the state religion; as to righteousness under the lutefisk, blameless.”  I’m a farmer’s son going back four generations in my hometown, baptized and confirmed at the same church my great-great-grandparents joined when they emigrated from Sweden in the late 1800s.  My mother’s family emigrated from Germany in the early 1900s and my uncles still live on the farm they owned seventy-odd years ago.  I grew up walking beans.  I’ve harvested Rocky Mountain Oysters.  I know what it’s like to stack straw bales in the loft of your barn and blow brown snot for the rest of the week.  I can put a fence together made up of rusted gates and baling wire.  I know how to hook a manure spreader to a tractor and spread fertilizer.  In many ways I could not be a more stereotypical midwestern farm boy.  But that is not the whole story of my faith, and frankly, I'll bet it's not the whole story for any of you, either.  

Even fair-haired, apple-cheeked, hefty farm boys come to questioning their life and their faith at some point.  Before I became a fair-haired, apple-cheeked, hefty farm boy, I was a bookish, musical, clumsy kid who was an easy target for faster, more confident classmates.  The first time I ever felt like I was genuinely cherished for who I was came in 1985, when I first spent a week at Carol Joy Holling Camp outside of Ashland, Nebraska.  My counselors took us in exactly as we were, and it was amazing.  Up to that point my experiences with the church had mainly focused on being good little boys and girls for Jesus, and I kept screwing up.  Here were young adults reminding us that God loved us, forgave us, cherished us.  It changed everything.  For five summers, instead of going to camp and getting homesick, I went to camp, came home and got campsick.  It was the first time God used my camping experiences to get my attention, but it wouldn't be the last.  

The bookish, clumsy kid who felt shy and insecure finally found his niche in music as a high school student.  It's amazing what a little bit of success can do to open up the mind and heart of a young person.  By the time college rolled around, the farm boy had become a music major with designs on getting a gig with a major symphony or becoming a band director.  When the spring of 1993 rolled around, I couldn't find a summer job and started getting desperate about what I was going to do.  By chance I met a friend of a friend in the Union and noticed he was wearing a Carol Joy Holling Camp staff shirt.  I told him about what a great time I'd had there as a camper, and how I'd always wondered if I should be a counselor.  He handed me a note with the camp's phone number on it and told me to give them a call - they were always looking for more male counselors.  So I did.  I applied and got the job - I took my first job in the church because I needed the money.  :-)  I've been making the same mistake ever since.  

I showed up for camp just hoping to survive the summer.  I wasn't a particularly dedicated Christian at the time.  I hadn't gone to church once my entire freshman year.  But that summer of camp changed everything again.  I was re-introduced to the God of my summer camp youth, a wild, passionate, loving God who inspired these young people to look for the best in the kids entrusted to their care.  I remembered how much I'd looked up to my counselors and realized I was now one of those counselors.  I remember gathering for worship late in our staff training that first summer, holding hands in a circle on the hillside as the sun set, praying and singing together, and realizing, This is how church is supposed to be.  

By the time my second summer on staff rolled around, many things were changing for me.  Music just wasn't clicking right, but I didn't know what else to do.  Every Sunday at noon, we gathered for lunch and worship before the campers started arriving later that afternoon.  That second summer, Roger Sasse, our executive director preached a series of sermons on this text I'm going to read to you now.  

[Paul writes]:  What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
    we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 8.31-39
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;     we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 8.31-39

I wish I could remember the specifics of that series of sermons, but what I do remember was a weekly reminder of how much power and love God was pouring into us as God's ambassadors to the campers who were on their way.  I felt more than just hired to do a job:  I felt commissioned to follow a holy calling.  Later that summer, after an evening worship service, Roger threw his arm around my shoulders as we walked back to our tents and asked, "Scott, have you ever thought you might be called to be a pastor?"  I hadn't up to that point.  After Roger asked me, I couldn't stop thinking about it.  

I returned to college and discovered the second great transformer in my life:  Lutheran campus ministry and Larry Meyer, the pastor who would become my mentor and would do more to shape my understanding of being a pastor than anyone else.  As a campus ministry student, I started putting together my own understanding of what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century (even though it was the end of the 20th century at the time).  Faith seeking understanding.  A church willing to ask questions and be questioned about how faith in Jesus Christ makes a difference in a world that quite often just doesn't care.  Why that same church cannot just expect to wield moral and political power in the ways it had done in years past.  What I experienced in five years of campus ministry as a student and one year as a staff member shaped everything I am today - and Larry Meyer was the one who was there for all of it.  Larry was there as I discerned a calling to ordained ministry.  Larry was there as I graduated and got ready to get married.  Larry was there as we argued about ministry in a turbulent first year of seminary.  Larry was there when my wife and I were divorced during my internship year.  Larry was there when I graduated seminary, took my first call and got remarried.  I learned much about being a pastor from Larry - what to do, and what not to do.  The last thing I learned from Larry, though, was that all of us, sooner or later, have to walk this life on our own.  Larry Meyer died of esophageal cancer in April 2005.  It's been almost eight years since I've been able to call him up and ask him a question, and there isn't a day that goes by without wishing I could just hear his voice again.  

I've been a pastor for almost ten years now.  I served a congregation in rural Minnesota for five years, then was called as campus pastor at Iowa State in 2008.  Last year I was called to St. Petri and I'm learning to love ministry in the Roland-Story City area.  Twenty years ago, I was certain I'd be a band director somewhere in Nebraska, or maybe a member of a major symphony orchestra.  Even though that dream never got realized, music has remained an important part of who I am and how I do ministry.  St. Augustine is rumored to have said, "Those who sing, pray twice."  I believe that with all my heart.  One of the reasons that text from Romans remains such a foundational message of Christian hope and love for me is the melody of it, the hymn that rings through its message, the poetry of Paul's insistence that nothing, "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord"  That's not just a letter - that's a hymn, a song from the heart of the evangelist who suffered much for the sake of the gospel but never lost his faith in the God who commissioned him for that calling.  It's also a song for all of us, not just for pastors.  

I believe God calls all of us to sing the faith.  I might be a farmer's kid from Nebraska, but music has always been part of my faith.  I have a CD of the Salem Quartet, a group my grandfather and his brother put together in the late 1950s, singing hymns and songs that I still love today.  I watched all four of my grandparents farm until they couldn't anymore, and still they sang their faith to the end.  I watched my folks scratch and claw to keep us on the farm through the crisis in the 80s, and they sang their faith the whole way through.  I lived through divorce, disappointment, even a disaster or two.  Through it all, and through all the good things also, music has never lost the ability to touch the deepest part of who I am as a child of God.  I hope as you have listened to us pastors tell our stories of faith, you've been inspired to look into your own life and see how God has been active there.  I hope you've found a good reason to sing.  I hope you'll let that song live in you, and you'll sing it as strong and as well as you know how.  Thanks for listening - now, let's sing our faith together.  Amen.

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