When they pulled up in front the farmhouse, the elder behind the steering wheel cast a sideways glance at the vicar who rode shotgun. They’d both spotted him, the man they’d come to visit. He was slouched on the porch, shirtless in his overalls, surrounded by empty beer bottles. A sneer twisted around his unshaven face. He hadn't darkened the church doors for months, probably over a year by now. And it was the job of this pastor-in-training and his lay sidekick to provide the loving admonition needed to try and bring this lost sheep back into the Lord’s fold. But the only "admonition" about to happen didn’t come from these two church-goers, and neither was it delivered in love. It was the late 1940’s, in a small, rural parish in central Oklahoma. The vicar was a student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, in training for the ministry. He’d been assigned to serve one year in a kind of internship at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wellston, Oklahoma. Because the church’s budget was a bit restricted, the vicar boarded with congregational members, a new family welcoming him every month. He preached, he taught confirmation, he visited the sick and shut-ins. And, like it or not, he also visited members who, for one reason or another, hadn’t been to church in a blue moon.
When the duo stepped out of the old Ford, the man stepped off his porch to meet them. “Morning, Mr. Jones,” said the vicar, attempting a jovial smile. Mr. Jones didn’t see fit to return the greeting. Or the smile. He stopped a few paces away and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “What do y’all want?” A good question that was. What did they want? Honestly, the elder really wanted to be back home with his wife and children. The vicar really wanted to be back at the church scratching out next Sunday’s sermon. But here they were, so they’d just as well make the best of it, say what needed to be said, and hightail it out of there. “Well,” said the vicar, “folks've been missing you in church. Everybody has. So we thought we’d stop by and visit with you for a bit, if that’s okay.”
The thing was, it wasn’t okay with Mr. Jones. Not only was he in no mood to visit. He was in no mood to see them, to hear them, or to tolerate their continued presence in front of his house. So if they knew what was best for them they’d get themselves back in that Ford and get the hell off his property. This he made abundantly clear in rather colorful language.
As the man went from speaking to growling, the vicar tried his best to calm him down. But the storm of liquor inside him raged. He took a menacing step forward, then two. “Let’s go, Vicar,” said the elder, opening his door and sliding behind the wheel to start the Ford’s engine. The man was now in the vicar’s face, his breath reeking of whiskey, his words reeking of spite and plain old meanness. He didn’t give a damn what nobody thought of him, he said. And he wasn’t about to go back to a church with all them there hypocrites and holier-than-thous. He was spitting the words out by now. The vicar, still facing the man, fumbled behind him to find the door handle. He grabbed it, pulled it open, and jumped in.
But the man—who supposedly didn’t desire this visit—now seemed intent on it not ending there. Through the open window on the vicar’s side he shoved his massive frame, reaching for the car keys. The elder threw it in first gear and popped the clutch. As the vehicle started to lurch forward, the man yanked his body out, cursing them both. And they almost got away unscathed. Almost. But just as the car moved, the man let go a swing with his right arm. His fist flew through the open window and found its target in the face of the young man from St. Louis, who showed up to church the next morning with a blackened eye and a bruised face and the remembrance of a pastoral visit he’d never forget.
I should know. For over half a century later, when I served that same Oklahoma congregation as a young pastor, he recounted it to me, as I have to you, in vivid detail. While researching the history of the congregation in preparation for its centennial celebration in 2000, I’d unearthed the bare bones account of this story in the minutes of a church meeting held after the services on that black-eyed Sunday. My interest piqued, I did some hunting, found an address and phone number, and phoned our vicar friend.
He was in his early 80’s by then, living in the Houston area near his family. Having served a handful of congregations, he’d retired years before and settled into that vocation of rest and reflection reserved for our twilight years. He told me about that infamous visitation, and all the drama that unfolded after it (the man was excommunicated, and eventually repented, was absolved, and restored to the fellowship). He went on to talk about some of the loving, welcoming families with whom he had stayed; how much he had learned about himself and the church during that year; and how it had helped shape him as a pastor. At the end of our conversation, he wished me God’s blessings as I served at that congregation where he himself had served as a vicar decades before. And he said something else, something that has always stuck with me, “That was one of the best years of my ministry.”
When I hung up the phone, I sat in my study and thought about those words. I had yet to suffer from a blackened eye, but my pride had been severely bruised many a time during my service there. There were a few people who didn’t want to see my face or have me on their property. I’d been verbally attacked, lied about, scorned. In other words, I’d suffered what just about every pastor suffers. I’d borne the cross of the ministry. But I’d also been welcomed by families that gathered around this pulpit and altar every Sunday. They had defended me, loved me, supported me privately and publicly. And, right or wrong, I’m pretty sure that if I’d shown up for the liturgy with a blackened eye, I knew a couple of guys who’d pay a visit to the perpetrator to return the favor.
The vicar’s story helped put my life, and my ministry, in perspective that year. Pastors are like everyone else; they are tempted to view everything as negative when looking through a blackened eye. But that’s only part of the story. There is the joy over one sinner who repents. There is the joy of being God’s hands to hold the child who is washed in water and the Word to become a member the divine family. There is the joy of the grieving consoled, the wayward led back, the guilt-ridden soul set free through the absolution. I thank the Lord for that vicar, his black eye, and what he told me on the phone that day. For I began to realize then, and fully realize now, that it was one of the best years of my ministry.