Many of you have not heard the story of how I made the transition from Baptist to Disciples of Christ, and why I moved to Enid, America. So, this morning, I thought I’d tell ya.
After being serving as a Baptist minister for over 25 years, I reached that point that pastors are warned in seminary about: “burn-out.” And left the ministry for a short time.
Now, because of time, I can’t give you all the reasons if felt like I needed a break from pastoral ministry. So, I will just sum it up with a statement that I made repeatedly before I left the church. I said, “For at least six months before I die, I want to do all I can to be a follower of Jesus, and I no longer feel like I can do that as a pastor of a church.
You might say that I had grown into a church cynic, someone who had all but given up on organized religion.
As the pastor and spiritual leader of the church maybe some of it was my fault, but for me, the church no longer looked like Jesus. It didn’t look like a a group of people committed to be on a mission for others, but looked more like some type of religious club created for the members, to make them feel holier and superior than others.
And of course there were other reasons for my burn-out. I was constantly getting in trouble for breaking all of the religious and cultural rules, the club rules, like refusing to re-baptize Methodists and Presbyterians as a requirement for church membership because when they were baptized in their church people in my church said they were not old enough or did not get wet enough.
Mike Huckabee, former pastor and Arkansas governor, wrote about why he resigned from the church to enter politics. He states: “I had been growing restless and frustrated in the ministry,” As a young minister, he said he envisioned himself as “the captain of a warship leading God’s troops into battle.” But he said, what the people really wanted was for him “to captain the Love Boat, making sure everyone was comfortable and having a good time.”
So, like Mike Huckabee, I left the ministry. But instead of going into politics, I worked a little in Higher Education. Then a good friend of mine who was an electrical contractor asked me if I wanted to help him start a small business. He had designed a tool that can be carried in the back of a pick up truck, a tool that you could assemble in 10 minutes and take down or pick up and set up to a 40-foot light pole.
We applied for a patent and took it to National Electrical Contractor’s Association’s Convention in San Diego where we won an award for one of the best new tools in 2011 for the electrical construction industry.
We filed to trademark the name of this tool (and here is why you have never heard this story before). Because the tool enables you to lift the pole and walk with it until it is ready to be set, we called it the Pole Dancer.
So I went from being a preacher to Pole Dancer. Lori says I went from saving souls to raising poles. For three years I traveled all over the country demonstrating and selling Pole Dancers.
Now, as I was traveling, I got to meet a lot of people, and I quickly discovered that the majority of people in this country do not belong to a church. Some have never belonged to a church. But I met many who were raised in the church, but had reached a point where they had given up on the church. They said some of the same things that I said about the church, that they simply did not see Jesus in the church.
They would quote the Bible to me saying, “although Jesus said do not judge and let those without sin cast the first stone, churches are filled with some very judgmental people!” They’d say: “Churches are all about themselves. All about making money, building large buildings.”
Well one day, I got a call to do a Pole Dancer demonstration in Las Vegas. Sin city. Perfect place for a Pole Dancer, I thought. The city that people say represents everything that is depraved about us.
That’s right, your pastor traveled to Las Vegas with a Pole Dancer.
Early one morning, I went for a run on the Las Vegas strip. The streets were already crowded with people. Some were shopping. Some were on their way to another casino. While others were on their way to do who knows what to fulfill their most selfish desires.
As I ran along, I noticed that all of the electronic billboards suddenly changed at once displaying a picture of a young man with words that read, “David Vanbuskirk. 1977-2013. Las Vegas Police Search and Rescue Officer.” I later read that Vanbuskirk died while rescuing a hiker stranded in an off-limits area of a mountain northwest of Las Vegas when he fell from a helicopter hoist line.
I ran a few more blocks until I noticed that the people walking up and down the busy sidewalks began to stop and peer down the street that was suddenly empty of traffic. The entire Las Vegas strip, which just a few seconds earlier was booming with the sounds of automobiles and of people enjoying their selves, became profoundly silent. Men began to remove their hats. A woman covered her heart with her hand. A little boy, sitting on his father’s shoulders, saluted. I stopped running. And with everyone else, my eyes turned toward the street where we watched and listened as a very long police motorcycle motorcade produced the only sound on the hushed strip. The motorcade was followed by a white police pick-up truck carrying a flag-draped casket.
After the processional, people remained silent and still for several more minutes. Some bowed their heads. Others wiped tears from their eyes. Others embraced their loved ones.
This is when I believe I heard the voice of God clearly calling me to go back into the ministry. At this time the First Christian Church of Farmville had already asked me to do some pulpit supply for them and there were whispers about me becoming their interim.
And there on the Las Vegas Strip, as the casket of Vanbuskirk passed by, God was speaking loudly and clearly to me, revealing that there is something within all of us, deep within our most selfish, indulgent and decadent selves, even in the heart of “sin city,” that yearns to associate with those who love others more than self, with those who humbly, courageously and sacrificially serve, expecting absolutely nothing in return.
There is something within even the most devout church cynic, even within the ones who have all but given up on organized religion, that desires to be more like Jesus. And they are hoping that somewhere, somehow, some way, a church exists in this broken world that looks more like the self-denying mission of Jesus than some sort of religious club.
I thought about the circumstance of this police officer rescuing that stranded hiker. I am sure he did not know anything about that hiker. He didn’t know whether the hiker was male or female, rich or poor, gay or straight, documented or undocumented, Muslim or Christian, black, brown or white, English-speaking or Spanish-speaking.
He didn’t know whether or not this person would ever really contribute to society or even one day give to the Fraternal Order of the Police.
He just knew that the hiker was stranded and needed help. The hiker was probably afraid. The hiker was probably hungry, thirsty, perhaps wounded. And Vanbuskirk was called to offer peace, give food, provide food and bring healing.
Vanbuskirk wasn’t worried about breaking any religious or cultural rules. He was only worried about rescuing the perishing, saving the lost.
It was in that moment, that I made a promise to God. “God, if you give me an opportunity to serve as a pastor again, I am going to do all that I can do to lead your people to love others more than self, to serve humbly, courageously and sacrificially, graciously, expecting absolutely nothing in return.
God, I will lead your church with great worship services, but more importantly, I will lead your people to worship you with great service to their community. And I will lead them to do it with no strings attached whatsoever.
I will comfort the fearful, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, heal the wounded, not because they might believe like I believe, contribute to the budget, or even attend one of my sermons, but simply because they need help.
And I will lead without prejudice, without judgment. I will lead the church to love all people, and all means all.”
So that’s why I am here.
Like the the Disciples of Christ Church in Farmville, North Carolina, I believe I have found here, in Enid, America, a congregation that wants to be the type of church that even the most devout church cynic can appreciate and even yearn to be a part of.