February 22, 2017
"If wishes were fishes, we'd eat ourselves to death." I can still picture old Rudolf Horton leaning over the counter of his general store as he uttered those words. Rudolf walked with a decided limp due to the tuberculosis that had eaten away the ball of one thigh till it was little more than a point. Though he fought with pain every day of his life, he was tough, and determined that this was a fight he would win. When he wasn't tending his store, he would be found in one of two places, in the woods cutting logs or tending the sucker lines of his oil rigs, or in church.
I was pastor of the Alma EUB church, still in school, as green as they come, still wet behind the ears, while Rudolf was easily in his later sixties, which doesn't seem nearly so old now as it did then. I was the pastor, but people like Rudolf and Helen, old Mrs. Dickerson, and a passel of unruly teenagers were the teachers. Linda and I were there for five and a half years; our two sons were born there as we forged the foundations for a life and ministry together.
Alma was barely a wide spot in the road; a tiny hamlet at the intersection of two country roads that wound their way through the hills. Sadly, the church is closed now, but the memories are strong, as are the lessons learned there. When five and a half years later we left for seminary, I was to discover just how much they had taught me.
In my first and only preaching class, the professor asked those of us who had had some preaching experience to critique our sermons on the basis of what we had been saying about Jesus Christ and the Gospel. I started confidently, but was soon appalled at what I was seeing. I had always believed in a high Christology where salvation was on the basis of Jesus' death and resurrection, and by grace through faith alone. Working our way in was simply out of the question. However, when I reviewed my sermons, I discovered that there was a disconnect between what I believed and what I was telling people. In essence, I was telling people to just try a little harder. Ever since, I have made it a point before I preach to review every sermon with one question in mind: "Where is the Good News?" People can get good advice anywhere. We're the only ones with the Good News, and that's what people need.
Those gracious folks in Alma deserved an apology and my lifelong gratitude for putting up with me. One day when I was getting the mail (Rudolf's store was also the post office), Rudolf told me that the folks at the church considered it their mission in life to help young preachers get started. Well, they did just that for this young pastor, listening to his awful sermons and loving him in spite of them until they sent him off to greater fields of service. Mission accomplished, Alma church! Thank you. And thank God for you!