(Eighteenth in a series.)
The first or second Lord’s Day in Wisconsin, it was Sunday afternoon or Monday that I got a call from a woman who had served on the Search Committee and was a county supervisor. At the time, I trusted her.
A few months earlier, before we’d been approved by John Knox Presbytery for ordination and installation, Mary Lee and I flew out to meet the Search Committee and be interviewed. We arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, our old stomping ground back when we were first married and attended University of Wisconsin.
Checking into a hotel on Madison’s east side, we met the committee for dinner. Half the committee members were from the country church and half from the town church. One of the members had a van they’d all piled into, then driven almost an hour down to Madison to meet us. We felt comfortable with them, which was a relief. No pretensions or efforts to impress that night. After dinner and conversation, they left for home and we went to bed.
The next morning, they picked us up at our hotel and drove us an hour north to see the churches and their manse,1 followed by the long, sit-down formal interview. It was held at the home of this county supervisor and her husband, seated around their dining room table. At the center of the table was a very large bowl of chilled red raspberries. We were relieved the house was air conditioned because it was a boiling hot and humid day.
The previous evening had been relaxed, so there was no reason to expect anything negative in this interview. But one never knows, does one? New to them and they to us, many’s the slip twixt the cup and the lip, so Mary Lee and I were a bit on edge.
Then dear Sharon Dykstra let the cat out of the bag.
Shuffling around the table to find our proper seats, Sharon stood behind her chair with her hands on the back and gushed: “Oh Tim! I know I shouldn’t say this, but we already know we want you!”
Embarrassed, I responded, “How could you? You don’t even know us yet. I might have murdered my mother.”
Not missing a beat, our hostess responded, “Well, if you killed your mother, you must have had a very good reason.”
We all had a good laugh, then got down to business. Mary Lee began to munch on the raspberries. They’re her absolute favorite. They hadn’t known.
It was this hostess who called me Sunday afternoon or Monday morning several months later, just a few weeks into serving the two churches. Answering the phone, she said to me, “Tim, (Jane Doe) was teaching Sunday school this morning, and during her class she told the students that Mormons are Christians.”
This woman on the phone was quite tall and always stood erect. She and her husband had money. Her manner was dignified, bordering on imperious. The message was clear. This was my first test. I had the responsibility and authority to correct the matter and she expected me to do so.
Since she hadn’t told me what exactly she expected me to do about this, I considered the matter. Obviously, we couldn’t have any teacher in our Sunday school classes telling their students Mormonism was Christianity and Mormons were true Christians. Still, I was new to the church and I wasn’t the one who had heard the teacher say this.
There was no small talk on the other end of the line, so I had to do my thinking quickly. It became clear that I was expected to talk to the teacher, correcting her error and asking her to correct it with her students, but then it occurred to me that it might be possible my search committee member had some personal issue with the teacher. Maybe the two of them or their husbands had a prior history? If so, I needed to be careful simply taking her at her word and confronting another woman without any corroboration of the accuracy of her account. It wouldn’t do for me to serve as a conduit for hostilities between the two of them, even if the reason for the correction seemed perfectly legitimate.
Asking a few more questions, it was clarified that, other than the young students (I think it was a junior high school class), no one else had heard the error. So it was down to two women, one testifying against the other and expecting me to handle it.
Surprisingly, given how wet behind the ears I was, I had the presence of mind to explain to my informant that it would be very awkward for me to speak to the teacher, Jane Doe, without telling her how I knew what she had been teaching. “Would it be possible,” I asked, “for me to quote you—to use your name—when I speak to Mrs. Doe? Could I please tell Mrs. Doe you called me about the matter?”
By God’s kindness, she didn’t hesitate: “Yes, that’s fine.”
I was so thankful. Responding to her agreement to having her name used, I assured her I was very concerned that God’s Word and Truth would be honored among us at First Presbyterian Church, and so I was thankful both that she had called to tell me, and also that she was willing to jeopardize her relationship with this fellow church member in order to correct the failure. I thanked her, then set up an appointment with Jane Doe and spoke to her about the matter.
Again I was thankful that this other woman was not offended, but received the correction with humility. It’s an indication of the instruction the church had (or did not have) the previous years that the teacher was shocked when I explained the Mormons were not Christians, and why. But again, she didn’t bristle at the correction, and thus my first significant test in defending God’s truth and sheep was soon over, and I was protected by the Chief Shepherd in it.
One more thing happened right at the beginning of our pastorate.
The first Sunday, I walked out the side door of our manse and back to the garage, then through a doorway that gave entrance to the thin sidewalk that ran over to the rear door of First Presbyterian Church. Walking up the stairs, I noticed a bunch of beer cans, along with an empty paper bag, spread around the stoop just outside the door.
Picking up the beer cans, I dropped them in the paper bag and put it in the trash can just inside the doorway, then went into my office and did final preparations for worship leadership and preaching.
The time for worship arrived and I left my office, walking toward the door at the front of the sanctuary providing me access to the chancel and pulpit. But just before opening the door, I was met by an elder who looked very concerned. Stopping me, he said, “Do you know what we found in the trash can?”
Forgetting the mess on the back stoop I’d cleaned up, I said, “No, what was it?”
“A paper bag with beer cans!” he announced triumphantly.
“Oh, yes. When I came over to the office earlier this morning, I found the bag and the cans on the stoop outside the door, so I cleaned it up and put it in the trash.”
He looked shocked, then suspicious. Being the writer, editor, publisher, and distributor of the town newspaper, I suppose suspicion came to him naturally, as an occupational hazard.
“You found them on the stoop?” he asked.
Quiet for a couple seconds, he then told me I’d better begin the worship service by explaining all this to the congregation. “Tell them you found the beer cans on the stoop, and that you were the one who picked them up and put them in the trash.” He was sure this would put everyone’s mind at rest.
“No,” I answered him. “I’m not going to begin my first worship service by assuring the congregation that I wasn’t drinking beer on the back stoop of the church and I wasn’t the one who threw my empties in the church trash. If you would like to reassure someone, please feel free to do so, but we’ll begin worship with our call to worship. But thanks for the suggestion.”
(Eighteenth in a series.)
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|↑1||”Manse” is what presbyterians call a parsonage.|