“What is the best time you ever had in a long lifetime of ministry, Joe?”
Wow. I don’t know. Let me think about it….
A ride in an Air Force jet? The only reason that plane ride in the T-38 was so much fun is that I did it, survived it, then looked back and remembered it with pleasure. Columbus AFB Wing Commander Colonel Chet Griffin said, “You’ve been ministering to these student pilots all these years; you ought to learn something of what they go through.” As I say, it was great fun–in retrospect. (smiley-face goes here)
Chet and his lovely bride Eva Lee are beloved friends now for nearly a half century. I was their pastor twice, during their two assignments at Columbus, and we forever bonded. Over the years we have visited with each other, and still keep in touch. Chet is a Sunday School teacher of the highest grade, and was used of the Lord to reach numerous Air Force officers for Christ. He still teases me about that plane ride. Btw, my pilot that day was Captain Bob Orwig, now a Ph.D. professor at North Georgia and a dear friend, with his wife Linda.
Mission trip? The 1977 trip to Singapore (via Chicago, Anchorage, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and finally my destination) and back was part of a long, long process of drawing an evangelistic comic book for the missionaries there, then coloring each of the many pages (with acrylic and tiny brushes!), and printing up 10,000 copies for their use. It was a job! It was fun mainly in retrospect because we did it, it was most unusual, we would never be doing anything like that again, and we survived it.
Getting to know missionaries like Bob and Marge Wakefield as well as Ralph and Ruthie Neighbour was a special delight.
Deacons meeting? That deacons meeting that went on for four hours with me as its subject (“to fire or not to fire, that is the question”) was exhilarating only in looking back after we saw how God used it and what He did with it. But at the time, no fun.
In fact, I have an admission to make.
There are no times in my 52-plus year ministry that I can say were sheer fun. Well, perhaps the times of silliness sitting around with the staff in someone’s home, opening gifts we were sharing and acting crazy, that sort of thing. But in actual ministry, I can’t think of a time when it was total enjoyment without a strong element of burden/anxiety/something.
Ministry is hard work, demanding of me more than I could produce at any given moment, thus throwing me on the mercy of the Lord for strength. It required total commitment.
The joy comes in looking back, knowing we did it, we survived, and that something good was accomplished.
The Holy Land trip? Such as the trip to the Holy Land in 1984. I had to delay my departure 24 hours due to a funeral, so took the same route as our group (and my wife) one day later. A taxi driver held up a card with my name in the Tel Aviv airport and whisked me to the Intercontinental Hotel on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, arriving around midnight. The next morning when I walked into the breakfast room, one entire wall was a window overlooking the city. It was the most magnificent thing I’d ever seen. Several times that week, I “bowed on my knees and cried holy,” as the song goes. And wept.
I used to say that for weeks or months after visiting the land where my Lord walked, I ran a low grade fever every time I even thought of where I had been and what we had seen.
But fun? That’s not the word for it.
The England mission trip? In the summer of 1982 we took our youth choir to England for two weeks and stayed in people’s homes, performing at night and seeing the sights in the day. Wilson Henderson, peerless minister of music, had done this numerous times before (an exchange with British Pastor David Beer) but it was a first for me. As I recall, we had 55 in the choir and took along another 30 or so adults. It was as memorable as anything I’ve ever done.
Bill Glass Crusade? Going back farther, however, there was the Delta-wide Crusade for Christ with Bill Glass in the summer of 1969, held in the high school stadium. We ran into a world of obstacles (the school board had a policy against such religious gatherings on the football field; so we asked for an exception, and they came through!) and met them head-on and saw the Lord do some wonderful things. Margaret ran the office for the crusade from a house trailer in a shopping center–she did that for six months!–while I was pastoring our church and heading up the crusade effort. Former All-Pro football player Bill Glass preached and the amazing Doug Oldham sang, and we brought in various celebs for testimonies. The attendance on the two Sunday afternoons reached 5,000 and we averaged 3,000 each evening. Several hundred people responded to the invitation to come to Christ. This was one year after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated but Mr. Glass said ours was the most integrated crusade he had ever conducted. A wonderful thing.
Was it fun? It was exhilarating, educational, wonderful in a hundred aspects, and a great deal of hard work. The fun part came when we stopped to look back.
There are lots of mountain peaks across over a half-century of ministry. And more valleys than I care to remember.
The main thing I can say about the “fun” part is what Scripture says of our Lord as He looked at the cross:
Who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame (Hebrews 12:2).
The cross was no fun, but on the other side of it was endless joy and eternal satisfaction. Some things you just have to get through because you know they’re right, they come with the territory, and you were put here for that purpose.
Ministry is such a thing.
I do not want to leave without making one important observation: As far as sheer fun goes, I’m having more of it now in retirement than I ever had in pastoring and denominational work. I did love pastoring churches–if you know me, you do not question that!–and the five years of denominational service was very hard (think: Hurricane Katrina) but I would not have been anywhere else.
But the fun part is now.
Once again, the Lord saves the best part for the last, doesn’t He?
The Lord. Saves. The. Best. Part. For. The. Last.
Never lose sight of that.
My friend Mary Ellen Logan (widow of one of the finest deacons ever, member of the search committee that brought me to my final pastorate, FBC Kenner, LA)) said to me one day, “You have more fun than anyone I know.” I didn’t deny it.
In fact, I (ahem) humbly said, “I tell people that if I wasn’t me, I’d be envying me.”
How come? No business meetings, no deacons meetings, no administration, no committees, no budgets to deal with, and no headaches at all. I go to schools and churches and sketch people, I get up and preach, and I go somewhere else and do it again!
I’m married to Bertha (over 3 years now), we live in the sweetest little neighborhood just north of Jackson, Mississippi, surrounded by dear friends and a thousand delights. My children (and hers!) love me, my grandchildren (and hers!) think I hung the moon, and at the age of 80 (wow! the stratosphere of age!) all my annual physical exams come back perfect. God is beyond good to me. Soooo blessed.
The most fun I’ve ever had in ministry? Well, that would be like…today.