Altar Call -- Opelika-Auburn News
March 18, 2001
Fifty years ago March 18 was a Sunday as it is today. That afternoon I drove from my home in
Elmore County to Montgomery where I met with a small committee of ministers who had the
authority to license me to preach in the Methodist Church. We met in St. Mark Methodist Church
which has since relocated in east Montgomery.
To qualify for this interview I had been required to read and write a report on four books. One was The Discipline, the book of laws which govern our church. Another was a book by Bishop Paul B. Kern titled Methodism Has A Message. I have forgotten the titles of the other two books.
The committee did not test me on my knowledge of the four books. They were primarily interested in why I wanted to become a preacher. Had I been genuinely "called by God" to preach? Was I sure that this was the will of God for my life? Was I willing to continue and complete the education required to become an effective minister of the gospel? Was I willing to embrace the doctrines of Methodism?
My answers to these questions satisfied the committee, though they did not "grill" me with tough doctrinal questions. I would have been hard pressed to explain at that time Methodist doctrine. I was a Methodist. I had been baptized and joined Dexter Avenue Methodist Church in Montgomery at age 10. I was comfortable with the Methodist Church so far as I understood it, but I hardly knew the difference between a Methodist and a Baptist.
I remember to this day the irony of being asked by these pastors if I was willing to abstain from the use of alcohol and tobacco, when at least one of these men openly smoked cigars. When I dared to ask about this, I was told that he mostly chewed on cigars and rarely smoked them. I got the impression that this manís cigar privilege had been "grandfathered in" before the abstinence commitment became a requirement.
As for me, making this covenant of abstinence was easy to do. At age 16 I had decided that beer was extremely distasteful, especially when compared to a Big Orange drink. Smoking cigarettes did not appeal to me either though I had smoked secretly a few times. Looking back I am sure that the strongest influence in my life against smoking and drinking was the example of my father, who was a lifelong teetotaler.
On that Sunday afternoon 50 years ago, in less than an hour the committee had approved me for a license to preach. That license hangs today in my office to remind me constantly of the honor bestowed on by a small group of preachers who decided to take a chance on me.
My license was signed by the Rev. Cecil Ellisor, the Montgomery District Superintendent who would soon die of cancer. At the time I was unaware that Mr. Ellisor had a son named Walter who would also become a Methodist preacher and a lifelong friend of mine. During our years of service as fellow pastors the other Walter and I have enjoyed many laughs when our friends got our last names confused. He always maintained that it was an honor to me, and an embarrassment to him, when someone addressed me as Walter Ellisor. The confusion has amused us both many times.
I remember that one of the pastors who interviewed me was the Rev. Clifford Abbott, who once served the Pepperell Methodist Church in Opelika. Cliff and his wife, Wee Wau, became dear friends. Along with my spiritual father in the faith, Brother Si Mathison, Cliff became a mentor for me. Bro. Si and Cliff were the kind of Christian men and pastors I wanted very much to emulate. And to this day they have remained strong examples in the faith.
Having been granted a license to preach, did I know how to preach? Absolutely not! I did not have a clue and that did not seem important to these preachers. Apparently they had begun preaching in ignorance themselves. If they could learn how to preach, then I could also.
So, apprehensive but happy to have been approved, I drove to Wetumpka to show my new license to my sweetheart, Dean Brown. I was 18 that day, six days shy of my 19th birthday, and a sophomore at Auburn University. We celebrated, not my gaining the license, but her motherís birthday which was also March 18. Dean and I would be married 15 months later.
The license to preach did not change my life very much at the time. I continued my studies at Auburn where my friends nicknamed me "Parson." Soon I was given the honor of teaching a Sunday School class in my fraternity, Pi Kappa Phi, so a few of the "brothers" there became my first congregation. That was an encouragement which I have never forgotten. My roommate, Billy Wren Parks, who became an engineer, was a great encouragement to me as well. Billy was already a strong Christian.
On occasional weekends I was invited to preach in some of the small, country churches. I remember especially preaching a weekend "youth revival" at the Salem Methodist Church near Opelika. My friend Grady Rowell led the singing and I preached some good old gospel sermons out of a book my grandmother, Neva Carmichael Johnson, had given me. She was a devout Baptist and most of those sermons were written by Baptist preachers, but it was still the gospel.
More than two years after obtaining my license to preach, I accepted the pastorate of four churches on the LaPlace Circuit near Shorter, Al. My first sermon there was at Nealís Chapel Methodist Church, near Franklin, so on the first Sunday of September, 1953, I became a pastor. Did I now know how to preach? Heavens no! I still had no clue what I was doing. How those dear people tolerated me for 16 months I will never know.
In January of 1954, having earned my degree from Auburn, I journeyed to Nashville, beginning my seminary training at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Did I learn how to preach in seminary? No, but I did take a few courses in something called "homiletics," and once I learned how to spell it, I found some of it helpful.
So when did I learn to preach? After 50 years I know the answer. Nobody can teach you how to preach! You learn how to preach by getting down in the trenches with people who are hurting, struggling, living, dying, and trying to make sense out of life. Then while you are bleeding, sweating, laughing, and crying with real people, you begin to catch a glimpse of why the love of God is called good news. In spite of your own pain and confusion, you brush back the tears and start sharing with people how this good news is making a difference in your own life. You tell them that grace is not just a word, itís healing medicine for the soul and everybody who wants it can have some of it. And now and then someone will say you are preaching because they hurt like you hurt and somehow, by the grace of God, you have given them an ounce or two of hope for their lives.
I realize that, after 50 years, I still havenít learned how to preach. I am still learning. And I wish the good Lord would say to me, "Son, it takes some of my boys longer than others to learn, so I am going to give you another 50 years to learn how to do it well."
That would be nice, but with or without an extension, I am truly grateful that he has trusted me to represent him for half a century. But 50 years have passed so quickly that it is hard to believe.