Altar Call -- Opelika-Auburn News
March 13, 2011
Sixty years ago March 18 was on a Sunday. That afternoon, nervous and excited, I drove from my home in Elmore County to Montgomery. There I met with several older ministers in the hope of being licensed to preach in the Methodist Church. We met in the parlor of the old Saint Mark Methodist Church which has since relocated on Taylor Road in east Montgomery.
To prepare 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. A third was a history of Methodism. The title of the fourth book has faded from memory.
To my great relief, the committee did not test me on my knowledge of the four books. They asked about my relationship with God. When did I become a Christian? Did I have assurance of my salvation? Did I truly believe that God had “called” me to preach? How strongly did I believe 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 in harmony with the doctrines of Methodism?
My answers to their questions satisfied the committee though they did not "grill" me with tough doctrinal questions. I would have been hard pressed to explain Methodist doctrine. I was a Methodist. I had been baptized and confessed my faith in Christ at age 10. On that Sunday I became a member of the Dexter Avenue Methodist Church in Montgomery. 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 the irony of being asked by these pastors if I was willing to abstain from the use of alcohol and tobacco when one of the men openly smoked cigars. When I dared to ask about this, I was told that he mostly chewed on cigars and rarely smoked them. Later one of the pastors explained that the older pastor’s cigar privilege had been "grandfathered in" before the abstinence commitment became a requirement. I learned later that this was not so; Methodist pastors had always been expected to abstain from the use of tobacco and alcohol.
As for me, embracing this covenant of abstinence was no problem. At age 16 I had decided that beer was distasteful and whiskey was even less appealing, especially when compared to a Big Orange. Smoking cigarettes did not interest me 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. He expressed it this way: “As long as you put your feet under my table, you will not drink alcohol, smoke or cuss.” I grew up under that firm admonition.
On that Sunday afternoon 60 years ago, in less than an hour, the committee granted me a license to preach. That license hangs today on a wall in my home to remind me of the honor bestowed on me by a small group of preachers who decided to give me a chance to become a preacher.
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 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.
One of the pastors who interviewed me was Clifford Abbott, who once was pastor of Saint James United Methodist Church where I now serve as an associate pastor. 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. Brother Si and Cliff were the kind of pastors I wanted to emulate; they were good preachers and men of integrity. I never lost my admiration for either of them.
I quickly discovered that a license to preach did not make me a preacher. I did not have a clue how to preach but that did not seem important to the preachers who gave me my license. They too had begun preaching in ignorance. That was the way it was done back then. Give a fellow a license, assign him to a church, and let him learn on the job. He can get an education while he is learning the ropes. Such a system offered little mercy to the poor churches these whippersnappers were appointed to serve.
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 mother’s birthday which was also March 18. Dean and I were 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 “Sunday School” in my fraternity, Pi Kappa Phi, so a few of the "brothers" there became my first congregation. That was an affirmation I have never forgotten. My roommate, Billy Wren Parks, who became an engineer, encouraged me as well. Bill was a strong Christian and remained so all his life.
Now and then I was invited to preach in some of the small country churches. Once I preached in a weekend "youth revival" at the Salem Methodist Church near Opelika. My friend Grady Rowell led the singing and I preached some 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.
More than two years after obtaining my license to preach, I accepted the pastorate of four churches on the LaPlace Circuit near Shorter, Alabama. My first sermon there was at Neal’s 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 how to prepare a sermon. How those dear people tolerated me for 16 months remains a mystery to me.
In January of 1955, having earned my degree from Auburn, I journeyed to Nashville to begin 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 60 years I think 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 understand 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; it’s 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 of hope that God cares about the struggles they are enduring.
I realize, after 60 years, that I still haven’t learned how to preach. I am still learning. And I wish the good Lord would say to me, "Son, it takes some of my preachers longer than others so I am giving you another ten years to learn how to do it." That would be nice, but with or without an extension, I am truly grateful that one day a few older pastors risked giving me a license to preach. Some day in heaven I hope to thank them for taking a chance on me. The journey I began that day has afforded me joy and meaning far beyond my deserving. + + +