A rookie police officer has a little training but no experience. Same thing goes for a rookie preacher. A few weeks ago one of them—a beginner fresh out of seminary—asked me for some advice. His question brought me back to my own rookie days.
In my second year at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, I became the student preacher of Atonement Presbyterian Church. It was a small congregation of 40 people, plus or minus. They met weekly in a small all-purpose room on the second floor of a building in the downtown area of South Philly. It was not a very friendly environment. My duties also included being a rookie janitor, plus I played the piano whenever the regular pianist couldn’t be present. My stipend was three dollars a week.
I came early on Sunday mornings to open all the windows and air out the place. Whatever group met on Saturday evenings left behind a stale odor of beer and cigarettes. I hauled a pulpit out of a closet, which also held the Bibles and hymnbooks to be used by the coming worshipers. After sweeping the floor, I lined up about 50 chairs in three rows and positioned the piano. After all this, I stood at the top of the stairs as a committee of one to welcome the worshipers.
Those who came submitted themselves patiently to my ministrations. You might say that for me it was an on-the-job learning experience. I soon developed a pattern of sermon preparation: Text selection. Text research. Writing out the sermon in full. Outlining the sermon. Adjusting the sermon, if necessary, to improve its logic as suggested by the outline. Memorizing the outline in order to leave the manuscript at home.
I tried honing my outline into three points, which was the style of Christian Reformed preaching in those days. I also practiced preaching my masterpiece to the foot-high statue of a boy, complete with baseball cap slightly askew, that stood on my desk—a reminder to keep it simple. Another reminder was the word Christocentric jotted down somewhere in the margin to ensure the message I made would be Christ-centered.
After rolling the old pulpit back into the closet and setting all things aright in what I called “the upper room,” I headed for the subway. This meant passing the house of a church member, obviously encased in a corset, who was preoccupied with my physical condition. She had dedicated herself to—as she put it—
“putting some fat on that young man.” She felt that my pulpit appearance left something to be desired.
In those days there was a nationally known musician named Fred Waring. Fred and his excellent singers were known as “Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians.” Mr. Waring turned out to be a man of many talents. Fred had invented a food blender known as the Waring blender. It became a national hit. Many people bragged about their Waring blender, including the lady with the corset whose calling it was to fatten me up.
I had promised that on my way to the subway I would stop in at her place so she could hit me with her blender. Today my taste buds still remember her concoction—a blend of carrots and spinach, which she called her “cocktail” for me. Alas, her objective was not achieved. I stayed at 130 pounds.
Today I look back at that small band of worshipers with delight. A happy memory. Their previous pastor had questioned the historicity of the resurrection. They were astute enough to recognize a heresy and did something about it.
I count them as heroes in my past.