When I was in college I served a small Baptist congregation a good little ways out from Nashville, TN--in Winchester, of all places.
Get the picture, dear reader. Every Sunday morning, clad in a double-knit suit with piping on the lapels, I climbed into my '73 Monte Carlo with the half-vinyl roof and 8-track tape player and set my tinted glasses and mustached face east, began the hour-long interstate pilgrimage, and through pretty uninhabited precincts, I must say, to bring the good news of the Gospel to a few saintly souls (including "Granny Sherrill," who always, but never sincerely, invited me home with her after church "for a tater," and who "never allowed a deck of cards under (her) roof!")
A fellow named Andy, Andy...something... also went to that church; in fact, he was a general contractor who built the place and threatened another member, who questioned the no-bid arrangement, to a fight: "If he doesn't quit saying I'm not the best Christian in this church, he is going to be missing some teeth! Like my new Cadillac?" (I promise I am not making that up.)
On my second Sunday there, the choir sang a special (or, as they said it, "spatial") in my honor. It had to do with the old Circuit Riders (and most of them Methodist, of course) who, as they made their pilgrim way through the new wildernesses of America to preach the old-time gospel, carried their Bible in one hand and (with sincere apologies to Karl Barth), a Colt .45 in the other (and I mean, of course, the gun, not the drink, though there may have been cold nights when they would have traded the former for the latter). ANYWAY, the choir's song was a kind of valentine to me, and romantic in its own way: "The Pistol-Packing Preacher."
(As an aside: my friend David is a world-traveling, trophy-taking hunter who believes I really, really need a hobby. He knows hunting ain't it on account of the pro-Bambi plank in my personal platform, and finds my deep squeamishness with firearms and boar-blades and killing wild game wildly entertaining. He would absolutely collapse, I mean collapse, to imagine any choir anywhere so clueless as to offer that particular Sunday-morning benediction my way. "Him?" he would say. "Him? A Pistol-Packing Preacher? Bwaa-ha-ha-ha." Whatever.)
I thought about that little church today as I sat in a group of ministers who are about to move. We Methodists still ride, as it were, the circuits of our geographical barriers, and all of us are about to get on our horses, if you please, and "Away!" We were discussing the dynamics of leaving, of serving, of ministry--and there was just so much pain around the table. So many beat-up preachers. Peace-makers, so called, who might wish for the blessing of a Peacemaker to return fire, so to speak, but can't. We have to pray for those who abuse us. We have to love those who betray us and work against us. We have to turn the other cheek...if not the exact cheek we would most like to turn to our congregations, some of us, as we ride into the west or north or south or east.
Anyway, some of these folks were talking about the power struggles, the turf battles, the control issues, the neuroses and character flaws of their congregants (and some of us confessed our own junk, too) that had chewed them up. More than one told about "this one person" or "that one family," and I was reminded of a parable told me by a therapist friend when, in such a time in my own ministry, I lamented having to take on the "bad guys" alone, with little in the way of back-up or support, congregational, institutional, collegial or otherwise.
Of course, he said. It is like the Old West, all the movies you have ever seen. The gentle Townsfolk are held hostage in their own streets and homes, paralyzed with fear of the one old man or the one outlaw family. Every time a new sheriff comes to town, the good people know a showdown is inevitable: High Noon; the Gunfight at the UMC Corral.
The Townsfolk hope and pray that the new sheriff will win the gunfight. They really want to be free. They are really, really tired of being afraid, of being held hostage in their own town.
But then the clock strikes twelve. The man (or woman) in the white hat appears at the one end of the street, sweaty hands trembling--if sometimes, truth to tell, spoiling for a fight, cocky and arrogant, sometimes just as self-important and crazy for control as the Old Man (or Woman) who terrorizes the town. The Man (or Woman) in the black hat appears at the other end of the street, cold, calm and practiced. And at that defining moment, what do all the gentle Townsfolk do? They go inside, close their doors and pull down the window shades.
They do not pick up their own rifles. They do not stand with the sheriff. They pretend not to notice. Yes, they really want the sheriff to win. Still, they have been through all of this before and if the sheriff gets plugged, if they have to plant a new body on Boot Hill, well, the Townsfolk can always find another sheriff. Maybe someday the battle will go the other way. Till then, well, they have to live in the same town with the bad guys, the bullying family, the folks in the black hats.
Lots of sheriffs out there, fearful or pugnacious. Lots of bullies,too, with all sorts of weapons. It ain't the Kingdom of God, Lord knows, but it sure is the church. At least sometimes.
Makes me believe those old Circuit Riders may have been onto something.