One year ago today I unloaded my parents’ van and settled into life here in Argonia. I spent most of my first week organizing my bookshelves and trying to figure out in which of the way-too-many rooms of my parsonage my stuff should go. You see, in my house there has to be a place for everything, and everything must go in its place, and it was no use trying to get any work done when I had all that crucial organizing hanging over my head. Priorities, right?
The other thing that occupied me that first week was trying to craft the perfect sermon for my first Sunday. I think I ended up preaching from Isaiah, but I am too scared to look back and see lest I found out it was absolutely horrible. I remember that I tied communion into it somehow, thus finding out from the get-go that there are probably 100 different ways to do a communion service, and I can mess up all of them.
And so my first week as a pastor passed, alone, independent, and happy in my new little world.
It was delightful. For the first time in 21 years, I was free from the tyranny of school, the constant demands of class times and assignments and readings and papers. I thought, “Hey, I can read whatever I want! I can write whatever I want! I can watch as much TV as I want (as soon as I make enough money to buy a TV)! Sweet freedom. It was my Independence Day.
Only later did I realize that I had traded in one sort of tyranny for another—the tyranny of Sunday. These days it seems like every time I turn around it is time to get ready for Sunday again. For me, the tyranny of Sunday is often even more demanding than the tyranny of school, because the tyranny of Sunday does not end with a test or a paper but with public speaking. Sunday is a cruel taskmaster, and if I spend too much time reading or writing or watching whatever I want, Sunday makes me pay for it.
There was another sort of independence that I was enjoying that week, the independence of anonymity. Ever since I had heard the Augustana song “Boston” as a sophomore in college, I had been struck with an idealistic notion of moving “where nobody knows my name.” I wanted to move somewhere, preferably to Boston itself, and be a stranger for a little while. The Cheers bar in Boston may have been a place “where everybody knows your name,” but if I moved to Boston or anywhere else, I looked forward to knowing no one and being known by none, to being completely cut loose and adrift in the sea of humanity, and other pretentious ideas like that.
Well, I did not land in Boston. I landed in Argonia, and as a pastor in a town of only 500 people, I knew my window of anonymity would soon close. I soaked it up that first week. Each morning as went for my run I smiled at every car driving by who had no idea who I was. Later I found out that one person knew me only as “the mysterious runner.” I was pleased. I also found out that other people knew me as “the new pastor’s kid.” I was less pleased.
It wasn’t until late on the afternoon of July 4th that I realized it was Independence Day. I had been too busy having my own little private independence day to notice. But, as the firecrackers started popping all around town, I began to wonder what I would do that night. I had spent the past several Independence Days with friends in Colorado Springs, in Oklahoma, in Utah, and in Israel (where they let the stupid Americans eat un-kosher cheeseburgers to celebrate.)
But last year it was just me. Let me tell you, it’s difficult to get excited about bright explosions when you are by yourself. There is just something about the shared excitement, the shared wonder, the shared patriotism that somehow emerges from blowing up scraps of paper filled with gunpowder that is absent when you are alone. Independence Day is only fun when you share it. And suddenly, being independent and unknown wasn’t as great as I had thought.
I sat on my front porch and watched the fireworks lighting up the sky all around town as it got dark. I tried driving through town to see what was going on, but people were launching rockets in the middle of Main Street, and I didn’t get too far. When I returned home, I decided that maybe I needed to get to know these people after all, and not just because it was my job, but because, somehow, I had gotten lonely in just four days.
Now, you may be wondering what sort of pastor can exist in anonymity? What sort of pastor embraces independence? I’ll tell you: not a very good one. But don’t worry, I have learned my lesson. I have learned lots of lessons.
I have learned that the best weeks of ministry are the ones spent with people. I’ve learned that the tyranny of Sunday is less oppressive when my focus is on the people of the church because I don’t allow Sunday to consume the other six days of the week. I’ve learned that the most engaging sermons are the ones that begin in theology but drop down into the lives of the church, the ones that focus not just on the universal human condition, but also on the unique Argonian condition or the Plains Church condition.
I’ve learned that I am not independent. I am part of a body, the Body of Christ; its hurts are my hurts, and its joys are my joys. Similarly, my hurts are its hurts, and my joys are its joys. I learned that independence is not a Christian virtue. I’m still an incredibly independent guy; I always will be. But I think I am past the stage of wanting to be a stranger.
And so I gave up my independence to become part of the Body. If you want to know what I have been up to in my first year as a pastor, there’s your answer.
I didn’t go to Seminary to learn any of that stuff. I learned it all from the Body as I became part of the Body. Many times this meant stretching myself beyond what I thought I could do (or wanted to do).
I became a substitute teacher, even though I always said I would never ever sub. I coached eight year olds in soccer even though I have never played soccer myself. I’m not sure if they learned anything from me, but I learned enough about how soccer is played to yell at the TV this afternoon during the World Cup. I played drums in a country band even though I had never played the drums and I don’t like country music. We are awesome though. I became the chaplain for the volunteer fire department even though I am one of about seven boys in US history who never wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up.
Today my anonymity in Argonia is gone. So are my romanticized notions of independence. I live in a town where everybody knows my name, not because I am important, but because I am a part of it.
Independence Day is just a couple days away. This year I won’t be sitting alone on my front porch. America may be independent, but I am not. I will be watching fireworks with some folks from church, and I will be glad to have someone with whom to share the wonder.