Communion of the Saints
Recently, Jana and I were invited back to the West Point Baptist Church, my seminary pastorate of a quarter-century ago-- how's that for dramatic time measurement?-- to help celebrate their 150th anniversary.
West Point is located in the Kentucky commmunity of Matanzas, which has yet to find its way onto any state map of Kentucky I have ever seen. It is located on the Green River (remember that old John Prine song: "Mama won't you take me back to Mulenberg County/Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?"), 5 miles west of Centertown, pop. 300, which is 9 miles west of Hartford, a town of "2000 happy people and a few soreheads," as the sign at the edge of town reports.
I became pastor the 32nd pastor of West Point in September of 1981, having passed the simplest theological examination in the history of Christendom. "Brother Charles, do you believe this book?" even-then-old Deacon Foster James asked, not accusingly like an inquisitor ready to pounce on apostasy, but gently, while cradling his well-worn, black leather-bound King James Version like a mother holding a child.
My affirmative response, however tentative it was for a beginning seminarian, must have been acceptable. I served the church for three years by weekend commute from the seminary in Louisville 120 miles northeast, traveling every weekend in a beat-up 1967 Volkswagon beetle which local farmer Rex Igleheart declared he wouldn't drive to Hartford, much less back and forth every week from Louisville.
After I completed my Masters of Divinity in 1984, I fully relocated to the rural community, ministering full-time. More than a few of my family, friends and professors thought it was a strange career move to remain at this tiny country church two more years after my seminary training. I took ribbing that among my close circle of fellow students, after graduating from the seminary with their basic divinity degree, Greg went to Harvard to pursue Ph.D. studies, Chuck to Princeton, Michael to Emory... and I to the West Point Baptist Church of Matanzas. My father, ever supportive even when he didn't quite understand the vocational strategy, would ask, "Son, are you sure the Lord knows where you are?"
Those two years proved to be intensely formative for my pastoral identity. I learned what Carlyle Marney called "the ethic of identification" with those wonderful country folk. I hauled hay and stripped tobacco and pulled a calf or two (ask a rancher to explain). Still single, I took most of my meals in the homes of the churchfolk, indeed some of the most masterful eating I have ever done.
Stories abound. We rehearsed them at the 150th. We laughed and cried and remembered. Those passed on, like Foster James, were as present that day as a witness. I swear to you I shook his wrinkled hand at that reunion. I swear it.