When your last moment in a place was the worst, it’s easy to feel like it was all for nothing or that it was never any good at all. Maybe the only way to change that perspective is to go back and relive all of the things you can remember before that watershed moment.
It’s kind of funny that as I write this, Kris Kristofferson is singing “Nobody Wins” in the background.
Any more it doesn’t matter
Who’s right or wrong
We’ve been injuring each other
For much too long
And it’s too late to try to save
What might have been
Make believin’ in forever
Is just a lie
And it seems a little sadder
Each time we try
‘Cause it’s a shame to make
The same mistakes again
We’ve gone too far too long
Too far apart
The lovin’ was easy
It’s the livin’ that’s hard
And there’s no need to stay and see
The way it ends
Giving up forever is the easy way out.
“The loving is easy. The living is hard.” How profound! It is easy to love the right things, to desire them. It is harder to do them. It is easy to love the idea of Jesus. It is hard to be Jesus. It is hard to be His follower. It always involves a Cross and sacrifice. He promised as much!
Preacher boy preachin’
I was shy of 24 years old in May 1985 when the tiny congregation of the Bible Baptist Church, Turlock, California extended the invitation to me to become their pastor. The congregation was only a couple of years in the making and was 25-30 in number.
One of the board members asked me on that May Sunday night after I preached my second sermon of the day, “If we call you as pastor, will you come? We can’t pay much.”
I looked over his shoulder toward the pew where my young wife sat with our daughters. She lightly shrugged and gave me that, “whatever you say” look I had not yet come to dread or fully appreciate. (To be fair, the times I have dreaded it most were when I have asked “Where do you want to eat?” That “I don’t care” answer is a fate worse than death.)
So, we accepted the call – and the challenge. The rest is (now) ancient history.
The place I remember doesn’t exist….
It’s funny. After years of wanting to return to Turlock for a visit, when we rolled into town, hardly anything looked familiar. Maybe it was the nearly three decades that had passed. Maybe it was the way the town had almost doubled in size since we were there last. Maybe it was the whole reality vs memory thing. Whatever it was, Donya and I rode in silence into a town that felt like a strange place we had never before seen.
I broke the silence with, “I don’t remember any of this.”
She answered, “You sure this is Turlock?”
“That’s what the city limit sign read.”
but the people I remember do…
John and Berthile Tabor were among the first people we met when we arrived in California.
Before We accepted the pastorate in Turlock, we spent a year on staff at a church in Porterville. John and Bertie were there. They were each single and recovering from broken marriages. They found in each other new love, fresh hope, and a forever partner.
That was good for them.
They found in me a young preacher in whom they believed and whom they would follow.
That was good for me.
The first year we were in Turlock, striving to get that fledgling work off the ground, John and Bertie, by then married, threw in with us. It would be a year before they were able to relocate. So, for a solid year, they traveled 150 miles one way to support us.
Sometime along the way, our daughter required a reconstructive spine surgery in order to free a tethered spinal cord and give stability to her back. It would be the second surgery of her young life that was intended to protect and preserve her mobility. The surgery lasted 11 hours. She needed blood and lots of it. John found he was a match and he donated as much as the doctors would allow.
I have said before and firmly believe that he would have bled himself dry just to give her hope. That is the kind of people the Tabors are: as true friends as God ever built.
The Grinolds family was another favorite of mine. It was comprised of Vic and Cathy and their three kids. Vic was a war veteran. He was a smallish man with a bigger-than-life personality and an infectious laugh. He had battled the demon of alcoholism and fought valiantly. He and his family were true friends to Donya and me. When conflict arose, Vic was staunchly supportive of his pastor. He was fiercely loyal.
Vic died sometime after we left. He was too soon gone but never forgotten for the impact he had on those he loved.
The Grinolds’ daughter Dawn (now Ramirez, because I had the privilege of officiating her marriage shortly before we left Turlock) was a young teen when we moved into town. She became our daughters’ babysitter and big “sister.”
In response to a recent Facebook post , Dawn replied, “Thank you for being our Preacher. It was an honor to be one of the girls’ babysitters. We will always have the beautiful moment when you married Hector and me 29 years ago.”
In another response she wrote, “You will always be our Preacher.”
(And now I am clouding up again.)
A colorful and cantankerous retired preacher and his wife, Orville and Ada Jones, were a source of support, guidance, and friendship. A single mom named Arnola Earnest… well, let me just say when we first arrived, about three or four months in, a Wednesday night service was scheduled (as it was every week) for 7 pm. At 6:58, the congregation consisted of Donya, my two young daughters (Lacey was four years from her debut), and me. At 6:59, in walked Arnola. She and my family were the congregation that night.
A couple of years later, after the congregation had grown to nearly ten times its original size, I would joke with her, “You and you alone kept my record clean. Because of you, I have never been skunked in a service.”
Arnola’s son Roger was a football hero at the local high school. He was also the entire “senior high youth department” those first few months. I loved that kid so much. He didn’t need to be where the cool kids were. Wherever he was, that was “the cool kids.”
Nate Perry was an older fellow, maybe in his sixties. He was a former construction manager. He “got saved” and dove into Christianity with the same vigor he had attacked every other aspect of his life. It took awhile for his mouth to be completely redeemed. Sometimes, when animated in the lobby, he might let fly a cuss word. He would turn red, tear up, and apologize. I guess he didn’t know I was prone to a cuss word or two myself and I appreciated his passion for his new faith, even if it meant a few choice words for Satan and his forces.
We had Friend Day shortly after Nate joined us. He hauled five loads of friends and family to church, accounting for 24 visitors that day. He wouldn’t hear of any of them driving themselves because, By ^#!, he was not going to risk any of them finding an excuse not to come.
Boy, I sermonized that day! It was our first-ever standing-room-only crowd. Nate and the rest of the energized congregation nearly preached me slap to death.
There were so many others who poured themselves into the building of a church and a preacher. They did so with selfless and reckless abandon. It was the Wild West days of flying elbows, burdened backs, and bent knees, of full hearts and clear eyes, of simple faith and undying devotion.
Better than you found me
Not everything I did in Turlock was perfect or even right. Mistakes were made. Missteps taken. The end was not as glorious as the beginning.
In 1991, my father died and I subsequently resigned the church and moved “home” to Texas. It was not without pain and controversy. Some were glad to see me go. Others were sorry to see it all end.
I will never forget Vic’s words to me shortly before we left. He spent an hour trying to convince me to stay and fight. When the handwriting was on the wall, he gripped my shoulder, wiped his tears, and said, “You left us better than you found us, Preacher. My family and I will never forget you.”
Ditto, Vic. Ditto.
You can never go back, except you can.
“No man steps in the same river twice.”
“You can never go back.”
I know. I know. But let me say this: until you put the past into proper perspective, your present will never feel settled, and your future will always be in doubt. The burden of yesterday can be crippling until you place it into God’s forgetful, forgiving, and loving hands.
We tend to view the past in caricatures. We remember the bad as worse than it was and the good as better than it could have possibly been. The good old days probably weren’t as good as you remember and the bad times, well, they didn’t last forever, did they?
Everything you have been is part of who you are. Every life you have touched, you have changed. Those who have touched you have left their mark, as well.
It is OK to visit the past, to glean in its gleaming fields of laughter and tears, of sorrow and joy.
Just don’t dwell there. If those were halcyon days, thank God for them and determine to make tomorrow better than yesterday.
Even if those years were misspent and left you fallen…get up! Get up.
I will arise and go to my Father… ~The Prodigal Son (Gospel of Luke 15:18)
I have been and remain The Journey Man.
So are you. God bless your journey.